In her column in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, "Unnatural Science," Virginia Heffernan cites three examples from science blogs and comes to the following conclusion:
Under cover of intellectual rigor, the science bloggers — or many of the most visible ones, anyway — prosecute agendas so charged with bigotry that it doesn’t take a pun-happy French critic or a rapier-witted Cambridge atheist to call this whole ScienceBlogs enterprise what it is, or has become: class-war claptrap.
Do you hear that, science bloggers? That's you she's talking about.
Under the guise of reporting on the controversy that arose when ScienceBlogs added a paid blog by Pepsi (see my posts here, here, and here), Heffernan dismisses the entire enterprise of science blogging--and science bloggers themselves--as an ignorant, bigoted bunch of buffoons.
The issue, as you can see from my earlier posts, and many others on the web, was that Pepsi was being given editorial space for promotional copy. The guidelines of the American Society of Magazine Editors expressly prohibit that in magazines, and journalists have always maintained that there should be a wall between editorial and advertising.
But Heffernan sees no reason for concern, saying she was "nonplussed by the high dudgeon" of people who objected to the arrangement:
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.”
But that's the point, isn't it? In legacy media, ads are clearly identified as ads. That was not the case on ScienceBlogs. Would Heffernan be nonplussed by a column following hers in the Times magazine that was bought and paid for by Pepsi, but which looked exactly like hers and was not marked as an ad? The Times surely doesn't dismiss "business-editorial crossings" as blithely as Heffernan does. Indeed, note the following from the Times company policy on ethics in journalism:
Advertising and "advertorials" (paid text or paid broadcast content) must not resemble news content.
Journalism ethics aside, Heffernan didn't like the posts she found in ScienceBlogs, which was "preoccupied with trivia, name-calling and saber rattling." She cites three examples from ScienceBlogs posts as evidence. Maybe it wasn't all about Pepsi, she writes; maybe ScienceBlogs just wasn't very good. Wrong. Whether the site was a good one or not, the controversy was about Pepsi.
...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?
She calls that "class-infected bloodsport." You know, I hate to be churlish here, but Heffernan is chipping off one-liners, pursuing what she calls "the science-culture battle," and jeering at those with whom she disagrees.
ScienceBlogs has become Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd...
And science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word “science”...
Heffernan sees no important journalism issue here, which puts her at odds with most other journalists. Looks as though she had fun, however, dismissing the entire enterprise of science blogging.
- Paul Raeburn