Field of Science

The demise of SciAmBlogs

So I hear that SciAmBlogs is undergoing a radical overhaul and shedding no less than half of its bloggers, many of whom have been with the network since its inception. This includes many whose thought-provoking writings I respect - even though I don't always agree with them - like Janet Stemwedel and Eric Michael Johnson.

It's a shame really, because I think the network had really distinguished itself as one of the few blogging networks in the world whose bloggers had vibrant, independent voices and who were not afraid to write provocative posts. That being said, I don't have a problem seeing the logic of this move at all: after what happened during the last one year, it is clear that the network wants to repair what it sees as a broken image, wants to avoid dealing with even ten clamorous voices on Twitter, wants to stay away even from interesting controversy and - the importance of this aspect of any issue can never be underestimated - wants to please the lawyers. The rigors of maintaining a hundred and fifty year old organization's image are apparently much harder than the rigors of sustaining a diverse set of opinions and the accompanying freedom of speech.

However it is equally clear that by embarking on this new identity the site has picked safe over interesting and independent and has lost its reputation as a vibrant and diverse community of independent voices which you may not always agree with but whose views always provided food for thought. This is abundantly obvious from the new "guidelines" issued by the network - a veritable school headmaster's list of dos and donts combined with a palpable dash of Orwellian doublespeak - which prohibit its bloggers from hosting guest posts or writing "outside" their areas of expertise without consulting with the editors. In doing this SciAmBlogs has reduced its bloggers to - in physicist Sean Carroll's words - underpaid journalists and effectively dissuaded them from exploring new horizons. A blogger who gets paid a paltry sum of money every month for writing "safe" posts that won't get even a handful of people on Twitter riled up and are considered kosher by the editors is indeed no longer a real blogger, and I can definitely see why many of the network's previous writers quit instead of relinquishing their independence. 

Fortunately for the sake of the network some excellent bloggers whose writings I really enjoy, like Jennifer Ouellette, have stayed and I wish these folks good luck, but it's also clear they know what they are in for. There are also other specialists like Darren Naish who writes superbly on paleontology and prehistory. But these people are hedgehogs - acknowledged experts in specific subject areas. A science network truly worth its name needs both hedgehogs and foxes - people who like to muck around and explore other topics rather than mainly drill deep into one. They may not offer definitive answers but you can count on them to ask thought-provoking and even provocative questions. The network has now retained a few hedgehogs but it has lost all its foxes. The loss of foxes has greatly diminished the diversity of the ecosystem. 

In one sense the whole shebang was never the same since Bora Zivkovic left, but it really took recent events to bring it to this precipitous edge. In one sense this is a good decision since the site has now decided where the lines are drawn. The sad thing is that - for all its supposed emphasis on diversity - it has done the opposite and chose to draw the lines on the side of corporate approval instead of diverse opinion (and speaking of diversity, as this post on SciLogs noted, it's also interesting that most of the blogs which were cut - even for reasons other than low frequency of posting - were written by women). When it comes to maintaining diversity, the site has effectively gone the way of "We had to destroy the village in order to save it". I wish the remaining bloggers there good luck, but I doubt the environment will ever be the unique forum for independent voices and vigorous debate that it once was. Scientific American's Blog Network will probably survive in some form or another, but SciAmBlogs as it once stood is now over.

I leave the last word to Yana Eglit who wrote for the network for a long time and who sees in this unfortunate but predictable development a larger symptom of our collective woes, on SciAmBlogs as well as on social media in general. The whole thing is eminently worth reading so I quote here at length (the italics are mine):
"Social media has a powerful tendency towards homogenising opinions into a flavourless monolithic blob. While many who use social media are clearly and sincerely interested in promoting diversity, it is a bitter irony that the platform itself suppresses it. Dissenting opinions get transformed to strawmen and people become literal [insert favourite tyrants here]. Instead of trying to understand why someone you consider reasonable wrote something (in the case of twitter, in 140 characters!) so apparently shocking, and giving them the benefit of the doubt, you immediately jump to the conclusion that they are against whatever cause is in question. And the causes in question are usually far too complex to have a single position on. Especially one measured in not even words, but characters. 
But no benefits of the doubt are given — you stray from the path, you’re obviously up to no good. And you get axed. This breeds a form of conservatism — the group as a whole becomes too terrified to say something that will be misunderstood, and what could be a diverse discussion by multiple people of varied backgrounds becomes an echo chamber, a ‘circlejerk’ to use cruder but more to-the-point internet terminology.  
It’s somewhat ironic: in this system, you value minorities, you value women, you value the disadvantaged — but you do not value people. Individuals are worthless, to be cast aside the moment you find something disagreeable in them. People will support you until the first flaw, and then they take off to find someone not-yet-flawed instead. I admit that there’s an element in culture in my finding this strange and disagreeable — in Russian culture (as well as several other Slavic ones I’ve dealt with) we tend to see friendship and personal relationships (but especially friendships) as something rather sacred, something that should ideally transcend ideological differences, political disagreements, and especially character flaws. That can lead to issues in its own right, of course — everything comes at a trade-off, and every cultural description hides within it a massive statistical mess, but that’s something that always bothered me here, just how quickly people discard friendships they find no longer savoury. And this is especially nasty on the internet.
Mature nuanced discussions were never a blatant strong point of the internet, but here we have mature, nuanced individuals — intelligent, experienced individuals with a genuine interest to improve the world around them — having discussions on the level of teenage basement trolls. That, I think, is tragic. 
…and for what was all this? We lost a network. We lost voices who fought for us. We lost each other. We lost direction. We lost our actual main goal — to communicate the wonders of science with the world. And to some extent, I think this has damaged our rapport as bloggers with both journalist as well a scientist communities. Not to mention the curious public looking at all this in bemused confusion.We gained nothing."
I would go a step further and say that we gained something valuable, and then lost it with deliberate, purposeful and misguided conviction. It's something to mull over. However there is as always a silver lining. This story will serve as a cautionary tale for other blogging networks which wish to foster diversity. Meanwhile, both time and the Internet are limitless, so foxes like me will always have a multitude of new fields to play in.


  1. Hit the nail right on the head, as usual. This code word, 'diversity', especially to entrenched interests, has always been about presenting orthodoxy, but coming from people of various colors, genders, polarities, valences, whatever.

    Even if you take contrary positions, it's as if some lawyer sits beside an editor and makes certain that this is an acceptable opinion, filtered through some lens of acceptability related to who speaks, and who might listen. The problem, however, is that acceptable positions get a bit worn, predictable, and boring.

    There are limits, no doubt. Being mildly controversial should be well within them.

    One other piece of social media that deserves mention, as well. Self-appointed inquisitors from various interest groups scour the web for 'incorrect' opinions to shriek at, and for some reason, editors these days lack the gonads to tell them
    to go to hell.

    1. Well said Dave. Diversity seems to be like electrons: it works best when you don't actually tamper with the equipment.

  2. Thank you for changing some of the language in your post, Ash.

  3. The funny thing is that some of the bloggers that were let go are the ones who made much noise (and probably among the key people responsible for your "departure") after your posts on Feynman and Wade's book. I don't agree with you (or with other people) on many topics. But, I am absolutely not in favor of any kind of censorship. On the other hand, SciAm and several other "scientists" and bloggers were. I don't send emails to organizations orto people in charge of those places every time I see an article that I don't agree. I simply don't read and I don't care if millions of people read and agree with the author. It doesn't bother me.

    Regarding "science blogging" and "writing "outside" their areas of expertise," I would like to write a few things. I think a person HAS TO be an expert in his field in order to write a truly scientific post/book/article at a relatively well respected and known website, blog (or whatever) like SciAm etc. Or the person has to prove himself and get approval from experts in the field. I am not saying they should not be allowed to write. They can still write and post even on those "serious" websites, but it should clearly be marked as "opinion."

    Wade is not a scientist. But, he wrote a book (his opinion) on genetics and race with a long list of references. After your great post, I bought the book and read it. There are things that I agree with him and there are that I am not. I should again mention that your post on Feynman was probably among the best I read. In fact, I even think that you didn't defend him as much as I wanted.

    The most annoying thing for me about social media and "science blogging" is that there are tens of people (some call themselves "scientists") who (remarkably) agree on EVERYTHING with each other and act as a group especially on "controversial" topics. It is clear that there are social and economical benefits as a result of this. As always, I stay away from people I don't like. But, I don't try to block their activities.

  4. Thanks for your comment - couldn't agree with you more!


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