[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.

Cantú: Anatomy of a drug trial

Ever wonder what it would be like to be in a drug trial? Doubtless the experience varies. But the account offered by Austin-American Statesman commentary editor Ana Cantu is unsettling. If nothing else,  it suggests that the very experience of some of these trials is far from normal reality. That’s aside from questions of the integrity of trial design — or what sort of pressures the participants are under to either drop out (if the drug doesn’t seem to be working) or stay in, if it is.

Exactly five years ago, in exchange for the most miserable month of my life, I got paid $4,800 to test the effects of a drug made by GlaxoSmithKline.

You know where you’ve heard the name GlaxoSmithKline recently, right? That’s the company on the verge of losing the approval of the Food and Drug Administration for the diabetes medication Avandia after regulators discovered omissions in a key clinical trial report. On Wednesday, the FDA ordered Glaxo to stop enrolling people in another Avandia trial.

According to a review reassessing the drug’s safety by the FDA’s Dr. Thomas Marciniak, a number of patients taking Avandia appeared to have serious heart problems that were not counted in the study’s tally of adverse events, otherwise known as side effects.

Such repeated mistakes “should not be found even as single occurrences” and “suggest serious flaws with trial conduct,” he wrote.

via Cantú: Anatomy of a drug trial.

Later you get to this part:

July 25: I was pretty excited that I didn’t get sick after my dosings. … I think the secret is to not drink the milk.

A short but riveting read.

It’s sex week at the Loom


We knew it would come to this.

You know you want this.

It’s sex week at the Loom.

So go: Zimmer unzipped, in a manner of sorts. No fear: I’m confident he’ll be well-behaved, fascinating, and eloquent as always. He even scores in the comments, with a pointer to virus sex.  

[Image: mating sand wasps, by Alex Wild, of the beautiful bug blog Myrmecos

For Great Apes, Addressing Inequality is Child’s Play

by Eric Michael Johnson

Ed note: I’m pleased to bring you this guest post from Eric Michael Johnson as part of his Primate Diaries in Exile blog tour. You can follow other stops on Eric’s tour through his RSS feed or at the #PDEx hashtag on Twitter. You can also follow Eric himself at Twitter. — David Dobbs

New research shows that gorillas understand inequality through their play behavior.
Image: William Burrard-Lucas / Flickr

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgIt was already stifling at 9 o’clock in the morning as I frantically took notes on what I was witnessing through my field glasses. Without warning a black, hairy arm reached out to smack an unsuspecting victim, immediately giving way to a frantic chase that roused the entire troop. With teeth bared, the large, muscular ape bared down on his assailant amidst high-pitched screams of excitement before a resounding smack reverberated beneath the canopy and signaled the end of hostilities. Having reciprocated the attack, the young bonobo I had come to know as Aaron then calmly moved away, leaving Jumanji to rub his shoulder and stare at the ground in a way that, should he have been human, would probably be interpreted as nursing a bruised ego. However, as expected, not fifteen minutes would pass before Jumanji was at it again, sneaking up on his older and stronger playmate to tag him and begin the chase anew.

What I had witnessed during my bonobo field research is a common pattern among great apes as a whole. In a behavior seemingly identical to the children’s game of tag, one individual smacks another and then runs away only to reverse the chase once they have been “tagged” themselves. Earlier research had suggested that this kind of play behavior was a way to prepare juveniles for the kind of social interactions they would face as adults. Now, research with gorillas has confirmed this hypothesis and proposes that these great apes are utilizing this game as a way to both challenge inequality and learn important social lessons.

Video of one chase bout taken by Marina Ross at Zoo Zürich in Switzerland.

Writing in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, researchers Edwin Van Leeuwen, Elke Zimmermann, and Marina Davila Ross have shown that gorillas demonstrate an understanding of inequality that they use to modify their behavior under changing social conditions. Rather than my few isolated examples witnessed in a single troop, Van Leeuwen and colleagues have surveyed 86 bouts taking place among six different social groups of gorillas. Furthermore, in their analysis of the data there were several remarkable consistencies that popped up over and over again.

In more than 85% of the play bouts it was the tagger who made the first move to run as well as the one who ran away. This suggests that there was an implicit understanding that the act of tagging resulted in an unequal relationship and that a response from the individual tagged would therefore be expected. In this way, play teaches important social lessons about inequality and how to respond in a social group. “Play allows gorillas to improve their physical and social skills and to learn about their social partners,” Dr. Ross said.

Hitters were significantly more likely to move first and to run away (p = 0.026; 0.004).
Figure from Van Leeuwen et al. (2010).

It may also be that an understanding of inequality is what motivates the tagger in the first place. Not only were gorillas who were lower in the social hierarchy the usual taggers, but they were twice as likely to tag again than were those who were more dominant. This suggests that the game served as a way to challenge inequality and push the envelope as they developed their social behavior within the group as a whole. Furthermore, by learning these lessons through play it serves to avoid the kind of costly aggression that such direct challenges have in adults.

Previous work with great apes has shown that they have the cognitive capacity for this kind of understanding about inequality. Research published earlier this year by Sarah Brosnan showed that chimpanzees will refuse to accept a food reward if the treats were distributed unfairly, even among those who stood to benefit. This refusal to cooperate when faced with an unequal distribution of resources may have its social parallel in these games of tag. By challenging hierarchical boundaries these juveniles are learning the skills that will serve them as adults, behavior that would ultimately be fitness enhancing.

The games our children play often prepare them for the complex social skills they will need as adults, and it would seem we are not alone among the apes in this regard. Considering the attention and effort that children put into determining fairness in their social play, it should not be surprising if the moral lessons gained from these actions were also being learned in our ape cousins.


Van Leeuwen, E., Zimmermann, E., & Ross, M. (2010). Responding to inequities: gorillas try to maintain their competitive advantage during play fights Biology Letters DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.0482


Related at Neuron Culture:

Chimpanzee hunting tactics – an aerial view

The Science of Gossip, in Scientific American

Williams Syndrome, or why are we so social? Plus why the big brain?

and my related article at the Times on Williams syndrome, “The Gregarious Brain“

I’ll be blogging sparely for a bit

Memory Map of London Memory Map of London, by Yersinia

I’ll be blogging lightly for the next month or so, as I move and then settle in to London, take some family time and vacation, and finish a couple of backburnered projects. But not to worry: I’m definitely coming back. I’ll check in now and then during August (see below), I imagine, and I will definitely resume in earnest by September, when I’ll have a splashy announcement to make as well. In the meantime, London calls.

Meantime, take care, and drop a line if you care to, at davidadobbs [at[ gmail.com.

I’ll be posting more regularly on Twitter than here, and likely some lighter fare, and perhaps some travel shots and tidbits, at Somatic Marker (my Posterous account) as well.

Take it away, Joe:


McKenna & Blum (and her Pulitzer) leave ScienceBlogs

Those tired of the ScienceBlog saga, forgive me. This is necessary, for reasons I explain below. But first, the news:

With two very different and eloquent posts, two of ScienceBlogs’ newest and best writers, each of which has published this year a great book, have left ScienceBlogs.

First, Deborah Blum, author of the new The Poisoner’s Handbook and the earlier, incredible Love At Goon Park : Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection:

Writing for all its communal nature requires a comfortable solitude. And for a journalist-blogger like me, that means I write from the self-respecting corner of my life, the place where I work really hard to get it right and am proud not only of the product but of where it appears.

And I just haven’t been able to do that at Sb these days. It’s like trying to write while sitting in a chair with a broken leg. There are lots of ways to write about science – funny or serious, investigative or literary – but it has to be done from a solid platform of mutual respect between writer and reader, blogger and blogging home. I can’t write the stories I want to tell when I’m worried about the integrity of the chair I’m sitting in – and my own integrity along with it.

Very soon after that, Superbug author Maryn McKenna grabbed her coat:

Let me tell you a little story about my first husband.

We met when I was in graduate school. He was a foreign journalist working in America and I interned where he worked. I left town, finished my degree, moved back. We reconnected, got married, and were considered enough of a catch — two sharp young thrusters, an investigative reporter and an editor — to be head-hunted by a large paper in the Midwest.

To defuse romantic nostalgia, it is important to say that he was unsuited to marriage, with outsize appetites for beer and for women who were not me. But he was perfectly adapted to journalism, smart, bold, adored by his staff, and rising up the professional ladder fast enough to leave contrails.

We had not been at that paper very long when stupid actions by his supervisors confronted him with a choice that no one who loves their work wants to make: Stay and be ethically compromised, or leave with intact standards and an empty wallet. He chose to leave, yanking the brakes on his trajectory and blowing up his career.

I’ve always admired that action. I always wondered whether, faced with a similar situation, I’d be that brave.

Which is my way of saying that I’m leaving Scienceblogs.

I track this because it represents not just a major shift in the science blogosphere — the unbundling of one of the first and still the most prominent collection of science bloggers — but a disturbance in the new media landscape as well. ScienceBlogs, like Discover’s excellent collection of bloggers, is a different way of bundling content: Instead of a magazine or a paper in which you get a range of subjects, it’s an online only one-stop place to dive deep into a subject. All these venues — and more are being formed as you read this — are all trying to figure out how to make money, and in doing so, must confront old questions (how to make money in a way that doesn’t compromise content) amid new financial and publications structures. It’s a tough test. Seed Media Group has failed it; they’ve lost the faith of many of their contributors. They’ve killed the goose.

That’s why this is important to follow. Seed succeeded in something else: they brought to prominence a bunch of new voices and created some great (and sometimes not so great) cross-fertilization and conversations. Now the people with those voices are scattered. Some will reconvene in new collective venues. Some may not.

In some ways this resembles the shuffling of writers from magazine to magazine, newspaper to newspaper. Yet it’s more fluid, and it’s not at all certain where this will all go. And while the Net is great for allowing everyone to have a voice, the success of places like ScienceBlogs and Discover’s blogs makes it clear that a certain amount of branding and bundling still creates immense advantage, for both readers and writers. Right now you’re looking at a lot of chaos as various companies and collectives and individuals try to figure out how to make it work both ethically and financially.

Even as I finished: I can’t keep up. Zuska, another strong voice at SB, left as I was finishing this post, offering this amid her explanation.

I just don’t have the heart to do a grand summing up in the manner of Bora or Pal. I will note that this post on Adam Bly’s nascent blog leaves me feeling sad and tired. What does the Science-is-Culture media visionary in the year 2010 have to offer us: hairy old white dudes. And we should bubble over with enthusiasm. Thanks, I’ve had my fill, for this millennium and the last.

Follow Zuska here. My best wishes to all three, and to all those still at ScienceBlogs.

That brings the toll to 18. Carl Zimmer is kindly and efficiently tracking the exodus, with pointers to everyone’s new homes.

And later still: Dave Munger addresses some of these bundling trade-offs. And of course Bora considering the bundling/network effect, well and at length, in his farewell post yesterday. `

The ScienceBlog exodus continues


PalMD, whose early alert to PepsiGate prompted my own early departure, is moving his blog to a new home.

Of Seed Media’s recent recent and not-so-recent blunders, such as (as Bora put it) “things like this andthis and this and this,”, PalMD says:

[Seed’s management[ also showed that they do not consider themselves (or we bloggers) to be “media” or journalists. Whether we like it or not, we are the media, and while we may enjoy a great deal more freedom in style and content than most mainstream media, we cannot claim immunity from their ethics.

It is for these reasons (and others, most of which have been eloquently and completely laid out by Bora Zivkovic) that I’m leaving ScienceBlogs, something I do with great regret. I have gained immeasurably from my association with Sb and with the people here. It has given me incredible opportunities. But despite the advantages in exposure, the fit just isn’t good anymore.

PalMD writes well of the medical, ethical, and personal quandaries facing conscientious physicians. You can follow him at his new digs and/or on Twitter.  

Are bloggers journalists? BoraZ nails this slippery thang to the floor

Bora, in his post announcing his departure from ScienceBlogs, hits the nail on the head:

We here at Scienceblogs, by virtue of moving from our individual blogs to the network, have largely left the realm of “distributed by individuals to each other”. We are the Media. Which means we need to be aware of it, and behave accordingly. This does not mean we have to change anything about our blogging. After all, we were picked and hired in the hope we would continue to do exactly what we were doing with our blogs before the move to Sb. But the same picture of a cat posted on WordPress just for fun, as a hobby, becomes News once posted on Scienceblogs.com. Gotta keep that in mind at all times.

We have built an enormous reputation, and we need to keep guarding it every single day. Which is why the blurring of lines between us who are hired and paid to write (due to our own qualities and expertise which we earned), and those who are paying to have their material published here is deeply unethical. Scientists and journalists share some common ethical principles: transparency, authenticity and truth-telling. These ethical principles were breached. This ruins our reputation, undermines our work, and makes it more unpalatable for good blogger to consider joining Sb in the future. See also Jennifer’s post on this issue for a clear-headed take.

[From A Blog Around The Clock]

As Bora notes, “Gotta keep this in mind at all times.” In the discussion of PepsiGate, quite a few have argued that as ScienceBloggers don’t necessarily think of themselves as journalists, they perhaps need not be as concerned about harm done by breaches in the advertising/editorial wall. This particular section of Bora’s post (his full section is longer, do go see it) articulates well just why such breaches at a site like SB are important. It’s not only because Google News indexes the site. It’s because the group credibility, and the media trappings of the site, if you will — its imprimatur, its ownership by a media group, the authority implicitly given the bloggers because of the relatively elite, select company they’re in — all convey that this is a sort of journalist venture: a collection of writings in which people speak for themselves, and not on behalf of a third party.

Note: later same day that Bora left, PalMD, whose initial alarm first drew my attention and led to my quick departure, said goodbye to ScienceBlogs

London Calling: I’m off to the UK for a year or two

The Geotaggers' World Atlas #2: LondonLondon, via Eric Fisher

You know that Samuel Johnson line about “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”? As I’m packing to move there for a year or two, I was pleased to find, at the splendid site “Samuel Johnson Soundbites,” that it bears even more fully on my own move when given in context:

Boswell and Johnson were discussing whether or not Boswell’s affection for London would wear thin should he choose to live there, as opposed to the zest he felt on his occasional visits. (Boswell lived in Scotland, and visited only periodically. Some people are surprised to learn that Boswell and Johnson were far from inseparable over the last twenty years of Johnson’s life, the period Boswell knew him.)

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”— Samuel Johnson

These are my reasons too: To live in a place richer in intellectual engagement than bucolic Vermont, but novel, and comfortably foreign, in a way that the big cities of the US are not. More proximately, I’m moving to the UK to follow closely some research being done there and nearby for The Orchid and the Dandelion, my book expanding on my Atlantic article “The Orchid Children.”

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