30 July 2010

Dear Virginia

New York Times logoDear Virginia Heffernan,

Your recent New York Times column, “Unnatural Science,” is mostly wrong. You’re going to catch a lot of flak for sentences like this:

(S)cience 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.

If I might mix metaphors, you paint a distorted picture using a broad brush that’s loaded with tar and feathers. There are bloggers who you disagree with? Fine. There are bloggers that you personally dislike and find distasteful? Okay. But to then accuse every science blogger of being a participant in “bloodsport” and engaging in “bigotry”? That’s not fair, Virginia. Possibly even a bit bigoted.

(D)oes 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?

There are many examples of science blogs that do lots of interpreting data and reviewing experiments. You only needed to look at at ResearchBlogging.org for a steady stream of posts daily that do just that. (And, incidentally, it’s hosted by the same company that runs Science Blogs, the target of so much of your distaste.) I’m vain enough to think that I do a passable job of reviewing experiments here on my own blog.

While you seem to think that blogs should be nothing but online versions of the “News and Views” section of the large weekly science journals, I think one of the charms of the medium is that it reveals scientists as people. People with passions and interests and frustrations and opinions – including opinions that you may happen to disagree with. As I wrote before:

I would hate for researchers to lose their authenticity in pursuit of likeability.

You are not the first to have concerns that the writing style of a lot of bloggers. Randy Olson made some similar points in Don’t Be Such a Scientist (I reviewed it here). There has been a lot of discussion about civility in the science blogosphere, which was the point I think you were trying to make. The conversation about civility is something that is, and should be, a work in progress.

Many have pointed out, however, that “civility” has often been used as a tool to preserve the status quo, muzzle dissent, and is applied unevenly. Wielding “civility” like a spiked club has been particularly common response to discussion about religion and atheism, which seems to be something of a sore point for you, since you mention “blasphemy,” “religion-baiting”, and “jeer(ing)... churchgoers.” (I was also a bit disturbed how you mention “peak oil” as though you thought it was somehow wrong or untrue.) I am curious, Virginia, as to whether you have ever found similarly disreputable and offensive smears of science by non-scientists (including the religious)? Do the large numbers of people, many religious, who routinely attack my entire scientific field, evolutionary biology, give you any pause at all?

It’s too bad that you spoiled a valuable message about public perception of science by badmouthing so many of my colleagues, and so much of the enterprise.

Yours truly,


Additional, 31 July 2010: Virginia Heffernan has followed up at Neuron Culture, and has said she has some regret about the post.


Maurizio Morabito said...

Your post is on a totally different level than the article's and as such won't communicate much really to "Dear Victoria"

She has used incendiary rhetoric to talk about blogs where she perceived incendiary rhetoric. One should try to look if there is anything substantive through that fog, and it looks like there is: mudslinging-by-blogging is very picturesque and very American but hopefully soon very passé

Zen said...

I guess I succeeded by some small degree, then, because I was deliberately trying to write something at a much different level than the original piece.

Wren said...

You should send this in as a letter to the editor. I think this is the perfect well-crafted kind of response her article needs. The e-mail address is: magazine@nytimes.com

Zen said...

I did that seven and three quarter hours ago.