there’s a reason we call it a target audience…

NYT’s Virginia Heffernan seems shocked and appalled that popular science blogs aren't dry, purely academic exercises in summarizing scientific papers.
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Science blogs aren’t necessarily always about science news and peer reviewed papers, unless we’re talking about multi-author blogs operated by news channels and magazines in which catchy papers are usually just summarized for readers unfamiliar with the issue or the discipline in question. Your typical science blog is a collection of posts with a distinct bend towards scientific topics. But I’m sure you already knew that. And you’d think that if you want to write an article for a major newspaper about science blogs, you would take the time to familiarize yourself with just a few of them before issuing a blanket condemnation, right? Not if you happen to be NYT’s Virginia Heffernan, who apparently decided that basic journalism didn’t apply to her writing and as a result, was quickly given a serious drumming across the web. Still, physicist and Sb blogger Chad Orzel is wondering if those who rightfully ridiculed her piece overreacted and should’ve tried to educate her rather than snarl about all the things she managed to get wrong and growl about her failings in basic research.

On the one hand, Heffernan’s thesis seems to be based in her expectation that science blogs should be the equivalent of a news site’s science section, only with experts talking about the newest research in their fields and holding their tongues about everything else, especially things that religious followers and conservatives might find offensive. In her world, a blog like mine should only talk about computer science or futuristic ideas, and even then, only when it’s nice and polite to everyone who may be reading it. That might be great for a run of the mill corporate blog like Pepsi’s Food Frontiers, afraid to stir up any trouble, but not certainly not for a blog in general. Hilariously, after ridiculing Sb for hosting fiery polemicists who tend to be liberal and quick to point out denialists and pseudoscientists, she recommends the blogs at Discover, where Phil Plait routinely tears into anti-vaxers, conspiracy theorists, and religious fundamentalists, and one of the biggest sources of climate change denialism on the web, Watt’s Up With That. Maybe she just read Mooney’s blog and found his self-serving crusade against those uppity New Atheists as refreshing as Watts’ worship of Monckton and condescending commentary about environmental activists?

But then again, Orzel does have a point when he says that science bloggers’ typical readers are probably not aware of what science blogs usually do and don’t necessarily care, forming their first impressions with a very cursory reading of a few posts. How many of them are either offended or turned off by what they find? What do they actually expect from a science blog? In my experience, readers who stick around tend to stay because of the blog’s tone and how its author, or authors, handle the topics they try to tackle. That’s why Heffernan’s odd choices of alternatives to Sb seems to tell me that she was much more interested in a verbal drive-by after the Great Pop-pocalypse claimed roughly a quarter of the network’s contributors, than she was in trying to paint a fair picture of science blogging. And note that her complaints only extend to Sb while ignoring the invective on the blogs she recommends instead. It’s one thing to soften up your tone once in a while so new readers get a healthy dose of science explained clearly, concisely and entertainingly enough for them to understand it. But I really doubt that someone on a mission to write a hatchet job about a certain science blog network should be counted among that network’s target audience, or that her opinion should be used for editorial guidance. How exactly can you take Orzel’s advice and successfully educate a highly selective antagonist?

# science // blog / journalism / science blogging


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