Sunday, August 01, 2010

Defending science blogs

Although I am not on ScienceBlogs, I am a science blogger, so Virginia Heffernan's article on science bloggers in today's New York Times Magazine ("Unnatural Science: The uses and abuses of science blogging") got my attention. Her position that science blogs are given to "trivia, name-calling, saber rattling" and "gratuitous contempt" compelled me to reply.

The frequency with which I update my blogs is probably best described by a professional journalist as "never," but I do take blogging somewhat seriously, and I try to be professional about it. My affiliation is on the side bar, and I have read (and re-read parts of) such books as "Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist's Guide to Talking to the Public," by Ms. Heffernan's more temperate colleague, Cornelia Dean.

The article starts out with an appeal to deconstructionism:

Deconstructing science is a fool’s game. In the ’90s, literary critics used to try. They’d argue that science is a system of metaphors, complete with a style and an ideology, rather than the royal road to the truth. They were laughed at as cultural relativists, posers high on Gaul­oises and nut jobs who didn’t believe in gravity.

Although amusing and partly true, this is a misrepresentation. Science does have a style and an ideology and some of us acknowledge that. In fact, my own reading of science is informed by an awareness of the differing styles and ideologies that dominate different fields and traditions within science, an awareness that has been made more acute by my own personal exposure (primarily through marriage) to literary criticism, postmodernism and social science. What scientists object to is the notion that science is nothing but a system of metaphors. Scientists uniformly believe that there truths about nature that exist quite apart from ourselves, and that science provides a tool for learning those truths. I will also admit that some of us think that, within academia, posers and nut jobs have a much easier time succeeding in fields outside of science.

Last month ... 20 or so high-placed science bloggers angrily parted ways with an extremely popular and award-winning online collective called ScienceBlogs because it starting running Food Frontiers, a nutrition blog that PepsiCo paid to have on the site.

I missed this. What can I say? I don't find enough time to blog, or even to read other blogs, although I keep thinking I should start doing it more.

ScienceBlogs has become preoccupied with trivia, name-calling and saber rattling. Maybe that’s why the ScienceBlogs ship started to sink.


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?

Perhaps, but the ones I read this morning (those on genetics, including personal genetics) have "interesting stuff." Some of it is a bit pedantic and perhaps not that interesting to the general public, but most of the posts I looked at stuck to the science or discussed policy, and those that discussed policy were perfectly civil.

By the way, I'd recommend "Genomes Unzipped" to readers interested in a diversity of opinion about the week's events surrounding regulation of personal genetics services. Genomes Unzipped is "a group blog providing expert, independent commentary on the personal genomics industry." It is not part of ScienceBlogs, but some individual bloggers post to both.

Under cover of intellectual rigor, the science bloggers — or many of the most visible ones, anyway — prosecute agendas so charged with bigotry that it doesn’t take a pun-happy French critic or a rapier-witted Cambridge atheist to call this whole ScienceBlogs enterprise what it is, or has become: class-war claptrap.

Is she jeering?

Science blogs (including those on ScienceBlogs) are a mixed bag, just like most of the internet, and the New York Times. Readers have to exercise judgment.

Finally, there is a sidebar with recommendations, which I have to applaud.
[Update: Actually, it was a mistake to applaud this. See comments.]

For science that’s accessible but credible, steer clear of polarizing hatefests like atheist or eco-apocalypse blogs. Instead, check out, and Anthony Watts’s blog, Watts Up With That?

David Dobbs, who quit ScienceBlogs, has written well about the consequences of “unbundling” the ScienceBlogs bloggers. See his blog at its new location at

Stanford’s Presidential Lectures in the Humanities are archived — and helpfully linked — at Don’t miss Jacques Derrida’s from the spring of 1999. You will think. You finally almost know. What deconstruction. Is.