After reading the NYT magazine piece by Virginia Heffernan about the plight of the science bloggers, I'm left wondering...
Virginia Heffernan: The Uses and Abuses of Science Blogging.
You could fisk the article line by line, and ask the questions it raises, but instead I'd rather ask just a couple.
1. To me, it seems it totally matters who you're blogging alongside. She says journalists deal with this all the time, if so -- there must be reporters at the NY Times who are on the payroll of corporations whose work they're writing about. If true, is this adequately disclosed?
I'm pretty sure she's wrong, and that what happened at scienceblogs.com has never happened at the Times. If it has, that's a front page story.
It seems more likely, however, that she simply doesn't understand what happened with Pepsico and the science bloggers.
The science bloggers were very right to be concerned with how much disclosure there was going to be about the Pepsico bloggers. And of course if they want to resign and find a new place to blog, in what way isn't that their right? If Ms. Heffernan thought the NY Times was no longer a good place for her to write, who could blame her for moving on? Does anyone need a better reason?
What Seed Media did is very much like the way conference promoters, these days, deal with sponsorship. I've run four conferences in the last few years, and each time when I sought sponsorship I was told that I'd have to accept speakers from the sponsor companies, and I would not be allowed to tell the participants these were paid-for speakers. I would never do that, though I'm sure I've been to a number of conferences that do.
I was an advisor to a conference that did it. When I found out, I did what the science bloggers did -- I quietly left. You can't keep your integrity while standing with people who would do this. You're lending your name to something disreputable. In this piece Ms. Heffernan damaged the reputation of the Times, every reporter there, and also other pubs and their reporters. It seems the Times needs to explain what she is saying.
However, based on past experience, I don't expect the Times to take a question from Scripting News seriously. So if you're a reporter at a publication the Times does respect, I hope you'll raise the question. It deserves an answer.
2. She provides a few out-of-context quotes from blogs that I, and I assume most of her readers, are not familiar with. What are we to think these quotes mean? We should believe that science blogging is a sham, has little to do with science, and is mostly people who are making it up. Okay. However beyond the quotes, she doesn't provide any evidence.
"Clearly I've been out of some loop for too long, but 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? And can anyone who still enjoys this class-inflected bloodsport tell me why it has to happen under the banner of science?"
It's as if her piece is an attempt at parody of the blogging she's supposedly exposing.
Probably the most disturbing thing about the Heffernan piece is the lack of respect for her readers. Why should I believe what she says if she isn't prepared to offer anything serious to back it up?
The Times is at its best when it gets us to think. If we're to think, we need a respectful presentation of facts that when, taken together, are puzzling or interesting or important. Heffernan's piece only gets us to think about her and her editors and why this piece is in the Times. I don't have a clue about that.
For the record, I am not a science blogger. I've only started reading their blogs recently. To help me understand what they're doing I wrote an aggregator which I'm sharing with anyone else who wants a look. I wrote a couple of pieces about their plight. That's the extent of my involvement with science blogging. I would love to read a similar disclosure from the Times and their reporter.