August 02, 2010
Heffernan on science blogging, culture and deconstruction in NYT
In a recent NYT piece, Virginia Heffernan argues that "it’s time to don the old Derridean cloak and re-enter the unwinnable science-culture battle?" I have a number of concerns about Heffernan's piece. I fail to see where it is Derridean or deconstructive, the piece suggests inadequate research into the topic analysed and I am not convinced that the divisions and 'battles' Heffernan constructs are helpful.
Heffernan bemoans the fact that, she believes
Deconstructing science is a fool’s game. In the ’90s, literary critics used to try. They’d argue that science is a system of metaphors, complete with a style and an ideology, rather than the royal road to the truth. They were laughed at as cultural relativists, posers high on Gauloises and nut jobs who didn’t believe in gravity. Masha Krasnova-Shabaeva
Science writers play rough. They like hoaxes, humiliations and Oxbridge-style showdowns that let them use words like “claptrap” and “gibberish.” There’s a reason people don’t call themselves deconstructionists and pick fights with science anymore. The old battle is won: books called “The Science of X” fly off shelves, while “The Culture of” books are remaindered.
Heffernan's complains that the prominent science blogging network Science Blogs
has become preoccupied with trivia, name-calling and saber rattling. Maybe that’s why the ScienceBlogs ship started to sink...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?
Hammering away at an ideology, substituting stridency for contemplation, pummeling its enemies in absentia: ScienceBlogs has become Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd. Though Myers and other science bloggers boast that they can be jerky in the service of anti-charlatanism, that’s not what’s bothersome about them. 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.
I do have several concerns about Heffernan's piece. Firstly, I am not sure what her criticisms have to do with Derrida and/or deconstruction. She clearly objects to the tone, ethics and/or mores of a lot that takes place on ScienceBlogs - which is fine - but I do not see any need to invoke a 'Derridean cloak' in order to make such criticisms. While there is a lot of debate about what deconstruction may or may not be - Derrida argued that "All sentences of the type "deconstruction is X" or "deconstruction is not X" a priori miss the point, which is to say that they are at least false" - but I do fail to see what is Derridean or deconstructive about Heffernan's piece.
Secondly, it is unfortunate that - while Heffernan starts by discussing work on the culture of science - her own research into ScienceBlogs and science blogging more broadly seems so weak. Heffernan only quotes a handful of examples from ScienceBlogs (two of which are arguably quoted out of context). While complaining about the lack of discussion of science of ScienceBlogs, she fails to note that a lot of the science blogging on ScienceBlogs and more broadly does focus very much on scientific issues. It is unfortunate that Heffernan focussed on such a narrow range of material.
Heffernan subsequently noted that she regrets recommending the Watt's Up With That blog in the NYT piece, stating that
I’m a stranger to the debates on science blogs, so I frankly didn’t recognize the weatherspeak on the blog as “denialist”; I didn’t even know about denialism. I’m don’t endorse the views on the Watts blog, and I’m extremely sorry the recommendation seemed ideological.
It is good that Heffernan is acknowledging this. However, one would hope that - before trying to write about social and cultural aspects of science blogging and ScienceBlogs in a forum as prominent as NYT - a researcher would have gained a deeper understanding of what is going on that would have allowed them to avoid such errors.
I would argue that using the tools of the social sciences and humanities to research science is extremely important - I have a conflict of interest here, as I am doing some work around science blogging and would love to develop a couple of other projects on science and science communication if anyone is nice enough to fund me! However, such approaches rely on putting work into researching the topic: to write well about the culture of science (or science blogging) one needs to do some research into what is taking place in these fields. A 'Derridean cloak' is not an excuse to avoid doing basic research or learning about ones subject - instead, deconstructive approaches may open up highly productive ways of doing engaging with this.
Thirdly, Heffernan constructs a number of problematic divisions in the social and cultural terrains she is writing about. She introduces the piece with a discussion of a "science-culture battle" and argues that "battle is won: books called “The Science of X” fly off shelves, while “The Culture of” books are remaindered." Perhaps due to my own social and cultural position - part of the attraction of Geography is it's interdisciplinary nature - I don't see this as a straightforward battle with 'science' and 'culture' sides. This is not a zero-sum game and I am delighted if colleagues writing on topics such as climate change or hydrology are able to gain large audiences. I am also pleased, of course, when work on culture and society attracts large audiences - and sometimes it does, as in the case of geographers such as David Harvey - but I don't see any kind of battle here. It is important for those of us working in the humanities and social sciences to engage with science and scientists, but I don't see how metaphors of battle are helpful in building productive relationships here. Also - while people sometimes disagree with one another and sometimes do so in strong terms - discussion of 'battle' seems to both exaggerate what conflict there is and to pass over the many productive relationships that do exist.
Heffernan criticises ScienceBlogs as
not science by scientists, not even remotely; it’s science blogging by science bloggers
This leaves me a bit confused. At the same time as praising deconstructive approaches and challenging the value which is (sometimes inappropriately) attributed to what is defined as science, Heffernan sets up a rather arbitrary binary between 'scientists' and (apparently non-scientist) science bloggers. Many of those writing on ScienceBlogs are practising scientists by most definitions - including some of the more widely-read and snarkier bloggers. Scientists often talk and write about things outside of their (frequently fairly narrow) specialist areas and - as with the rest of us - scientists are often wrong, tactless etc. and are likely as interested in trivia such as lolcats as anyone else. I am not sure how this makes them no longer fit into the category of scientists, though, unless was has a horribly idealised concept of what a scientist is and how science is done. Even if such a clear distinction could be clearly maintained it would seem to be a prime target for deconstruction, so I am not sure how this fits with Heffernan's proclaimed donning of a Derridean cloak.
On the face of it, I would have expected to be rather more positive about Heffernan's article. She recommends the study of the culture and language of science - something which I would see as invaluable - and gestures towards theoretical approaches that I am sympathetic towards. However, the article is theoretically weak (I still fail to see a Derridean element to it), empirically poor (it displays inadequate knowledge about the ScienceBlogs and science blogging on which it focuses) and itself constructs problematic divisions and metaphors which would seem ripe for deconstruction and critique.
While Heffernan discusses relationships between scientists and other researchers in terms of a battle, I would argue that it is important to draw on and to develop effective and productive ways of working with and disagreeing with one another. Pieces such as Heffernan's are unhelpful for those of us doing social and cultural research: they give a poor impression of what we do (or try to do) and make it much too easy to dismiss a whole range of work as 'postmodernism'. Rather than re-entering or restarting perceived science-culture battles, poststucturalist approaches might be more useful insofar as they can pull apart some of the taken-for-granted beliefs which underly such 'battles' and open up new types of relationships.
Heffernan announced the NYT piece with a tweet saying that "Science blogs are very strange". Social research can help us to understand the diverse ways in which scientists, science bloggers, journalists and even geographers are strange - and thus, perhaps, to find new and creative ways to work with and around our strangeness.
A large number of blogs have covered this story. Here, in no particular order, are links to those I've looked through (and remembered to bookmark!) while preparing the post. I am sure I am missing some - if you spot something missing, please post a comment and I will add it in!
These links aren't clickable, for an MT-related reason I can't figure out at the moment. I know this is messy - I will look to see if I can get this to appear properly later on.
Posted by jon_mendel at August 2, 2010 07:32 PM
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