From Library Babel Fish, August 5, 2010

I just had to do some housecleaning among my RSS feeds. Some of my favorite blogs had moved from ScienceBlogs to Scientopia in the wake of PepsiGate. (If this -gate is unfamiliar, here it is in a nutshell: Bloggers who wrote for a respected science blog aggregation site were upset when the management offered paid blog space to corporate spokesfolks – in particular a Pepsi blog on nutrition – without distinguishing it from the other blogs, which many bloggers felt unethically blurred the line between science commentary and advertising. Though ScienceBlogs relented, the damage was done.)

It made me revisit a rather savage description of the situation published in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday. Virginia Heffernan, who writes a kind of “tech/fashion” feature for the magazine, thought the bloggers who were making such a fuss unfairly used their status as scientists to engage in classist anti-Christian bigotry. “Hammering away at an ideology,” she wrote, “substituting stridency for contemplation, pummeling its enemies in absentia: ScienceBlogs has become Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd . . . science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word ‘science’ and from occasional invocations of ‘peer-reviewed’ thises and thats.”

In a comment to a blog post analyzing her unusually dyspeptic analysis, she explained that she has no training in science, but was surprised that scientists would engage in the kind of grudge matches that are so common on political blogs. She also issued a correction of sorts: among a handful of blogs she recommended in her article, she hadn’t realized one of them was a vehicle for denying human culpability in global warming. As she put it, it was a well-written blog with lovely images and she “frankly didn’t recognize the weatherspeak on the blog as ‘denialist’; I didn’t even know about denialism.”

Yet she recommended it, and the purpose of her weekly feature is to point out what’s new, what’s cool, and what to check out online. I think we have a trifecta, here: a tarnished teakettle complaining about a pot calling a kettle black.

All of which made me think about writing and reading and one too often neglected part of “information literacy” (a phrase I don’t much like, but which seems to have become the dominant shorthand for being able find and use information critically in the pursuit of inquiry of all kinds), the part that has to do with ethics and epistemology. One goal of a liberal education is that our students embrace a disposition to interpret critically, value evidence, and not only let their minds be changed by it, but be willing to represent issues fairly when they make a claim. We don’t want them to rush to judgment. We don’t want them to cherry-pick evidence. We don’t want them to ignore facts that are inconvenient, or engage in unfair oversimplification of issues in order to score a point. But those values are not unique to scholarly forms of expression, nor to traditional journalism. Bloggers should also be fair-minded and check their facts. As Bora Zivkovic, a saddened ScienceBlogs defector, explained, blogs are media, and as media they have responsibility. I would argue we all have a responsibility to do our best to triangulate the truth, or at least treat knowledge ethically, whether in writing or in any other form of discourse.

It’s pretty obvious when I write up research for a peer reviewed journal that I am expected to adhere to scholarly standards. But I write a lot of other stuff, too, including occasional features (that are more like reporting than scholarship or opinion) and blog posts like these. In this medium, I will be opinionated, I will even be snarky, but I will not knowingly misinform or write about something without checking it out first. The stylistics of the medium are strikingly different, but the underlying sense of responsibility is not.

Another kind of writing I do is genre fiction. And guess what – it may be by definition whoppers told in the service of entertainment, but there still is a need to get it right. I’m not talking about random bits of information of the kind that earn you fact-check emails pointing out that you put a building on the wrong corner, you moron, but the underlying representation of social issues and human behavior. It’s not just that it’s ineffective to use straw men as characters, it goes deeper than that.

A fair amount of interesting research has been done on how readers process fiction, and among the sobering findings is that readers do not cognitively shelve fiction separately from non-fiction. The less they know about a topic, the more likely they will fold what they encounter in fiction into their knowledge base. This is one reason why so many biblical scholars were offended by The DaVinci Code; too many gullible readers thought it was well-researched and based on fact. In fact, as I write this, I am amused to discover that Wikipedia describes it as a “mystery-detective non-fiction novel.” I should probably edit that right now, but it’s just too perfect as it is.

So I hope, as I write fiction, I’m not filing misinformation on the shelves of my reader’s knowledge base. And when I work with students learning the ropes of research, I hope that what they learn about choosing good sources and writing responsibly is not something they only counts when completing assignments, but that making ethical choices about information is fundamental to being free and thoughtful human beings in a society where first impressions, hasty judgments, and a stubborn resistance to evidence are all too common.

So let’s be careful out there, and use your snark responsibly.


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