There was a good reason why the form and format, as well as the rhetoric of the scientific paper were instituted the way they were back in the early days of scientific journals. Science was trying to come on its own and to differentiate itself from philosophy, theology and lay literature about nature. It was essential to develop a style of writing that is impersonal, precise, sharply separating data from speculations, and that lends itself to replication of experiments.
The form and format of a scientific paper has evolved towards a very precise and very universal state that makes scientist-to-scientist communication flawless. And that is how it should be, and at least some elements of style and form (if not format) will remain once the scientific paper breaks down spatially and temporally and becomes a dynamic ongoing communication – clarity and precision will always be important.
But that is strictly technical communication between scientists in the same research field. How about communication between scientists in far-away fields, between scientists and lay audience, or among the educated lay-people? How about communication between scientific colleagues outside of peer-reviewed papers? This is where we are seeing the biggest changes right now and not everyone’s happy. And the debate is reminiscent of the debate in mainstream journalism.
Until pretty recently, the informal communication between scientists was limited to Letters To The Editor of scientific journals, conferences and invited seminars. In all three of those venues, the formal rhetoric of science remained. Fine, but….
Part of training in the academia is training in rhetoric. As you go up the ladder of academic science, you are evaluated not just by the quality of your research (or teaching, in some places), but also in how well you mastered the formalized kabuki dance of the use of Scientese language. The mastery of Scientese makes one part of the Inside club. It makes one identifiable as the Member of this club. The Barbarians at the Gate are recognizable by their lack of such mastery – or by refusal to use it. And it is essential for the Inside Club to make sure that the Barbarians remain at the Gate and are never allowed inside.
Academic science is a very hierarchical structure in which one climbs up the ladder by following some very exact steps. Yes, you can come into it from the outside, class-wise, but you have to start from the bottom and follow those steps “to the T” if you are to succeed. But those formal steps were designed by Victorian gentlemen scientists, thus following those steps turns one into a present-time Victorian gentleman scientist. But not everyone can or wants to do this, yet some people who refuse are just as good as scientists as the folks inside the club. If you refuse to dance the kabuki, you will be forever kept outside the Gate.
The importance of mastery of kabuki in one’s rise through the hierarchy also means that some people get to the top due to their skills at glad-handling the superiors and putting down the competitors with formalized language, not the quality of their research or creativity of their thought. Those who rose to the top due to being good at playing the game know, deep inside, they do not deserve that high position on merit alone. And they will be the loudest defenders of the system as it has historically been – they know if the changes happen, and people get re-evaluated for merit again, they will be the first to fall. This is the case in every area (mainstream journalism, business, politics, etc.), not just academic science.
Insistence on using the formalized kabuki dance in science communication is the way to keep the power relations intact. Saying “don’t be angry” is the code for “use the rhetoric at which I excel so I can destroy you more easily and protect my own spot in the hierarchy”. It is an invitation to the formal turf, where those on the inside have power over those who cannot or will not use the kabuki dance. This has always been the way to keep women, minorities and people from developing countries outside the club, waiting outside the Gate. If, for reasons of your gender, race, nationality or class you are uncomfortable doing the kabuki dance, every time you enter the kabuki contest you will lose and the insider will win. The same applies outside science, e.g., to mainstream journalism and politics.
This is why some people in the academic community rant loudly against science bloggers. If they cannot control the rhetoric, they fear, often rightly, that they will lose. Outside their own turf, they feel vulnerable. And that is a Good Thing.
The debates about “proper” language exist on science blogs themselves. See this and this for recent examples (the very best discussion was on this post which is now mysteriously missing). In response I wrote:
We here at Sb are often accused of being cliquish and insular. But if you look at our 70+ blogs and dig through the archives, you will see that we rarely comment on each other’s blogs – most (99%?) of the comments come from outside readers. Also, most of our links point to outside of Sb. On the other hand, NN [Nature Network] is specifically designed to be a community (not a platform for independent players) and almost all of the comments there are from each other. Thus, it is easy for them to maintain a high level of politeness there (this is not a bad thing – this is how they designed it on purpose). It is much harder to harness the hordes of pharyngulites that spill over to all of our blogs – and I do not mind them at all, I think they make the debate spirited and in a way more honest by bypassing superficial niceness and going straight to the point. This may also have something to do with NN bloggers mainly being in the academia, while a large proportion of SciBlings are ex-academia, journalists, artists, etc. with a different rhetoric. The rhetoric of academia is a very formalized kabuki dance, while the rhetoric of the blogosphere has shed all formalities and is much more reminiscent to the regular everyday oral conversation.
Remember the Roosevelts on Toilets saga? The biggest point of contention was the suggestion by the authors of the paper to the bloggers to move the discussion away from blogs to a more formal arena of letters to the editor. We, the bloggers, fiercely resisted this, for the reasons I spelled above – in the letters to the editor, the Insiders have power over the Outsiders because it is their turf. No, if we want to have a non-kabuki, honest discussion, we will have it out here on the blogs, using our rhetoric, because the honest language of the modern Web places everyone on the even ground – it does not matter who you are, what degrees you have, or how well you’ve learned to dance the kabuki: it is what you say, the substance, that counts. This is why being pseudonymous online works, while academia requires full names and degrees. The Web evaluates you directly, by what you write. The academia uses “tags” – your name and degree – to evaluate you. The academia is in the business of issuing credentials, the stand-ins for quality. The credentials are rough approximations of quality – more often then not they work fine, but they are not 100% foolproof. And if one is insecure about one’s own quality, one would insist on using credentials instead of quality. The use of “proper” rhetoric is, as I said above, a good quick-and-dirty way to recognize credentials.
During the Roosevelt saga, I wrote this post very, very carefully, with a specific purpose in mind. First, I went to great effort to explain the science at length and as simply, clearly and conclusively as possible. This performed several functions for me: first, to establish my own credentials, second, to make my readers understand the science and thus be on “my side” in the comments, and third, to make sure I was as complete about science as possible so as to not have to talk about science at all in the comments. Apart from science, I also included several snarky comments about the authors which served as bait – I wanted them to come and post comments. And they bit. Go read the comment thread there to see what was happening. The author insisted on discussing science. I insisted on refusing to talk about science (to him, I did respond a little bit to some other commenters) and to talk about rhetoric instead.
But first, in a comment I posted even before the authors showed up, in order to set the stage for what I wanted, I wrote this:
In an earlier post, burried deep inside, is this thought of mine:
The division of scientists into two camps as to understanding of the Web is obvious in the commentary on PLoS ONE articles (which is my job to monitor closely). Some scientists, usually themselves bloggers, treat the commentary space as a virtual conference – a place where real-time oral communication is written down for the sake of historical record. Their comments are short, blunt and to the point. Others write long treatises with lists of references. Even if their conclusions are negative, they are very polite about it (and very sensitive when on the receiving end of criticism). The former regard the latter as dishonest and thin-skinned. The latter see the former as rude and untrustworthy (just like in journalism). In the future, the two styles will fuse – the conversation will speed up and the comments will get shorter, but will still retain the sense of mutual respect (i.e., unlike on political blogs, nobody will be called an ‘idiot’ routinely). It is important to educate the users that the commentary space on TOPAZ-based journals is not a place for op-eds, neither it is a blog, but a record of conversations that are likely to be happening in the hallways at conferences, at lab meetings and journal clubs, preserved for posterity for the edification of students, scientists and historians of the future.
What happened on Dr.Isis’ blog is very similar – a clash of two cultures. I think that the picture of the Teddy Bear on the potty was a clever and funny shorthand for your point. If you did it about something I published, I’d laugh my ass off. But I can see how the uptight strain of the scientists would balk at it. It is them, though, who need to get up to speed on the changed rhetoric of science. The straight-laced, uber-formal way of writing in science is on its way out.
The rhetoric, even after it completely modernizes, will still have four concentric circles: the paper itself will always be more formal, especially the Materials/Methods and Results sections due to the need for precision; the letters to the editor will remain pretty formal, but not as formal as they are now; the comments on the paper itself will be still less formal but still polite; the commentary on the trackbacked blogs will be freewheeling, funny and to-the-point, just like yours was, not mealy-mouthing with politeness on the surface and destructive hatred underneath, but honest and straightforward. So, if it is crap, what better way to say it than with a picture of a Teddy Bear on a potty – much more lighthearted and polite than saying it politely, and less devastating for the paper’s authors as it takes their mistake lightly instead of trying to destroy their reputation forever.
The point that both Dr.Isis and I made is that the paper is neat, experimental method sound, data are good, but the interpretation is crap. Now, having a couple of crappy paragraphs in an otherwise good paper is not the end of the world. A paper is not some kind of granite monument with The Truth writ in stone. It is becoming a living document (with comments on the paper and tracbacked blogs), and it has always been a part of a greater living document – the complete literature of a field. That is how science works.
It is hard to know which paper will persist and which one will perish in the future, what sentence will turn out to be a gem of prophetic wisdom, and which one is crap. People publish a lot of stuff, some better than other.
Making a mistake in one paper is not the end of one’s career. But many people perceive criticism as if they are just about to be sent out to join a leper colony. This is, in part, due to the formal rhetoric of science: outwardly polite, but underneath it is an attempt to destroy the person. In comparison, a light-hearted joke with a Teddy Bear acknowledges the failability of humans, allows for everyone to make a mistake and move on (we all shit, don’t we?). It is actually much more normal, and much less dangerous for one’s career to receive such a funny form of criticism than a formal-looking destruction of all our work and our personna.
In the next comment I did the one and only hat-tip to science, then moved onto the territory I wanted – rhetoric (many comments, so go and read them all now). As a result, Dr. Janszky grokked it – and we’ll probably see more of him in the blogosphere in the future. The reason he grokked it is because he is confident in his own qualities – he can change the rhetoric and tone and still not lose the debate because he knows what he’s talking about. Those who know they do not have the quality, would just have ranted harder and harder, complaining about the tone. Dr. Janszky adopted the bloggy tone in the comments right then and there. Which was a victory for everybody.
The informal rhetoric of blogs is a form of subversion – breaking the Gate and letting the Barbarians in (while not allowing quacks and Creationist to hitch a ride inside as well – which is why so many science bloggers focus on those potential free-riders and parasites). What we are doing is leveling the playing field, pointing out the inherent dishonesty of the formalized rhetoric, and calling a space a spade. This is a way to make sure that smart, thoughtful people get heard even if they did not have a traditional career trajectory, or refuse to play the Inside club games. If some of the insiders fall down in the process, that’s a good thing – they probably did not deserve to be up in the first place.
Different bloggers do this in different ways. We can use a brilliant, but snarky use of English (PZ Myers), or texting/LOLCat snark (Abbie), or awe and reverence for the great scientists of old (Mo), or sexual innuendo (SciCurious), or shoes (Dr.Isis), or a light-hearted sense of humor (Ed or Darren), or excessive use of profanity (PhysioProf). What we all do is write in unusual, informal ways. We want to shock. We feel there are many people out there who need a jolt, an injection of reality. We do it by using informal language. And this can be very powerful – just see how the dinosaurs squirm when they read some of our posts! But that’s the point. We are testing them: if, like Dr. Janszky, you “get it”, this means that you have the balls, which means you are confident about your own qualities independent from your credentials. If you keep ranting about “dirty, angry bloggers”….what are you so insecure about? Why are you so afraid of being shown a fraud if you are not? Or, are you?
Another point about blogs, which I alluded above already, is the time-frame. This is a very important point that is often forgotten in the scientists vs. bloggers “let’s be polite” debates. In the formal arenas (Letters, conferences, etc.), where formal language is used, the game some people play is to use an outwardly seemingly polite language to write or say something that is designed to destroy a career. Often in multiple places over a stretch of time. On blogs, when we snarkily attack you, our purpose is to teach a lesson (more to our readers than the scientists in question who may not even know the blog post was written). In other words, it is a one-time thing that is designed to correct a single error, not an attempt at destroying a career.
For good recent examples of the way scientists use the formal venues as well as formal language to destroy each other, see this and this (I have seen more on PLoS ONE, but don’t want to draw your attention to those right now, for professional reasons – keeping my job).
I post 8.2 posts per day on this blog, on a large variety of topics. Do you really think I have the time, energy and interest to study in great detail the life-time achievements of everyone who did something wrong on the Internet? Of course not. I see an article that says something stupid and I shoot a post that shows how stupid it is, so the readers, especially if the deconstruction of stupidity requires some expertise I may have and most people don’t, can see why that particular argument is wrong. Then I move on to the next post on some completely different topic. I have forgotten about your existence in about a nanosecond after publishing that post. I have no interest in destroying your career, but I understand that you are touchy – the life in academia, with its poisonous kabuki game, has trained you to defend yourself against every single little criticism because, underneath the veneer of civility is the career-damaging attack by someone powerful who is hell-bent on destroying you. We don’t do that on blogs. We don’t care enough to do that (unless you are a dangerous peddler of pseudoscience or medical quackery). We want to educate the lay audience and have fun doing it. I have no idea if everything else you have written before and after is brilliant and I don’t care – I think that this one stupid paragraph you wrote is good blogging material, amusing, edifying and useful to use to educate the lay audience. You are NOT the target personally. Your stupid argument is. And I don’t care if that was your one-off singular mistake in life, or an unusually bad moment for you. So, don’t take it personally. This is not academia. We are, actually, honest here on the intertubes, and you need to learn to trust us.
The attempts at character assassinations within academia, by using the formalized kabuki language by the powerful and forcing the powerless to adopt the same and thus be brought to slaughter, do not happen only in print. They also happen in person. Read this and this for a recent example of a senior researcher trying to publicly destroy a younger, female colleague at a meeting. And he was wrong. But he was powerful and intimidating. I wish the young woman responded by going outside of formal kabuki dance, shocking the audience in one way or another, giving all the present colleagues a jolt, making them listen and perhaps notice what is happening. Or, if she was shy, I wish some senior male colleague did the same for her and put the old geezer in his place. I wrote a comment:
“Tone it down” and “Why are you so angry?” are typical sleazy tactics used by a person in power over a person not in power. It was used against people of other races, against women, against gays, against atheists – this is the way to make their greivances silent and perpetuate the status quo, the power structure in which they are on the top of the pecking order. The entire formal, convoluted, Victorian-proper discourse one is supposed to use in science is geared towards protecting the current power structure and the system that perpetuates it. Keeping the dissenters down and out. Bur sometimes, anger, or snark, or direct insult, are the jolt that the system needs and it will have to come from the people outside the power structure, and it would have to occur often and intensely until they start paying attention.
And then, there is the area in between scientists and lay audience. The job of translating Scientese into English (or whatever is the local language) has traditionally been done by professional science journalists. Unfortunately, most science journalists (hats off to the rare and excellent exceptions) are absolutely awful about it. They have learned the journalistic tools, but have no background in science. They think they are educated, but they only really know how to use the language to appear they are educated. Fortunately for everyone, the Web is allowing scientists to speak directly to the public, bypassing, marginalizing and pushing into extinction the entire class of science “journalists” because, after all, most scientists are excellent communicators. And those who are, more and more are starting to use blogs as a platform for such communication.
The problem is, the professional science journalists also love to put down the blogs and use the paternalistic “tone it down” argument. But, unlike the political journalists who are incapable of seeing the obvious (stuck too far inside Cheney’s rectum to see what we all could see?), the science journalists have the added problem of not having the expertise for their job in the first place. In politics, everyone with the brain, not just journalists, could see that excuses for going to Iraq were lame. But in science journalism, there exist out there people with real expertise – the scientists themselves – who now have the tools and means to bypass you and make you obsolete because you cannot add any value any more.
To the list that includes MSM “journalists” aka curmudgeouns like Richard Cohen, Sarah Boxer, Andrew Keen, Lee Siegel, Michael Skube, Neil Henry and many others, we can now add curmudgeounly science journalists George Johnson and John Horgan as well – just listen to this!!!!! Yes go an listen before you come back. If you can stand it. But if I suffered through it, you can, too. I am a pretty calm kind of guy, but listening to that “dialogue” filled me with rage – I felt insulted, my intelligence insulted, and my friends insulted. Frankly, I’ve heard smarter science-related conversations from the drunks in rural Serbian bars.
I’ve been in this business (both science and science communication) for a long time, but I have never heard of George Johnson until today. From what I saw in that clip, I have not missed anything. Where does his smugness come from then? As for John Horgan, I’ve heard of him – he earned his infamy when he published – and was instantly skewered and laughed at by anyone with brains – his book “The End of Science”, arguably one of the worst and most misguided books about science (outside of Creationist screeds) ever. Where is his humbleness after such a disaster? Why is he not hiding in the closet, but instead shows up in public and appears – smug. Some people just have no self-awareness how stupid they appear when they behave as if they have authority yet they don’t and it’s obvious. What is it about professional journalists that makes them have illusions they are educated? “No, I am not a scholar but I play one on TV” turns into “Since I can transcribe and read smart stuff I must be really smart myself”.
Luckily, bloggers have no qualms about defending themselves – please read this gorgeous smack-down by Abbie, this older post by Ed in which he explains exactly what he meant, and perhaps this old post of mine which also, in a circuitous way, predicts the extinction of science journalistic dinosaurs.
But perhaps I shouldn’t be that nasty to Johnson and Horgan? After all, my blogging schtick is niceness. This makes it very easy for me to destroy someone – on those rare occasions when someone like me, renowned for endless patience, flies off the handle, people sit up and pay attention. If I use profanity to describe someone, that one probably richly deserves it. I know I have to use this power with prudence. If I attack someone full-blast, people will tend to believe me, as I rarely do that kind of stuff. And if you subsequently Google that name, my blogpost about him/her is likely to be the #1 hit on the search, or in the top ten.
Perhaps Johnson and Horgan are actually nice and smart guys. They may be nice to their wives and kids. Perhaps they wrote, 30 years ago, something really smart. But I have no interest in digging around for that. I want to finish this post and move on. And after watching this movie, I really have no motivation to search for anything else by these two guys as it appears to be a waste of my time. It does not appear to me like a bad-day, one-off mistake that everyone sometimes makes. It is 30 minutes of amazing ignorance and arrogance at display – probably sufficient material to make me doubt I’d ever find anything smart penned by them in the past, so why should I bother with them at all? I can probably evaluate their qualifications quite accurately from these 30 minutes and safely conclude they equal zero. Their “angry bloggers” shtick was the first give-away they know deep inside they are irrelevant and on their way out. Their subsequent chat about science was amateurish at best, no matter how smug their facial expressions at the time.
Perhaps if we remove those middle-men and have scientists and the public start talking to each other directly, then we will have the two groups start talking to each other openly, honestly and in an informal language that is non-threatening (and understood as such) by all. The two sides can engage and learn from each other. The people who write ignorant, over-hyping articles, the kinds we bloggers love to debunk (by being able to compare to the actual papers because we have the background) are just making the entire business of science communication muddled and wrong. Please step aside.
Update: Brian, Greg, Ed, Dr.Isis, Mike Brotherton, Hank and Larry chime in on this discussion as well. More: Alex, Chris Mooney, Mike, Chad, Eric Wolff, Stephanie and Tom Levenson, Sabine and Tom again.