Giving the Lie: Blogs and Scientific Criticism
I have been slowly wading through A Social History of Truth, Steven Shapin’s study of how early modern English gentleman’s etiquette was appropriated for scientific purposes – primarily to help decide who to trust, and to handle disagreements about the nature of the world. While Shapin doesn’t move beyond the context of early modern England or speculate about what modern scientific culture might have inherited from the founders of the Royal Society (doing so properly would be an awful lot of work), he discusses several concepts which I have very much enjoyed comparing to the interactions I see at conferences and department seminars. One of these is the mentita, or “giving the lie”.
A gentleman’s honor is a Big Deal. If you’re a gentleman bluntly accused of lying, the accepted way to clear your honor is to challenge the accuser to a duel. But no one wanted every argument to end in violence, so gentle society also had a well-developed repertoire of ways to deny the truth of others’ remarks without actually delivering a mentita and escalating the situation. Shapin quotes one advice book as follows (I modernized the spelling):
If I say unto another man, Thou saiest not true, thereby I reprove him, and consequently offer injury: but if I say, That which thou saiest is not true, that speech is not injurious, and may be without burden of him unto whom it is spoken.
Scientists do not fight duels, but the care with which we phrase our criticism occasionally reaches a similar level of hairsplitting absurdity. Our professional reputations are built on our ability to make true statements about the world, and even though everyone makes mistakes, being wrong is a Big Deal*. Criticism should be leveled only with a great deal of thought and care, both because the target of our criticism will lose face, and because we might be wrong and boy wouldn’t that be embarrassing.
Bloggers, on the other hand, breathe fire. We accuse each other of being wrong all the time, in the wittiest and most forceful manner possible. Many of us want to fight duels – it boosts our hit counts and it’s way more fun than watching paint dry. In blogging (and this may apply more to political blogging than to science blogging, but let’s not pretend we haven’t inherited a certain amount of culture here) it’s far more important to be original and thought-provoking than it is to be right**.
You can see the tension here.
This cultural conflict been making the rounds of the geoblogosphere thanks to a pair of editorials in Nature Geoscience on the pros and cons of blogging. See RealClimate and Highly Allochthonous for summaries, Kim (who talks about fact-checking before teaching undergraduates), Chris again (with diagrams!), and James Annan for further discussion. (Incidentally: I am sure the various editors of the Nature Publishing Group are too dignified and professional to dance around their offices going “Oh yeah, baby, who controls the discourse? We control the discourse! UNGH!”… but when was the last time a blog post sparked a rambling article in the pages of EOS or Geology?)
This is not just about the possibility that a blogger’s ill-considered criticism will mislead the public. Misleading the public is bad, but we can say misleading nice things about a paper, or do a misleading job of translating a paper into lay terms, just as easily as we can say misleading nasty things. While RBH is the only one who’s explicitly suggested a double standard, the discussion of what, if anything, this means for bloggers has so far been focused almost exclusively on the example of a critical blog entry, rather than an overenthusiastic one.
I’m going to set up a dichotomy here. We have fact-checking obligations, which apply to everything we write, mean or nice (it’s actually in the ScienceBlogs contract – “use your best efforts to ensure that all facts and statements in [your blog] are true”). We also have obligations of courtesy to the fellow scientists whose work we are discussing. What’s the mannerly way to say something mean? Do we use a different set of manners for delivering a mentita than when we’re just pouting ’cause someone forgot to cite our latest paper?
I don’t know. I’ve been blogging longer than any of those whippersnapper punks at RealClimate, but I have not been fully trained as either a scientist or a journalist; when it comes to matters of professional culture and courtesy outside the blogosphere I’m basically content to heed my elders (after a token bit of sass, just to maintain my image – you old fogies get offa my Internet cyberlawn!). I just don’t think it does us any good to conflate courtesy with fact-checking.
*There’s a competing career strategy, where you throw out as many nutty ideas as possible in the hopes that one or two will pay off. If that’s your approach then being wrong is less of a big deal… but it’s not everyone’s approach. And even if it’s okay when nutty, speculative proposals turn out not to be true, there are still lots of ways for them to be embarrassingly implausible or badly-formulated or poorly-supported.
**It’s still important to be correct, but as long as we are clearly demarcating our facts from our speculative inferences then the blogosphere is generally forgiving of our overstated opinions and flights of fancy.