Unruly Democracy: What Is Wrong (or Right) With Science Blogs?

By Chris Mooney | April 29, 2010 7:43 am

2010_unrulydemocracyOn Friday at our Harvard Kennedy School event, I’m going to be giving my rather pessimistic take–already laid out in Unscientific America, and only amplified by “ClimateGate” and other events since then–on the science blogosphere.

I’ll talk about how in comparison with the old media, the Internet fragments and narrows the audience for science information, even as there aren’t really any norms for responsible conduct–and thus, misinformation, innuendo, and general nastiness abound.

I’m sure, however, that others will have a different view. Perhaps Joe Romm will; he has just joined our roster for the event. Certainly, his blog has been a major success and demonstrates many of the upsides of science blogging.

Such debate is all to the good; it’s why we’re having the event in the first place. Indeed, I myself will point out some clear positives when it comes to blogging about science (I’m sure you can guess many of them).

But taken as a whole, are blogs broadening the conversation about science by reaching new audiences, replacing what has been lost in terms of science coverage in the old media, or elevating our general science discourse?

I have to say, I’m skeptical. There is no going back from this new world, but it is important to ponder how it is currently developing.

However, the purpose of the event is far broader than my particular argument. Frankly, I’m most excited about the first panel, which bring together representatives of the two big science blogging outlets and the science editor of the Boston Globe to discuss the economic end of things; to my knowledge nothing like it has happened before:

10:00-11:00     Panel 1: Blogging as Business

Henry Donahue (Discover), Gideon Gil (Boston Globe), Joy Moore (Seed)

Not to be missed.

So if you haven’t yet, and are in the Boston area, register for “Unruly Democracy” here!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Announcements

Comments (32)

  1. Prof Mike

    Its the reformation of science. The printing press made translated mass produced versions of religious texts possible. It led to the ordinary layperson reading and forming their own opinions on their religion. Naturally the religious authorities tried to prevent this, and we had about 400 years of war over it, known as the Protestant Reformation.

    Now Science is experiencing the same. The internet has made it possible for scientific knowledge to be read by the lay person. Just like the bible was trapped in latin, on hand written copies, so too was scientific papers trapped in jargon and written on hard to obtain, obscure scientific journals.

    Now that the information is free (sometimes via FOI, sometimes via a hack) the lay person has again decided that they don’t know need to be told what to think, and that they can form their own opinions.

  2. Prof Mike

    “that they don’t need to be told what to think” … typo.

  3. Gaythia

    I think that Prof Mike’s perspective is quite interesting. A historical perspective is important. For example, the entire McCarthyism hysteria of the 1950′s was accomplished quite nastily without the internet. Human history is full of points in which science and reason did not always prevail.

    The main thing is to keep people thinking, and not succuming to fear, and thus more susceptible to propaganda. Therefore, the more information readily available, the better.

    This is why I oppose amplifying “Climategate” by continually referring to it in this manner. It emphasizes the controversy as a controversy and actually gets in the way of trying to convey the basic facts.

  4. William Furr

    I disagree with the narrative of scientists as priests, jealously guarding knowledge. Science has, from its inception, embraced sharing and openness of knowledge. Even at the height of the Cold War, US and Russian scientists were sharing knowledge across their borders. All those “hard to obtain and obscure” journals are available for anyone to look at for free in their nearest University library. You can even find layers and layers of information, from an introductory textbook to cutting edge research papers, so you can learn the jargon and learn a field in pretty good detail all on your lonesome in not that much time.

    If anyone has been playing the role of priests and “telling lay people what to think”, it’s careless reporters on a deadline who turn carefully worded scientific statements (e.g. – “The novel biological compounds we study in this paper may have potential to augment existing cancer treatments…”) into headlines (e.g. – “SCIENTISTS CURE CANCER!”).

  5. @ Prof Mike

    …the lay person has again decided that they don’t know need to be told what to think, and that they can form their own opinions.

    Science has always, without exception, benefited from scrutiny. Theories only become such after having been vetted by repeated testing, as you surely know, and the fact that they’re “wrapped in jargon” is merely an issue with their specialized nature and with communication to a lay public, not with secrecy or mysticism.

    As for hard to obtain, yes, I would agree with that, but the situation certainly hasn’t been helped by poor journalistic practices in which hype & sensationalism take precedence over accuracy & applicability.

    Finally, I do hope you’re not suggesting that the public’s opinion is relevant to deciding what qualifies as scientific fact.

  6. Prof Mike

    4. William Furr Says:
    April 29th, 2010 at 10:38 am

    “I disagree with the narrative of scientists as priests, jealously guarding knowledge. ”

    You are correct, its the journalists who are the priests. The scientists would be the monks, out of public view, studying and producing the knowledge. Its the job of the journalist to pontificate to the masses on the meaning of that “knowledge”. It is the journalist who serves as the intermediary between the knowledge and the people, who guides their opinions and interpretations, who calls out the carbon sinner for the congregation’s derision and scorn.

    It is the job of the journalist / priest to convey the three most important points in the narrative. First, there is something to collectively fear, gods wrath or environmental disaster. Second, that it is directly caused by our behavior, religious sins or carbon emissions. Third, and most importantly, we must submit to taxation, church ties or carbon taxes, to solve the problem.

  7. Nullius in Verba

    “Science has, from its inception, embraced sharing and openness of knowledge.”

    “Science has always, without exception, benefited from scrutiny. Theories only become such after having been vetted by repeated testing…”

    Quite. so. Which is why it is such a scandal when openness, scrutiny, and testing are prevented from happening.

  8. Isis the Scientist
  9. Chris, if you actually did some actual reporting — or science — or both, these “problems” you cite would disappear. The problem is you. You are not a scientist or a journalist. You’re Howard Kurtz. You don’t add value.

  10. It is the job of the journalist / priest to convey the three most important points in the narrative. First, there is something to collectively fear, gods wrath or environmental disaster. Second, that it is directly caused by our behavior, religious sins or carbon emissions. Third, and most importantly, we must submit to taxation, church ties or carbon taxes, to solve the problem.

    Really? Really?

    Come on – that’s just about the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard, perhaps second to your scientists as monks thing. No good scientist produces her work hidden from public view or scrutiny unless they workin a privately funded lab, and even then they publish in peer reviewed literature for the scientific community (and the world) to see. No one hides anything, they just insist you act a certain way and have som elevel of education to ride along with them. So do doctors, so do lawyers, so do accountants. Tell me, if all scientists are hidden scribblin gmonks, what does that make Wall Street derivitives traders?

  11. moptop

    ” No good scientist produces her work hidden from public view or scrutiny unless they workin a privately funded lab” – Phillip H.

    “Why should I give you my data when all you are going to do is try to find something wrong with it?” Dr Phil Jones of the CRU.

    “This is why I oppose amplifying “Climategate” by continually referring to it in this manner. It emphasizes the controversy as a controversy and actually gets in the way of trying to convey the basic facts.”

    What gets in the way of basic facts is Climategate denial. Pretending that there is nothing there and that the data is fine, all the while insisting than nobody read what is in there.

  12. Nullius in Verba

    moptop,

    It’s interesting, isn’t it, when your opponent agrees with your position so vigorously without even realising they’re doing so? “No good scientist produces her work hidden from public view or scrutiny”. What an excellent statement of the sceptic position on the Hockey Team’s misbehaviour! We quite agree. So why do believers not demand that the data is made open to scrutiny, too?

    Here are a few relevant Climategate quotes.

    “I wouldn’t worry about the code. If FOIA does ever get used by anyone, there is also IPR to consider as well. Data is covered by all the agreements we sign with people, so I will be hiding behind them.”

    “1. Think I’ve managed to persuade UEA to ignore all further FOIA requests if the people have anything to do with Climate Audit.”

    “I have been of the opinion right from the start of these FOI requests, that our private ,
    inter-collegial discussion is just that – PRIVATE .”

    “One of the problems is that I’m caught in a real Catch-22 situation. At present, I’m damned and publicly vilified because I refused to provide McIntyre with the data he requested.”

    “It would be odious requirement to have scientists document every line of code so outsiders could then just apply them instantly.”

    “1. In my considered opinion, a very dangerous precedent is set if any derived quantity that we have calculated from primary data is subject to FOIA requests.”

    “Yes, we’ve learned out lesson about FTP. We’re going to be very careful in the future what gets put there. Scott really screwed up big time when he established that directory so that Tim could access the data.”

    “p.s. I know I probably don’t need to mention this, but just to insure absolutely clarify on
    this, I’m providing these for your own personal use, since you’re a trusted colleague. So
    please don’t pass this along to others without checking w/ me first. This is the sort of
    “dirty laundry” one doesn’t want to fall into the hands of those who might potentially try
    to distort things…”

    “The two MMs have been after the CRU station data for years. If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone.”

  13. Marion Delgado

    Chris:

    I simply don’t consider Uncommon Descent, Watts Up With That or Climate Audit to be science blogs. When you discuss science, even as a layman, you’re required to play by science’s rules of citing references, not lying, and presenting valid arguments and not logical and rhetorical fallacies.

    Of the blogs that are actually science blogs, my opinion is higher than yours. I also note that Scienceblogs has a peer-reviewed-only RSS feed, and I think that’s reliable enough for anyone’s needs.

  14. I would have love to be there, but even if Montreal is not to far from Boston, impossible for me to be in the two places in the same day. Beam me up, Scotty!

    As a journalist, I am as pessimistic as Chris, but in the same time, I see reasons to be optimistic in the way so much good people are taking a stand about science, in the blogs. Things will be lost, like the way science journalism has been created in the lasts 40-50 years, but others will be gain. In the future, maybe we will not have anymore science articles on mass medias (whatever mass medias will be in the future) but any citizen will have access to great analysis done (and, hopefully, paid) by specialized outlets.

    Unless, of course, and this is the bigger risk I see, unless those specialized outlets are on a subscribers-only basis.

  15. Marion Delgado

    As someone who was a working journalist in both print and radio for years, as producer, editor, and reporter, and who did science journalism for a while as a beat, I have to say I regard both The Republican War on Science and Storm World as very fine examples of journalism.

    Saying Chris Mooney is not doing science is an accurate non sequiter. Saying he is not doing and has not done journalism is a good example of behavior that makes Chris’s point in Chapter 8 of Unscientific America for him.

  16. Marion Delgado

    s/sequiter/sequitur :)

  17. Will

    Marion @16: Journalists were supposed to be objective. Is that what’s happening here?

  18. Marion Delgado

    Will:

    Actually, yes, to a degree. To put the focus on you, would you agree that Doug Watts is saying something to which objectivity would apply, and if so, that it’s objective, and if so, how objective? I’ve done journalism, I’ve consumed a great deal of journalism, and in my considered opinion, what Chris Mooney has done in his books The Republican War on Science and Storm World is, in fact, journalism.

    I never had a single “objectivity” complaint either as a reporter or editor or producer, if that helps. Because I wrote hundreds of stories for newspapers and radio, I occasionally got things wrong, but on the rare occasion when it wasn’t an editor or manager catching the error, the complaint was about accuracy, not objectivity.

    Also, if your emphasis is rather that what is happening here is Chris’s blog, the Intersection, I’d say it’s a mixture of journalism and op-eds and blogging that’s sort of neither. The op-ed stuff is not entirely objective, but op-eds always have a subjective component. All you really demand of op-eds is that, where they impinge on claims of fact, those claims be accurate.

  19. Marion Delgado

    I hate to go on and on, but I have to add that this is Sheril and Chris’s blog, with lots of guest posters lately. So any evaluation of this blog for journalism either includes that fact, or is, as I’ve been forced to label the vast majority of comments from commenters coming here from Pharyngula or Jerry Coyne’s blog, substanceless internet flaming.

  20. Nullius in Verba

    Marion, Yes, but you agree with Chris’s views, so of course you’ll see it as objective journalism.

    Chris says:
    “I’ll talk about how in comparison with the old media, the Internet fragments and narrows the audience for science information…”

    The internet doesn’t fragment the audience; the audience was already fragmented. All those people were out there, all along, but nobody ever realised it because they had no voice.

    The old media was controlled, conformist, traditional. The media decided what the audience wanted, and what they thought they ought to have. They knew what sensible people believed, because it was what they and all their friends believed, and they provided it as a service. The best quality science, filtered of any confusing or inconsistent elements, and presented in a simplistic way so that their uneducated, scientifically illiterate audience would be able to follow along and get some dim inkling of just how clever their betters in the technological elite are.

    And thus it comes as a shock when the audience are given the power to be their own journalists. What they provide for one another isn’t the comfortable, polite exchanges of the old boys club. It’s angry. It’s fractious. Consensus is shattered into a thousand voices, some of who agree with the old guard, and a lot who don’t. They don’t play by the same rules. The old conventions and protocols that kept the message sensibly on track are dismissed. Confusion reigns. And inconvenient people and their discordant views can no longer be excluded and silenced.

    But it was always there. It was what people really wanted, and that the old media never provided. And now that the audience have got an alternative, the old media is slowly dying.

    Venues like The Intersection that have evolved from the old media still serve their audience – that segment of it that shares their views, or wants to debate them. It serves a useful function. (Obviously I wouldn’t come here if I thought otherwise.) But so do all the rest. They have their own views, their own standards of behaviour, their own version of ‘objectivity’. They have their own ways of doing things, that are different from yours, but still represent real people.

    Sometimes I think you guys don’t take your multiculturalism seriously.

  21. The notion that the Web enforces echo-chambers is wrong – see this recent study that shows that people see stuff outside their own ideological mindset and interact with more people of a different ideology much more online than in face-to-face real-life interactions.

  22. Guy

    Quite true #21. Imagine if people acted in public like they do in some online discussions. It would be chaotic mess with people getting assaulted and arrested. It’s much easier to voice a controversial opinion when you believe you can get away with it because of anonymity.

  23. Marion Delgado

    Nullus in Verbus:

    The view I disagree with is the “nothing is true, that’s just your bias.”

    I am flat out saying YOU’RE wrong, and DOUG WATTS is wrong.

    As proof, a great deal of the Bush administration actions suppressing science – objectively verifiable behavior – came to the public attention through Chris’s first book.

    I also explained what I think a blog like this is – since I was being asked a question – and I’ll repeat – it’s a mixture of journalism/reporting journalism/op-ed, and many elements that aren’t journalistic.

    And let me add, the bias thing is simply bullshit. Doug Watts made a fairly deranged remark and it’s quite telling, frankly.

  24. Chris Mooney

    Folks,
    Everyone should check out Jessica Palmer’s great reflections on the conference

    http://scienceblogs.com/bioephemera/2010/05/the_switzerland_problem.php

  25. Will

    Mario Delgado:

    I come to this Blog as much for Chris Mooney’s editorial content as for the comments section. I know what Chris’s bias is. I know it’s close to 100% Op Ed with almost no objective grounding whatsoever. And I’m fine with that because the objectivity is in the comments section. Chris does a great job at providing a venue to discuss, objectively, a topic that he puts forward. (ty Chris).

  26. Nullius in Verba

    Marion,

    #23, Interesting “proof”. To disprove bias, you give a classic example of bias. Well done!

    Every administration suppresses science it doesn’t like. That’s how politicians operate. They all have their own agendas and schemes, and they manipulate events to whatever extent that they can to make them come about. Science is not sacred territory to them; they’ll mess with it as willingly as they will with healthcare, the economy, education, or any of the reports, surveys, and statistics that come out about them. Nobody gets to the top without being very good at it.

    So I’d be surprised if President Bush hadn’t interfered with science. Where the bias comes in is when you report on it selectively. To make your point, what you ought to have done is cite an example from Chris’s book where he reports on his ideological allies doing the same sort of thing.

    Take Climategate, for example, or the Hockeystick scandal. All sorts of science suppressed and distorted; by the IPCC, the UN, governments, universities, journals, and NGOs. Upon the evidence being leaked, science journalists ought to have been all over it. What happened, why is it significant, what does it mean for science? A lot of them are. Even people like George Monbiot who just watched his life’s work getting flushed down the toilet, and yet has managed to take a principled stand for Science. Even though it goes against everything he believes in and has written about for years, even though he has to listen to his enemies say “I told you so” – and I’m sure that really burns – he took an honest look at what Climategate revealed, was horrified at what climate scientists had done to scientific standards and processes, and he said so.

    “Since I began writing about this issue, I’ve been assailed by climate scientists and environmentalists, all insisting that Jones did nothing wrong. If these emails meet their standards of professional rectitude I dread to think what else they would find acceptable.”

    Now that’s journalism.

    But you’ll see none of that here. The view here is still that there’s nothing in it, everything is fine, it’s just those zany sceptics babbling on about something, la, la, la, I can’t hear you. It was Bush suppressing science, it’s the Republican war on science, because science is obviously on the side of the Democrats/liberals/left.

    Well, you’re all entitled to your opinion. And the proprietors here are at least very good about allowing open access to the other side to comment here. And there are of course plenty on the sceptic side that are just as partisan that I would cringe to be associated with. It’s human nature to be biased – and we are all human.

    I don’t like Monbiot or what he stands for, and I don’t agree with all he says, even now. But I can – through gritted teeth – express admiration for his reaction when he realised he had been wrong. It’s a hard thing for anyone to do.

  27. a dood

    Science.

    You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

  28. moptop

    ” It’s much easier to voice a controversial opinion when you believe you can get away with it” -Guy

    GET AWAY WITH IT???? With what? Some kind of thought crime? Is having a controversial opinion some kind of offense against you fellow citizens? I mean really, what does that mean, “get away with it”?

  29. Nullius in Verba

    #28,

    I had the same reaction to the phrase at first, but after a bit of thought, decided that it could be interpreted neutrally.

    I was a bit intrigued by the bit that said “Imagine if people acted in public like they do in some online discussions. It would be chaotic mess with people getting assaulted and arrested.” Is this suggesting that making controversial statements such as we do here without the shield of anonymity would result in getting assaulted, or arrested?! Who by?

    Which of course reminded me of Greenpeace saying “We know where you live.” Or indeed, Ben Santer’s dark alley.

    A lot of people do comment anonymously because they don’t want to be traced by internet crazies – climate fanatics are not necessarily excluded from that. More prefer to stay anonymous because they could face sanctions from employers or clients for their beliefs. (And I’ve seen a few climate protests where there’s a chaotic mess of people being assaulted or arrested, and you wouldn’t want to be a known sceptic in the middle of that lot.)

    So I don’t necessarily disagree with it. Without the context of Guy’s previous comments, and considered in isolation, it’s something I might have said myself.

  30. Marion Delgado

    “Nullus in Verbus” is a worthless denialist troll. It was a mistake to engage in colloquy with him, and I won’t repeat it.

  31. Nullius in Verba

    #30, Thank you! How civilised!

    What sport is there in reasoned debate, without a genuine opponent? One able to match wits with you with skill and honour?

    I therefore leave it to the audience to consider who had the better of this bout.
    And to reflect deeply on our host’s words above regarding the existence of norms.

  32. Will

    Comments like Marion Delgado’s at #30 do not reflect the opinion of everyone. Marion, you don’t need to be so rude.

    Nullius in Verba: I always enjoy reading your comments and often share them with others. Your posts are insightful and very well written, and I consider you one of the best regular posters around. The Intersection wouldn’t be nearly as good without you.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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