Saturday, January 30, 2010

Rude Scientists

This series is about science communication.  We now have so many wonderful outlets to share our excitement and fascination with science: websites, blogs, YouTube, Twitter, etc.  How do we come across to the general public in these venues? Serious or Fun-loving? Boring or Interesting? Lackadaisical or Enthusiastic?  Respectful or Rude?  We each must develop a "voice", which is not necessarily the same for all scientists.  I don't think we should all be deadly serious and focused entirely on facts and figures.  There is room for many different styles that are informative, yet entertaining. 

Blogs are great for giving others a glimpse into how scientists think and the idea that we are not all total nerds.  Blogs are also helpful to aspiring scientists by providing some insight into the highs and lows that are encountered in our profession (reality check) as well as to provide some helpful guidance here and there (mentoring).  Blogs can convey guidance and information that is not taught in school or can be found easily in books.

However, I’ve noticed in the blogosphere that some science bloggers gain notoriety by engaging in negative rants, heavily laden with cursing and rude attacks on anyone with a different opinion. You probably know which blogs I’m talking about. Some have huge followings, probably because readers mistakenly think that an angry voice is bound to be a truthful one. Instead of expending effort to develop an intelligent, interesting, or useful voice, these angry bloggers use their vitriol as an easy way to attract attention. Take a close look at some of these blogs, and you will see that very little real information or useful insight is conveyed.

I sometimes wonder if these negative bloggers behave equally rudely in real life among colleagues. I also wonder if their followers in the blogosphere would put up with them in person.  I think not, because most rude and obnoxious people are ostracized or at least avoided by co-workers and acquaintances.  

I’m not advocating that bloggers should (figuratively) sit around the campfire holding hands and singing Kumbaya, but to take the time to develop a positive voice.  One can point out problems and have disagreements without all the acrimony and sarcasm.  This is important, because how science bloggers behave can influence how scientists are perceived by the public.  Most people have never met a scientist and never will.  Their only insight into what a scientist might be like is through media interviews, film, and now blogs.  The public's perception of scientists has been generally good in the past, but mainly because we were believed to be honest, dedicated, unbiased--all admirable traits.  However, this could easily change as more and more people become "acquainted" with scientists through blogs and other venues.

I’m hoping some science blogs with respectful hosts will ultimately gain similarly large and loyal followers as the ranters.

(Fortunately, I could not find a photo of scientists in a fist-fight to illustrate this post.  So I used one of rowdy politicians.)


biochem belle said...

There is an editorial up at The Scientist on this topic.

Something I noticed in the comments is the distinction among some between scientists debating science and scientists debating governance. It comes across as though it's ok (at least to some commenters) to be abusive in the latter.

Another issue that falls out is the distinction between passion and disrespect. Some seem to view them as one and the same, but passion does not breed rudeness. Heated debates need not disintegrate into disrespect. When they do IRL, typically neither side is listening to what the other has to say, and it's time to walk away.

Aurora said...

I did notice that and it bothers me which is why I go offline so frequently. I'm not sure I want anyone knowing I'm part of this blogging community. That and also as I mention in my most recent post I don't want my current students to see my political views or difficulties on the job. A class of fifty is bound to have people with very different views from mine and it just gets awkward.