[Updated:] For Virginia Heffernan readers, some context on the Scienceblogs-Pepsi fizz


Virginia Heffernan* takes the ScienceBlogs/Pepsi blowup as the subject of her New York Times Magazine column this week. Before commenting I’ll make three disclosures up top:

I have written and plan on continuing to write for the same magazine, though I think this does not seriously constrain me here;

I’ve enjoyed many of Hefferman Heffernan’s columns, but do not know her;

I appreciate her nice nod to my blog and my writing on PepsiGate.

That said, I found the column problemmatic. I’d love to explain why at at least moderate length — but seeing as I was quite literally fixing to unplug my iMac for my move to London next Tuesday when someone alerted me to her column, I must limit myself for now to a couple brief comments and some context via links. The US Air baggage handlers and UK Border Agency are both quite particular, and I must properly prepare.


Heffernan makes two main points.

1. She found the science blogosphere, esp as represented by ScienceBlogs is cacaphonous and of uneven quality.

My comment: This is neither novel nor surprising.

2. She was “nonplussed by the high dudgeon of the so-called SciBlings” in their reaction to what has become known, more or less tongue-in-cheek, as PepsiGate.

The bloggers evidently write often enough for ad-free academic journals that they still fume about adjacencies, advertorial and infomercials. 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.”

My comment: Obviously I differ with her on this, as I felt strongly enough about Seed’s blunder to leave immediately, before almost anyone else had, and before it was clear the reaction would be both broad and deep. You can read both my quick initial post announcing my departure — A food blog I can’t digest — and a more considered explanation at Why I’m Staying Gone from ScienceBlogs. And as you can read below, I’m not the only one, even among “legacy media,” types (I write for the same sorts of outfits Heffernan does, including the New York Times Magazine), who thought the transgression was serious enough to warrant leaving.


The best single source of context on the ScienceBlogs-Pepsi fracas is probably BoraZ’s A Blog Around the Clock, both because he comments well and because he has amassed a mess of links to commentary about the whole mess.

See esp:

His exit post: A Farewell to Scienceblogs: the Changing Science Blogging Ecosystem

His PepsiGate linkfest, which appears to be the most exhaustive.

His website, well worth tracking, is http://blog.coturnix.org/

Meanwhile, if you want my own short list, see the particularly sharp commentaries or roundups on the meltdown that came from Martin Robbins, Paul Raeburn at Knight Science Journalism Tracker,  the Guardian, and two “legacy media” heavyweights — Carl Zimmer, he of well-deserved NY Times fame, and former Scientific American editor John Rennie — neither of whom seem to share Heffernan casual reaction to ad-ed wall violations.


PS: I hope readers understand that just because the science blogosphere is uneven and chaotic and cacophonous, it does not mean that it lacks high-quality material. The MSM is also uneven and cacophonous, but the best of it is good indeed. So it is outside legacy media. This should be obvious … but sometimes the obvious is worth pointing out.

PPS I truly won’t have much time to monitor this thread, much less respond to it. So if you’ve a perspective to bring to bear in the comments, please do.

PPPS. Two things:

1. As I note below in a comment, Heffernan has some legit points.

2. But as I also note, I think she tosses out too much and overgeneralizes etc. In that sense I share some of the complaints that NeuroDojo just posted at his blog:

Dear Virginia Heffernan,

Your recent New York Times column, “Unnatural Science,” is mostly wrong. You’re going to catch a lot of flak for sentences like this:

(S)cience 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.

If I might mix metaphors, you paint a distorted picture using a broad brush that’s loaded with tar and feathers. There are bloggers who you disagree with? Fine. There are bloggers that you personally dislike and find distasteful? Okay. But to then accuse every science blogger of being a participant in “bloodsport” and engaging in “bigotry”? That’s not fair, Virginia. Possibly even a bit bigoted.

(D)oes 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?

There are many examples of science blogs that do lots of interpreting data and reviewing experiments. You only needed to look at atResearchBlogging.org for a steady stream of posts daily that do just that. (And, incidentally, it’s hosted by the same company that runsScience Blogs, the target of so much of your distaste.) I’m vain enough to think that I do a passable job of reviewing experimentshere on my on blog.

That’s more or less the baby/bathwater problem I refer to.

YET LATER: See too Scott Rosenberg’s (of “Say Everything”) sharp take on Heffernan’s post and PepsiFizz.

And later still: I just fixed my earlier misspellings of Heffernan. My apologies to Ms. Heffernan for the error. I’d always read the name that way and so replicated my error. Some lessons in behavioral science right there.

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