On Heffernan: For Me, ScienceBlogs Isn’t Supposed to Be a Newspaper’s Science Section

I had been considering, over the weekend to write a navel gazing post about The State of ScienceBlogs and Its Relationship to the Mad Biologist. And then Virginia Heffernan of the NY Times wrote a quote picking article about ScienceBlogs, thereby screwing up my weekend blogging (so much stupid, so little Mad Biologist). At the end of the post, I’ll describe how I see ScienceBlogs, but, first, let’s talk about Heffernan’s arrogance.
From Heffernan:

I was nonplussed by the high dudgeon of the so-called SciBlings. The bloggers evidently write often enough for ad-free academic journals that they still fume about adjacencies, advertorial and infomercials. Most writers for “legacy” media like newspapers, magazines and TV see brush fires over business-editorial crossings as an occupational hazard. They don’t quit anytime there’s an ad that looks so much like an article it has to be marked “this is an advertisement.”

Actually, the strongest and quickest reaction was from the science journalists (Heffernan’s colleagues), not the working scientists. Like from those who have written for the NY Times Magazine. And received the Pulitzer Prize for their work. I find Heffernan’s disagreement puzzling, but then again, I’m just a science blogger. Because when an editor resigned from the LA Times over a similar issue, he was viewed as being in the right. Me, I’m going with the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist.
What’s more disturbing is that someone with a prominent position has such ethical…flexibility. I’m not surprised, since it’s something I’ve encountered quite often, having attending similar elite finishing schools: there are certain realities everyone knows are ‘just the way they are’, and complaining or even (shudder) opposing them is foolish. This is what Jay Rosen has called the Cult of the Savvy, and it’s incredibly cynical. It’s not skeptical, but rather, a self-rationalization of powerlessness and a justification of existing power. Not exactly I.F. Stone territory.
One final point about Heffernan–which will allow me to segue into talking about ScienceBlogs (and science bloggers).

In response to the heat Heffernan’s been receiving, she left a comment over at Dave Dobbs’ place (so did the Mad Biologist), which basically amounts to “Why are scientists writing about things other than science”? (AAAIIIEEE!!!):

Why aren’t they talking about “Anecdote of the Jar”?! Why are they talking about how “misogyny intrinsic to the modernist project”? I saw political axe-grinding bring the humanities almost to a standstill in the 1990s. I thought science was supposed to be above that!

This attitude has always bothered me. First, nobody here writes deceptive posts: when I write about politics, you see it coming from a mile away. If you don’t like it, you can always ask for your money back (it’s free), which, sadly, I can’t do with my NY Times subscription. But I’ve never thought that ScienceBlogs was simply regurgitations of published science articles, with maybe some ‘life-as-a-scientist’ thrown into the mix. Before I joined ScienceBlogs, I talked with our Seed Overlord at the time and even asked, “You have read my blog, right?”–meaning that I was not a Scientific American writer in training.
To me, ScienceBlogs is an online community/forum* where scientists can blog. I realize that sounds like your Daily Moment of Duh!, but I view ScienceBlogs as a place where scientists can contribute to our discourse without having to pass muster with newspaper editorial boards. Sure, the emphasis for many contributors will be on science-related subjects (most of us like what we do), but I’ve never thought that we should be limited to that. And to Seed’s credit, they have never told me what I can and can’t write.
Why should the issues of the day be the sole purview of English and polysci majors, with a smattering of economists and lawyers thrown in? Who decreed that, and how could it be possible to be dumber than David Fucking Brooks? After all, scientists analyze data for a living. It’s what we do. It’s funny that, while a NY Times writer, is lambasting us for writing about things other than science, the NY Times Science page linked to this post, where I crunched some numbers about high school education. Maybe I should just write about plaid and half-naked models on the intertoobz instead; that, apparently, is acceptable.
Finally, about the tone. I don’t want to rehash the civility debate, if for no other reason than we’ll needlessly burn electrons and wind up right back where we started. But many of us have spent years, if not decades, combating various idiocies, ranging from creationism to global warming denialism. Some of us like to put it in a larger social and political context (even if we disagree, at times vehemently, about what that context is) because there’s more to this willful ignorance than a simple lack of understanding–it is a political, ideological, and religious issue**. And some of us don’t like to write as if we were published in the NY Times (boring). There’s a place for that–it’s called the New York Times***. Some of us are not interested in trying to persuade those who are impervious to evidence, but rather, we want to call them out on their bullshit. Others do very different things with their blogs–that’s a strength, not a weakness.
Anyway, back to working on a roundup of last week’s education posts.
Related posts: Jason Goldman, Chad Orzel, David Dobbs, NeuroDojo, PZ, Scott Rosenberg. Oops, forgot Deltoid. Also, ERV and, of course, Bora.
*Other than the egregious breach of content, the thing that has bothered me the most is that both ScienceBlogs and the bloggers here interact far less than we used to in terms of blogging.
**I’ve never understood why he-said/she-said reporting, which, at one time, was a good business model for newspaper advertising, is necessarily the format all publishing, especially electronic, should adopt. Compulsive Centrist Disorder might have worked at one time as a good model for selling ads, but it’s not a system of ethics.
***I’ve been watching with great interest as Paul Krugman, seeing his life’s work ignored when it is highly relevant to the circumstances at hand (something scientists have been experiencing for a very long time), slowly become very angry. There’s a difference in tone, too, between his op-ed pieces and his blogging (on the blog, he gets very close to using words like idiots and liars). I bet if you put a couple of drinks in him–he’s not a very big guy, a few would probably do–I’m sure he would really let loose, maybe even curse (AAAIIEEE!!!).

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