Thursday, August 05, 2010

Deconstructing science blogs

Wow, I guess I didn't realize what I was missing because of my habit of largely ignoring other science blogs (Jonah Leher's outstanding "Frontal Cortex" blog excepted), preferring to spend my time trolling for original source articles. Virginia Heffernan describes a massive defection of bloggers from Seed Media's ScienceBlogs group, and her subsequent perusing of the group's blogging products. She says that she:
...discovered that ScienceBlogs has become preoccupied with trivia, name-calling and saber rattling. Maybe that’s why the ScienceBlogs ship started to sink.

Recently a blogger called GrrlScientist, on Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted), expressed her disgust at the “flock of hugely protruding bellies and jiggling posteriors everywhere I go.” Gratuitous contempt like this is typical. Mark Hoofnagle on Denialism Blog sideswiped those who question antibiotics, writing, “their particular ideology requires them to believe in the primacy of religion (Christian Science, New Age Nonsense) or in the magical properties of nature.” Over at Pharyngula — which often ranks in the Top 100 blogs on the Internet— PZ Myers revels in sub-“South Park” blasphemy, presenting (in one recent stunt) his sketch of the Prophet Muhammad as a cow-pig hybrid excited about “raping a 9-year-old girl.”

Clearly I’ve been out of some loop for too long, but does everyone take for granted now that science sites are where graduate students, researchers, doctors and the “skeptical community” go not to interpret data or review experiments but to chip off one-liners, promote their books and jeer at smokers, fat people and churchgoers? And can anyone who still enjoys this class-inflected bloodsport tell me why it has to happen under the banner of science?

Hammering away at an ideology, substituting stridency for contemplation, pummeling its enemies in absentia: ScienceBlogs has become Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd. Though Myers and other science bloggers boast that they can be jerky in the service of anti-charlatanism, that’s not what’s bothersome about them. What’s bothersome is that the site is misleading. It’s not science by scientists, not even remotely; it’s science blogging by science bloggers. And science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word “science” and from occasional invocations of “peer-reviewed” thises and thats.
I think she overstates her case a bit, but I did take the time to scan some of the mentioned blogs, and indeed there was more gratuitous nastiness than I thought appropriate.


  1. Well, it really depends on the science blog. There are plenty out there, and one cannot generalise. I do not think a little whining or political opinion is bad, as long as there is some solid content aside from that.

    I know plenty of serious scientific blogs that are not like the one you mentioned. If one wants to be scientific then one should take, say, 200 random scientific blogs (not "cherry-picked" ones) and see what they write about.

  2. Yes, we shouldn't generalise. These blogs are written by humans. Human beings have beliefs, values and behaviours. Blogging about science doesn't change that. We should expect that some science blogs will be filled with wonder and interesting insights, and some will be full of the outpourings of a big ego convinced of both their own rightness and the wrongness of anyone who disagrees.
    But, Deric, I'm interested in your final sentence "indeed there was more gratuitous nastiness than I thought appropriate" - how much "gratuitous nastiness" do you feel WOULD be "appropriate"?
    My answer would be - none at all. Gratuitous nastiness will not further science, and it won't win over anyone who doesn't share the same values, beliefs or opinions.
    I value writers who demonstrate compassion more than those who don't.
    I wonder how many of those blogs you've just explored, Deric, you'd add to your regular watch list (subscribe to their feeds for example) I wouldn't be surprised if the answer was precious few.

  3. This article misses a major factor in the exodus, which is Pepsi being allowed to have a blog on there. Or something. I didn't really follow it closely.

  4. It's a tough question, especially for you guys in the USA. Here in Australia, the Prime Minister has stated she's an atheist and didn't swear her oath of office on a bible. In the USA that would be political suicide, if the lynchers didn't get you first. If I lived in a country driven by mass delusion I might well feel more upset.

    On the other hand, railing against craziness isn't science and running a my beliefs v. your beliefs competition may not do much good. The real target here is the Darth Vader Theory of Knowledge*. It's a big tough target, a kind of universal congenital condition that is only worsened by combat and stress, and that makes street-fighting for science somehow counterproductive. Even if we have to do it a bit! provides a great alternative to science wars.

    * "Feel within yourself, Luke. You know it to be true."