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.


  1. CJ wrote:

    This is really cool. Especially for non-scientist types like me.

  2. Kim wrote:

    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.

    Bwah! That sounds like the early modern advice on How To Avoid a Flame War: “Personal attacks are bad.” (Is there an equivalent of “Don’t Feed the Trolls”?)

    And that’s a good point about the discussion focusing on incorrect criticism, rather than on incorrect praise. (The blogosphere does attack incorrect praise about articles, but I, at least, am more likely to bluntly criticize articles in the mainstream media than I am to criticize other geobloggers.)

    And I have no idea what would constitute both good manners and effective blogging. I think it’s an important thing to figure out, though, especially for the many junior scientists who are also bloggers. (Scientists may not fight duels… but they review grant proposals and papers, and they write letters of recommendation for jobs and for tenure. They might not deliberately wreck a career, but one less-than-effusive letter can make the difference between unemployment and tenure. There’s a social game as well as a drive to produce good work that holds up under scrutiny.)

  3. PhysioProf wrote:

    Nice post, Maria!

    I agree wholeheartedly that bloggers who adopt the journalistic voice of factual reporting are obligated to make a reasonable effort at getting their facts correct, and to correct themselves when their ostensibly factual reporting turns out to be incorrect or misleading. In fact, I have taken other ScienceBloggers to task for failures to fulfill this obligation (Hi, Greg!).

    On the other hand, of course, expressions of opinion are not subject to this same obligation. And I believe strongly that there is a higher-level obligation for bloggers to clearly distinguish when they are using the factual-reporting voice and when they are using the expressing-opinion voice.

    To amplify on something else you said, about the distinction between being “correct” and being “interesting”, this also applies to the conduct of science itself.

    It is essential that one’s experiments be “correct” in the sense that performing the same experiment in the same way leads to the same result no matter when the experiment is performed or who performs it. In other words, the data need to be valid.

    But it is not at all important that one’s interpretation of the data–from the standpoint of posing a hypothesis that is consistent with the data–turns out to be correct or not. All that matters is that the hypothesis that is posed be “interesting”, in the sense of pointing the way to further illuminating experiments.

    I spend a lot of time with my trainees on this distinction, because some of them tend to be so afraid of being “wrong” in their interpretations that they effectively refuse to interpret their data at all, and their hypotheses are nothing more than restatements of the data themselves. This makes it easy to be “correct”, but impossible to think creatively about where to go next.

    As an aside, this is why I find it so pathetic to see scientists who are emotionally invested in their hypotheses being “proved correct”, instead of treating them as tools whose utility is in leading to further interesting experiments. This results in the embarrassing spectacle of a laboratory posing an interesting, somewhat speculative, hypothesis that leads clearly to definitive experiments that could rule out the hypothesis, but then never performing those experiments out of fear that their hypothesis will, indeed, be ruled out.

    Sometimes scientists dance around their hypothesis like this for years, even decades, never doing the definitive experiments. And other people start to talk: “Maybe they really did the experiment, and didn’t like the answer, so they are suppressing it.” It is sad to scientists get seduced into this kind of pernicious wackaloonery. Do not fall in love with your hypotheses.

    I hope that Janet will weigh in on this, as I’m sure she has some interesting thoughts on the topic.

  4. Maria wrote:

    I believe strongly that there is a higher-level obligation for bloggers to clearly distinguish when they are using the factual-reporting voice and when they are using the expressing-opinion voice.

    I think this distinction is overrated. I mean, if you watch Fox News, you’ll see a string of more-or-less correct factual statements used in a clearly biased and opinionated way. This is not because the reporters should have switched to “opinion voice”, but because the selective presentation (and perhaps even “framing”) of facts is a really great way to introduce bias. Fox is egregious about this (plus, since their biases are all wrong, they are easier to notice), but reporting can’t be done without at least a little bit of subjective judgment about what you think is important/interesting.

    My old job had a phrase for this, for our legal projects: “Objective, but not impartial”.

    Scientists have fairly strong cultural norms of impartiality (or at least disinterestedness) and bloggers have zero – I think at most we have a norm of being up-front about your biases. Both scientists and bloggers are supposed to be objective, though, at least when we are speaking in a manner which can be reasonably construed as “fact voice”.

  5. Eric wrote:

    I think this post is interesting, and I agree for the most part that people in sciences are very hesitant to tell someone that they are wrong. However, some of my most memorable interactions have been with those individuals, whether through cultural differences or personality, will just come out and say what they think.

    In particular, there was a Russian assistant professor in the same laboratory as me. He made every single one of my experiments better, because if I didn’t have it *perfect* he would tell me I was wrong. I respected him for this, but it made it hard to share data with him, unless I had vetted it completely.

    Being wrong in science is OKAY and will happen to you if you work for long enough. I think the more important thing is to be able to own up to your mistakes and correct the literature by publishing follow up articles….even if a study showing a group of antibodies bind something totally different than was intended is not very sexy.

  6. PhysioProf wrote:

    I posted on this topic at DrugMonkey, so if anyone wants to join the discussion over there, here’s the link:

  7. Zuska wrote:

    I love the observation about controlling the discourse. Right on target. Great post!

  8. Andrew wrote:

    I’m a science writer with a geology degree, plus enough osmosis from real scientists that I have the proper scientific attitude: I’m happy to be told I’m wrong, because that makes me better. But don’t EVER tell me I’m stupid. After all, Newton was wrong, Einstein was wrong, but they published interesting science.

    I’ll always remember the time I saw Hannes Alfvén getting a medal from the AGU. The citationist laid it on pretty thick–Alfvén was one of those people with a lot of crazy ideas, some of them right. He got up and said thanks, and presented some more crazy ideas about upper-atmospheric science that I couldn’t follow. And the distinguished old-timers around me were smiling and shaking their heads with relish. They loved the idea that they might be wrong; they loved the jousting and upheaval that he had brought to his field. But that kind of openness is difficult to acquire and hard to hold into late life.

  9. Ford wrote:

    If a hypothesis you proposed turns out to be wrong, that’s progress. Falsifying data slows progress. See the difference?

  10. Lab Lemming wrote:

    “Scientists do not fight duels”


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