Still More on ScienceBlogs

Just when I thought the dust had settled Virginia Hefferman chimes in from the New York Times about the ScienceBlogs kerfuffle and stirs things up again. Hefferman plunges into the turmoil caused by Seed Media’s quickly reversed decision to host Pepsi’s “corporate” FoodFrontiers blog in the Science Blogs network and doesn’t like what she sees:

But the bloggers’ eek-a-mouse posturing wasn’t the most striking part of the affair. Instead, it was the weird vindictiveness of many of the most prominent blogs. The stilted and seething tone of some of the defection posts sent me into the ScienceBlogs archives, where I expected to find original insights into science by writers who stress that they are part of, in the blogger Dave Munger’s words, “the most influential science blogging network in the world.” And while I found interesting stuff here and there, I also discovered that ScienceBlogs has become preoccupied with trivia, name-calling and saber rattling. Maybe that’s why the ScienceBlogs ship started to sink.

Some of the same anti-corporate “name-calling” I ran into on ScienceBlogs prompted my earlier post “Corporate Science = Evil Science?” Since then, I’ve had a number of very courteous exchanges with ScienceBlog bloggers who’ve dropped by ÆtherCzar (see for yourself in the comments). They may not have agreed with my opinions, but they calmly and politely expressed their differences.

Certainly, “ScientistBlogs” would probably be more appropriate – Science Blogs is about scientists blogging, not science blogging per se. Scientists are people too and sometimes they have interests other than science. Overall however, I think the “trivia, name-calling and saber rattling” that Hefferman complains about is more the aberration than the rule.

While I’m on the subject though, let me revise and extend on what I said in a comment here.

I understand the widespread dissatisfaction with Seed Media among the ScienceBlogs bloggers was a key factor in the implosion. I understand that some bloggers felt blindsided by Seed Media’s decision. I also understand others were angry with the thought of their blogging forum being shared with a “sponsored” blog that bought its way on instead of having “earned” it. Finally, I understand some were not happy with sharing space with a “paid advertisement” – as they perceived it, no matter what disclaimers or notices Seed Media might put on the blog in full disclosure of the relationship.

But help me out here with a thought experiment…

Suppose Seed Media had agreed to accept FoodFrontiers *without* any sponsorship – the same deal as all the other ScienceBlogs bloggers get. Yes, the blog was lackluster and prone to PR type posts (at least back at the time the implosion happened – they seem to be improving of late). But Seed Media could have made a plausible case that the stable of bloggers at FoodFrontiers included some credible scientists – and could have taken the position that they were willing to let their readers vote with their page views and to either read it or not.

I hypothesize that the reaction would have been similar because I suspect a large portion of the antipathy against Food Frontiers was due to anti-corporate bias. I suspect that while individual corporate scientists who happen to blog might be tolerated, ones officially blogging on behalf of their employers’ science and scientific achievements were considered unacceptable.

I particularly like David Appell’s take on the subject. The biggest tragedy in the entire affair is the lost opportunity for engaging with Pepsi via their Food Frontiers blog within the ScienceBlogs network. Some of that engagement does appear to be occurring over at the Pepsi corporate blog site, so perhaps some good can rise out of the ashes.

Before anyone comments, yes, I’ve seen David Dobbs’ rebutal to David Appell. And I think it largely confirms my point about the role of anti-corporate bias. Dobbs said:

And the most essential merit for exercising this voice, as in other public or quasi-public venues, is that you speak or write for yourself, as an independent agent, and not as a mouthpiece for an organised commercial or political interest.

Do you work for a corporation? Want to share the wonderful work you are doing? Interested in defending yourself and your company against what you believe are wrong-headed attacks? Sorry, there is no place for you as a writer for ScienceBlogs, or the Guardian, or the New York Times, or even the local paper, in Dobbs’ view.  Dobbs speaks nobly of putting the reader’s interests first:

Whether media be old or new, this role as a quasi-public forum lies at its heart. Readers enter this space with that understanding. Credible publishers hire and fire their writers accordingly. We’ll pay you to write and we’ll print your stuff, the publisher says, because we think you’ll do your best to gather the facts and think them through and write things up so the reader can properly understand things. The reader is your client, and the reader’s needs trump all others’. We accept that you’ll make mistakes. But if we find you writing for someone else, or you hold a source’s agenda above that of the reader, we’ll fire your ass.

Oh, come on. If this “reader’s needs trump all other’s” business means anything at all, it means writers and publishers alike should show a modicum of respect for their readers’ good judgment. Let the writer’s potential conflicts be clearly stated so the reader can take this context into account when a writer is promoting his book, publicizing his research, announcing his tours or press appearances, extolling his university, advocating the importance of the area for which he receives funding, or endorsing his corporation’s product. Everyone has interests. It’s part of being human. This notion that corporate interests are inherently evil while academics, scholars, and writers promoting their own personal interests and agendas are inherently good would be laughably silly were it not so widespread. I won’t belabor the points I made in “Corporate Science = Evil Science?” about the virtues of corporations and corporate science.

I don’t think anti-corporate bias was the primary factor in the ScienceBlogs debacle. But to pretend it wasn’t a factor at all seems indefensible.

More on the ScienceBlogs affair:

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