On science blogs this week: Deconstruction

Virginia Heffernan bashes science blogs, and science blogs bash back. Ignorance is no excuse. Is Virginia Heffernan our target audience? Press power proves more than skin deep. Information still wants to be free. The future of online science writing.


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YES, VIRGINIA, THERE IS NO JACQUES DERRIDA. A fun week in science blogging, thanks largely to a remarkably uninformed splat in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. The piece, by columnist Virginia Heffernan, resurrected the mostly abandoned deconstructionist literary analysis approaches of the last century to refight the PepsiCo-related defections from ScienceBlogs.com a couple weeks ago and, while she was at it, to bash just about all science blogging. If that sounds near-incoherent, yes.

Heffernan justified her broadside by citing a handful of high-profile practitioners from the ScienceBlogs stable who specialize in being outrageous and nasty for the same reason some high-profile TV pundits specialize in being outrageous and nasty: profitable eyeball collection.

This garnered perfectly predictable outrage and nastiness from the outrageous-and-nasty crew. PZ Myers, whose Pharyngula was one of Heffernan's chief targets (and is consistently among Technorati's Top 100 — that is, most-read — blogs), has attacked the article (and some defenders) here and here. There are many more comments, some judicious, some not. Find a selection at Bora Zivkovic's A Blog Around the Clock.

THE BLOG ATE HER HOMEWORK. Heffernan's remarks about science blogging weren't so much stupid as they were ignorant. I am happy to say that many commentators (including several on the NASW listservs) pointed out that she simply hadn't done her homework. Jason Goldman at The Thoughtful Animal provides a helpful list of blogs — even at ScienceBlogs.com — that actually focus on science, not invective.

OTOH I concede that maybe it is stupid for an experienced writer to rattle on about a topic when she knows — how could she not? — that she knows little about it. Most of us learn to avoid writing-while-ignorant the hard and humiliating way within a few months of first getting published. I was just 17, if you know what I mean. But I still squirm when I recall my thoroughly deserved comeuppance.

Heffernan praised a few mainstream blog aggregations, like those at Discover and Scientific American. But she also praised WattsUpWithThat, Anthony Watts's climate blog with denialist leanings. This was viewed as further evidence of her science blog naivete, and further fuel for the fires of scorn heaped upon her. See Joe Romm's extensive excoriation of Watts and briefer censure of Heffernan at Climate Progress.

For that misstep, she has has apologized. Sort of.

IS VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN OUR TARGET AUDIENCE? A couple of bloggers saw the Heffernan misapprehensions as a teachable moment, an opportunity for science writers to make lemonade.

Zen Faulkes, at Neurodojo, mused:

She was bound to get a lot of, "You don't know what you're talking about" (which, like I said, she earned). But she's not getting as much, "Would you like to learn?".....we might be able to convince her we ain't so bad. Win for us if we do.

At Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel expanded on that point.

.....if we're really trying to promote science, Virginia Heffernan is our target audience: she's a smart and educated person with no science background, who would benefit from learning more about science in an informal manner. She's one of the people we ought to be speaking to using blogging as a platform.

Orzel isn't very specific about how to do that, but darned if I have a plan either. It's a frustrating (and perhaps unachievable?) task because of the eyeball thing. Bloggers who excel at grabbing folks by the limbic system are just going to attract a lot more of them — eyeballs, that is — than bloggers whose target is the frontal cortex.

PRESS POWER IS MORE THAN SKIN DEEP. Speaking of which, Gary Schwitzer's HealthNewsReview blog proudly recounts how a Reuters Health article forced the British Journal of Dermatology to change the conclusion of a published paper on a new tanning pill. The journal removed a statement supporting the use of the pill and added information about the financial connections some of the paper's authors had to the pill's maker.

INFORMATION STILL WANTS TO BE FREE. At ScienceInsider, Jocelyn Kaiser reports on a study showing

that making taxpayer-funded scientific papers freely available would yield more than $1 billion in benefits to the U.S. economy over 30 years — five times the costs of archiving the papers.

Turns out that free papers are cited more often than papers behind pay walls. I guess that's intuitively obvious, but nice that there are data to support it. And more good news: Congress is considering legislation that would broaden and speed up free access to publicly funded research studies.

THE FUTURE OF SCIENCE MEDIA IN THE POST-MEDIA AGE. I have previously called attention to Bora Zivkovic's ongoing commentary on the future of science writing online in general and science blogging in particular. This week he posted a long meditation that identifies what he thinks are some directions where this work can — or should — go. No one else has thought more carefully about science writing's future, and he will help you think about it too.

While you're up, take in Andrew Revkin's post at Dot Earth, wherein he links to the August issue of the Ecological Society of America's open-access journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, whose topic is "Science, Communication, and Controversies." Revkin also links to video of a talk he gave last year on "Telling the Story of Science in the Post-Media Age."

Ummm, post-media? When I contemplate my Inbox, it seems more like an unstoppable media deluge to me.

Aug. 6, 2010

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