Here's the point that perhaps I could have made more clear - we all know someone took an unfair shot at the science blogging community. Science bloggers have a choice - they can call that person stupid, or they can view this unfair shot as a fabulous PR opportunity.
What would happen, for example, if Heffernan were invited as a speaker at ScienceOnline2011? Would science bloggers throw tomatoes at her? Or would they take the time and demonstrate the patience to calmly, rationally, educate her on their community and what it offers? Isn't that a better strategy and wouldn't that create a better outcome? And wouldn't that encourage more people to read science blogs?
What did the Washington Nationals do with Miss Iowa this week? They took a PR turd and created a nice opportunity to bridge a cultural divide. Basically the same deal here.
I've been kicking an idea around with some great bloggers from different communities on exactly this issue. I hope the folks who have commented on this post will be willing to join us when it's ready - Nothing would make me happier...
I read with interest Virginia Heffernan's piece in NYT Magazine over the weekend, giving her spin on the whole SciBling exodus thing. Frankly, I'm about done with the meta-discussion and kinda want to get back to reading good stuff about science too. But there were a couple of things in her piece that made me scratch my head. First:
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.”
I'm pretty sure the issue was that the "ad" needed the disclaimer but didn't actually have it. I'm also pretty sure there would be a few defections from the "legacy" media types if content at NYT was for sale.
The other item, though, got me thinking a bit.
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.
My first reaction was simple and snarky: "of course we've never seen 'incendiary rhetoric' from, say, the New York Times op-ed page." And then I thought Ms. Heffernan isn't reading the same blogs I am because I see plenty of good science there all the time. Ms. Heffernan is clearly smart enough to know she's painting a community with a rather broad brush. David Dobbs sorta shrugged this criticism off - "this is neither novel nor surprising."
But then I thought maybe the science blogging community, rather than taking offense, might get beyond the over-generalization and take her comments to heart a little bit - especially if they want to be taken more seriously by people outside their own community.
Right now the most prominent voices in the science blogging community - at least in terms of "share of voice" - are probably PZ Myers and a guy who calls himself "Orac" (though his real name isn't hard to find.). Thanks to all the ScienceBlogs defections, Myers probably accounts for more than half of all the traffic on that network. I read their blogs regularly and I know they're both very smart. I'm pretty sure neither of them presume to speak for an entire community. But to put it kindly neither one pulls punches. They can be downright NASTY. Of course they have a right to be nasty, and frankly I personally think their targets deserve to be called out in some way, though my style is a bit different.
But here's the thing: the scientists and science writers/bloggers I talk with care very much about how they are perceived beyond their own community. They are concerned about the waning influence scientists have on policy, on public opinion, and on culture. At the same time, they think they have a critical job as "media." If you care about your role in media and how you're perceived, you should think about how the most prominent voices in your community "represent" you.
When people outside the scienceblogging community think of science blogs, they think of PZ Myers and Orac. And if they don't have the back story, they are not likely to get beyond the most provocative things these two have published. And they're going to react the way Heffernan did. By the way, Heffernan has a PhD in English Literature from Harvard. PZ Myers reacted to her column by writing a blog post tagged "stupidity."
I have some personal experience here. When I spoke at ScienceOnline2010, I asked people to work with me on reaching out to other bloggers in other communities. In doing so, I delivered a message that wasn't all that well received - it's hard to convince someone to reconsider a position when you're calling them a dick. And let's face it - the most popular blogs on that network devote much of their time calling people dicks.
It's not my place to tell PZ Myers or Orac or anyone else what they should publish on their own blog. And I'd bet Myers and Orac would be the first people to say they don't presume to speak for anyone but themselves. (I'd even be willing to bet they're probably nice guys.) But I know this - the scienceblogging community cares a lot about what people outside their community think of them, yet they do very little real outreach. Of course there's a place for provocative thought and for these two great writers - but the scientists and bloggers who want to be known for their own thoughts and their own work have to do more to make sure they're not drowned out by the loudest voices.
A consensus seems to be developing among science bloggers that says "if Heffernan knew us, she wouldn't have written that." I say if science bloggers took the time to introduce themselves and their work to people outside their own community - people like Heffernan - she would have known you.