Chill out about Jingmai O’Connor’s criticism of bloggers (UPDATEDx2)

Today in Things the Science Twitterverse is Predictably Upset About: paleontologist Jingmai O’Connor’s interview in Current Biology in which she says that

Those who can, publish. Those who can’t, blog.

I was going to comment on this in the Friday linkfest, but I decided I had enough to say that wasn’t already being said on Twitter that I’d turn it into a post. It’s an experiment–this is the first time I’ve ever tried to use the blog to intervene in a social media firestorm in real time.

tl;dr: Chill out, everybody. Yes, she’s wrong, but it’s not a big deal. She’s probably just overgeneralizing from her own experiences, and you’re being unfair if you’re ripping her, rather than merely disagreeing with her.

(UPDATE 2: Definitely looks like she’s speaking from personal experience in that interview; see the comments. I think this is useful context, but delving further into the personal context here would get us away from a discussion of broader issues. So in the interests of a productive comment thread, I ask that future commenters stick to general issues rather than focusing on O’Connor’s personal experiences.)

First of all, yes, it’s just false that those who can, publish, while those who can’t, blog, as the examples of Meg, Brian, and I attest. Never mind Andrew Gelman, Stephen Heard, Andrew Hendry, Terry McGlynn, and many others, or within her own field Darren Naish and John Hutchinson. If anything, I suspect that prominent science bloggers tend to be productive established scientists, if only because it’s harder for an unknown grad student or postdoc to build an audience for their science blog. But I don’t have data on this.

But in fairness, her answer was in response to a question about post-publication review, a topic on which I have mixed feelings myself, in part because of a high profile case in paleontology in which post-publication “review” turned into spurious accusations of misconduct in the NY Times (see here, here, here, and here). Further, according to Jon Tennant, Jingmai O’Connor herself has had her work repeatedly attacked by semi-professional bloggers who seem not to be able to get their criticisms through peer review:

Which if so makes her comments much more understandable, even if not more correct in general (UPDATE: see the comments; it’s pretty clear whom at least one of the bloggers is). Probably all of us overgeneralize from our own personal experiences and the few anecdotes we happen to know about. Keep that in mind that whenever someone says something that seems ridiculous to you. There’s probably an understandable explanation from their own experiences, that you don’t know about. The answer to the question “How could she possibly say that?” often is “For understandable reasons that you haven’t thought of, because your own experience and imagination are limited tools for putting yourself in other people’s shoes.”

Which leads to a broader point: much of the Science Twitterverse apparently has no idea that lots of scientists–maybe even a majority?–do not read blogs or Twitter (much less blog or tweet themselves), don’t hang out much with people who do, and so simply don’t know how those tools are used or by who. And no, people who don’t read blogs or Twitter are not hidebound old farts, at least not mostly (Jingmai O’Connor sure isn’t). They’re mostly just doing what works for them, which is what we all do. Seriously, if you think it’s 2016 and how could anybody still not know about how awesome and important blogs and post-publication review are, you need to get out more offline. You know all those people you’ve gotten to know via Twitter, and all those awesome bloggers you read? They’re a very biased sample of all the scientists in the world. When I go to conferences or visit other universities to speak, I get questions about blogging all the time, from people at all career stages. And most of those questions are very basic ones, such as the ones addressed in this FAQ or this post. Of course, most of the many scientists who don’t know much about blogging or social media aren’t negative about them the way Jingmai O’Connor apparently is; they’re curious. But the broader point is that people’s ways of working, and their knowledge of other people’s ways of working, changes much more slowly than you probably think. So by all means disagree with the substance of Jingmai O’Connor’s comments. But be professional about it, rather than getting upset because you think (falsely) that everyone should know better in 2016. (And by the way, I say this as someone who does think there are rare times when it’s ok to be hard on someone for not knowing better.)

Bottom line: yes, Jingmai O’Connor’s comments on blogging and post-publication review are wrong, or at least highly debatable. But I’m not that bothered by them, because I can imagine understandable reasons why she might hold the views she does, and because her holding the views she does doesn’t do any harm to anything or anybody. So I don’t think she deserves to be publicly shamed, as it seems like she might be. More broadly, getting upset every time someone says something in public that I disagree with is a pretty suboptimal way of allocating my mental and emotional energy.* So sure, say why you disagree with her on Twitter if that’s your thing. And it’s probably fair to take issue with the way she expressed herself, keeping in mind that everyone sometimes expresses themselves badly. But don’t rip her, unless your goal is to confirm some of the stereotypes many people understandably hold regarding online discussions.

Related: Zen Faulkes went to the trouble of actually learning something about Jingmai O’Connor and found that she’s…actually pretty cool.

*Though I suppose your mileage may vary on this. Maybe for some people, quickly tweeting their annoyance with her is an efficient way to get over said annoyance and move on.

28 thoughts on “Chill out about Jingmai O’Connor’s criticism of bloggers (UPDATEDx2)

  1. Just one of the reasons why I don’t use Twitter: I could spend a long long time getting distracted by this kind of BS. However if this is a true reflection of what she said, I think O’Connor is being remarkably naive about both the power of peer review and the way social media can “damage” science:

    “a published paper passed rigorous review by experts….carries more validity than the opinion of some disgruntled scientist or amateur on the internet. Thus, I find that criticism in social media is damaging to science, as it is to most aspects of our culture.”

    Really? What’s the evidence for the last part of that statement?

    • Well, I don’t know how to measure damage to science as a whole, or to our culture as a whole. But FWIW, there certainly are arguments that traditional pre-publication peer review is quite effective, and that in its current form post publication review is only effective as a supplement to pre-publication review. See the links in the post, and this:

      https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/10/11/in-praise-of-pre-publication-peer-review-because-post-publication-review-is-an-utter-failure/

      And honestly, if all the information I had about two pieces of writing on a technical topic was that piece A was written by a PhD and passed through pre-publication peer review, while piece B was an anonymous blog post, yeah, I’d take piece A more seriously. Of course, in the real world we ordinarily have more information than that. And in the real world we don’t often need to come to any view one way or the other about the correctness of some piece of writing, just based on who wrote it or whether it was peer-reviewed. But yeah, all else being equal, the fact that some piece of writing has passed through pre-publication peer review should raise one’s confidence in its correctness.

      • But in this case O’Connor isn’t talking about anonymous bloggers, she’s referring to “disgruntled scientists” who disagree with her in serious blog posts. In its time DE has posted enough pieces disagreeing with the conclusions/methods of other ecologists. Are they to be dismissed because they were not peer reviewed?

      • “In its time DE has posted enough pieces disagreeing with the conclusions/methods of other ecologists. Are they to be dismissed because they were not peer reviewed?”

        No, not at all. But DE isn’t the sort of blog she’s thinking of. As I linked in the post, according to Jon Tennant her own work has been the target of repeated attacks from amateur and semi-professional bloggers who apparently can’t get their criticisms through peer review. So yes, her blanket comments about the validity of blog posts are incorrect. But if my work had been repeatedly criticized in public by amateurs who didn’t know what they were talking about, I too would be very frustrated. I too would probably try to pull rank to get them to shut up (or at least get others to ignore them). That’s at least an understandable impulse, and arguably even a reasonable one in some circumstances. Scientific discussion and debate often is improved by being open to anyone to say anything–but not always.

      • I’m not saying Jon Tennant is infallible–maybe his information is second-hand or something and garbled or mistaken (UPDATE: it’s not; see comments below). But he’s a reputable guy, I highly doubt he’d lie about this, and this doesn’t seem like the kind of thing one would misremember. And it could quite well be that the posts in question are from Chinese social media or something and so not very accessible to googling westerners (or maybe they’ve been taken down). So in the absence of other information, I’m inclined to take Jon Tennant at his word.

        And honestly, even if he’d never tweeted that, I’d still be inclined to give O’Connor the benefit of the doubt and assume until shown otherwise that she has some understandable reason for saying what she said. It’s perfectly possible–and mostly preferable–to disagree with someone without *also* assuming them an idiot or getting upset.

        I get the sense that that’s where we disagree? That you take the view that there’s just no excuse for saying what she said in the way she said it (or at least, no reason for anyone to assume that there is)? So she deserves whatever personal criticism she gets?

      • “It’s perfectly possible–and mostly preferable–to disagree with someone without *also* assuming them an idiot or getting upset.”

        Oh yes, completely agree with that.

        “…get the sense that that’s where we disagree? That you take the view that there’s just no excuse for saying what she said in the way she said it (or at least, no reason for anyone to assume that there is)?”

        If the interview is a direct quote and she actually said it then it’s a frankly silly thing to say which isn’t backed by any evidence (as you yourself pointed out).

        “So she deserves whatever personal criticism she gets?”

        I’ve not seen the criticism on Twitter (though I can imagine….) so I can’t really comment, but if people are saying that she’s wrong (as you did) then yes, I think she deserves to have that pointed out. But it’s a matter of how it’s pointed out.

        So I don’t really think we are in disagreement here.

  2. Also, we don’t know what the rest of the content of that Curr Biol interview was. Maybe they only printed the bit in which she criticized social media; maybe they cut out other, more positive bits in editing. There’s a lot of potential missing context here. And in a way the personal context doesn’t matter so much; the issues do. Hence it’s best, if anything, to focus on the issues rather than the person and their specific case, most of which we are probably ignorant of.

    • I totally agree. Unfortunately, outrage can get around the world before context and a focus on big-picture issues can get their boots on.

      And of course, nothing upsets people on social media more than criticism of how upset people get on social media, or of what they get upset about. 🙂

  3. http://theropoddatabase.blogspot.com/2016/01/how-not-to-redefine-ornithuromorpha.html
    I think this is the most recent blog criticism of O’Connor and her recently published work, though I do not know if Mickey has tried to get the ideas presented there through peer review or not. I’ll leave the discussion of whether that post is a personal attack, unprofessional, etc. to others. I simply offer this up without judgement or additional comment, since others here mentioned they had a hard time finding additional blogs dealing with her work.

    • It seems that the paleontology blogosphere has pretty interesting dynamics. I am not familiar with any of the characters involved, but I found a comment in this thread by David Černý to be interesting and relevant to the discussion of Mickey Mortimer:

      Even some bloggers who are exclusively active online are sometimes taken very seriously by accomplished researchers — Mickey Mortimer, who became the prime target of O’Connor’s attack, has had her blog cited repeatedly in the primary literature, and I believe she’s currently working with +David Marjanović to publish some of her critiques of paleontological practice which she had originally made online.

      • Cheers for this Artem. Yes, between this and Robert Gay’s comments, it looks to me like a key bit of context for O’Connor’s comments on blogging is a long-running series of criticisms of her work from Mickey Mortimer.

        Personally, I continue to think, as John Hutchinson does, that it’s more productive for outsiders to focus on general issues rather than on O’Connor vs. Mortimer specifically. I don’t think it’s a particularly good use of anyone’s time to try to figure out if O’Connor is in the right and Mortimer in the wrong, or vice-versa, or what.

        Specific incidents like O’Connor’s comments often are *not* good illustrations of general issues, or good starting points for discussion of general issues. The whole point about general issues is that they’re general–they are issues that come up many times, independent of the details of specific instances. But no specific instance is “typical” in every respect, and so no specific instance can be a good stand in for the general issue. Which isn’t to say nobody should use specific examples to illustrate general points–I do it all the time! It’s just to say that any discussion of general issues is always at risk of going off the rails due to quirks of whatever specific example is used for illustration.

        Also, any discussion of specific examples is at high risk of being derailed by discussion of general issues. If you think that, in general, lots of scientists are hostile to blogging, you’re going to be sorely tempted to see O’Connor’s comments as just one more example of that general issue, details and context be damned.

    • Cheers for this Robert. Yes, at a glance (and searching that blog for other posts mentioning “O’Connor”; there are a bunch), it would appear that that’s at least one of amateur or semi-professional paleontology blogs to which Jon Tennant was referring.

      I skimmed a couple of the posts mentioning O’Connor. All of the ones I looked at raise technical criticisms of O’Connor’s papers. The tone of the posts look fine to me. And at least one post contains a correction attributed to correspondence with O’Connor herself. I’m of course not qualified to judge the substance of those technical criticisms. Best I can tell, none of them are accusations of misconduct or anything like that–they’re just technical criticisms. But I can’t tell if the issues Mickey is raising are nit-picky quibbles, or the sorts of questions students ask teachers, or the sorts of professional judgment calls on which there’s scope for reasonable disagreement, or serious clear-cut errors that should’ve been caught in peer review and should now be formally corrected, or what. And of course I have no idea how Mickey and O’Connor have interacted behind the scenes.

      And I don’t know much about the broader context in paleontology, which is somewhat unusual among scientific fields in having a large community of amateur and semi-professionals. Do all paleontologists regularly get bombarded with technical questions about their work from amateurs, so that responding to them can become a significant time suck? (and if so, are those questions mostly the sorts of questions professionals ask one another, or are they more the sorts of questions that students ask teachers?) Do many paleontologists worry that someday some over-keen disgruntled amateur like Nathan Myhrvold will accuse them of misconduct over what are really just garden-variety errors? (see here)

      The point is that it requires a lot of background information and knowledge, more than is easily available to the typical outsider, to really appreciate why somebody might have said what O’Connor said. Reading a couple of Mickey’s blog posts is a bit of useful context. But for myself I’d want much more before I felt comfortable judging O’Connor personally, as opposed to merely disagreeing with her general views on blogging.

      But I suspect that my reluctance to judge anyone or any situation from afar would put me in a minority in some circles.

      • Paleontologists definitely get bombarded with technical questions, and it very much can become a time-suck. However, most of us don’t mind the time-suck so much as the rare negative interactions.

        Any paleontologist who works at a museum, and a solid majority of those who work at Universities *without* museums, have had the unpleasant experience of someone from the public coming in, asking them how much the random rock they’ve found and interpreted as a fossil dinosaur liver/alligator ovary/dragon/etc is worth, and being yelled at/insulted/accused of wanting to steal the find/whatever when the paleontologist points out that the random rock is not at all a fossil.

        Most of the people who ask are gracious and nice and genuinely interested in learning how to tell a real fossil apart from a random object. And sometimes folks even bring in truly spectacular fossils! Just google “child finds fossil spectacular” and you’ll get a decent number of hits telling just those sorts of stories.

        However, those rare, very specific, negative interactions can produce, in some people, a *general* aversion to taking unsolicited meetings with individual members of the public (as opposed to outreach events open to lots of people).

        To turn back to the main point, one of the things that’s been discussed a lot here on the blog is that now, as post-publication review becomes more common, we have to deal with the lack of clear rules/formats/styles/acceptable behaviors that go along with post-publication review. Currently, post-publication review takes the form of completely unstandardized responses posted in any format on the internet. Even if all online criticism/discussion of a specific result was meant constructively, it’s really hard to write something that anyone (especially the subject of the criticism) will always read as being meant in a spirit of helpfulness.

        So we’re left with a situation where every comment posted on the internet about a topic gets lumped together. Making it easier for people to see a few posts that they (correctly or not) interpret as harsh/unprofessional and then write-off the whole enterprise because it’s seems no more valid than the least common denominator.

        (As for Mortimer’s posts, there’s not enough comment space on the whole internet for a deep dissection of the crazy ways the technical literature, popular books, email list-servs, open meetings and twitter interact to create a strange ecosystem of conflict, collaboration and communication in vertebrate paleo between professionals, outside-luminaries like McIntosh, “amateurs” like Mortimer and, uh, “others” like David Peters.)

      • Thanks, this is *very* helpful background for understanding O’Connor’s comments.

        Personally, I’m now even more confident that “quote the worst-sounding bit of O’Connor’s interview on Twitter and express outrage” is not a particularly useful thing to do. Nor is “try to sort out the rights and wrongs of the O’Connor-Mortimer interaction from afar” likely to be very useful, from the sound of things.

      • p.s. FWIW, I know an academic paleontologist who used to work in a museum, and who can confirm that “people coming to you with weird-looking rocks that they’ve mistaken for fossils/meteorites/dragon poop and then getting huffy when you explain that it’s a rock” are the bane of any paleontologist’s existence. 🙂

      • “one of the things that’s been discussed a lot here on the blog is that now, as post-publication review becomes more common, we have to deal with the lack of clear rules/formats/styles/acceptable behaviors that go along with post-publication review. Currently, post-publication review takes the form of completely unstandardized responses posted in any format on the internet. Even if all online criticism/discussion of a specific result was meant constructively, it’s really hard to write something that anyone (especially the subject of the criticism) will always read as being meant in a spirit of helpfulness. So we’re left with a situation where every comment posted on the internet about a topic gets lumped together. Making it easier for people to see a few posts that they (correctly or not) interpret as harsh/unprofessional and then write-off the whole enterprise because it’s seems no more valid than the least common denominator.”

        1000% yes to this. It works in reverse too, in a funny way. Advocates of post-publication review tend to remember and highlight cases where it’s worked well. The highest common denominator, if you like. And then they get outraged and offended by people whose own experiences and memories are selective in the opposite direction.

        Afraid I still don’t have any good ideas how to go from the Wild West that is post-publication “review” in its current form(lessness) to a system with agreed standard practices and norms.

    • Perhaps you would be better looking at the previous post. In the first paragraph Mortimer refers to O’Connor’s choice of a species name as “stupid”, entirely dismisses the paper in the second sentence (without having seen any of the specimens at first hand), and then accuses O’Connor of being a hypocrite. Surely by anyone’s standards this is a personal attack. Yet Mortimer writes exclusively on a blog, so never has to get her scientific arguments through a peer-review process. Now I don’t know the history, who started it, and haven’t seen Facebook posts that have been alluded to, but this does provide partial context for why O’Connor might be disillusioned with the world of blogs.

      http://theropoddatabase.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/chiappeavis-is-just-another-pengornis.html

      • Thank you for this, but as I said in other comments, I do not think it’s a valuable use of anyone’s time to try to figure out the rights and wrongs of this dispute.

  4. Thank you for the even-handed commentary. I would like to additionally point out, in defense of blogs not being damaging to science, that the type of people who are likely to read specialist science blogs (like this one) are more likely to know the difference between a published paper and a blog post. It’s not as if random members of the public are making decisions regarding scientific topics by stumbling upon blogs. I also assume that those who read blogs are aware of the reputations of the writers, and that the writers themselves wouldn’t want to damage their reputation by unsoundly criticizing science. Finally, I for one have very much appreciated some of the critiques I’ve read here.

  5. I tend to agree that there’s no need to be outraged about O’Connor’s comments. Also, this was said in the context of a profile on O’Connor in general, not an editorial on social media. She’s speaking out of her own experience.
    I did chuckle at the irony (at least from my experience of the quality of lots of ecology bloggers).

    • Yes, the ecology blogosphere does have a high proportion of blogs written by experienced professional ecologists who publish peer-reviewed papers regularly. Same in economics and statistics, as far as I’m aware–the most prominent econ and stats blogs are all by professionals who publish regularly, or at least used to in the case of Nobel Prize winners like Paul Krugman. As was noted above, O’Connor’s experience likely reflects the fact that she’s a paleontologist, a field with an unusually large number of keen amateurs and semi-professionals who read and comment on the primary research literature.

  6. I typically write papers that are tightly focused on particular problems, and so the opportunity to guest-blog here got me thinking more broadly, especially given the interesting comments. All of which was worth it. But Jeremy (or Meg or Brian), do you perceive a tradeoff with traditional measures of productivity? I ask partly because I’d be surprised if evidence of blogging helped someone junior get a job or get tenure, irrespective of the quality of the blog posts.

    • I have an old post on this:

      https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/jeremys-blogging-faqs/

      But the short answer is, no, there’s no tradeoff, at least not for me. Blogging is how I procrastinate. Everybody procrastinates sometimes, but I get blog posts out of the time I spend procrastinating. If anything, blogging’s made me a bit more productive. I’ve gotten two papers, including one high-profile one in TREE, that grew out of blog posts. And now I’m writing a book, which will will pull together and expand thoughts I’ve only had because I’ve been blogging.

      Blogging’s not likely to make much difference to your career one way or the other. It’s not likely to materially affect your chances of getting a job or getting tenure. At least, that’s my view. But I know some junior ecologists (postdocs, or just hired into faculty positions) who’ve felt that they couldn’t afford to “waste” even a bit of time they could be spending writing papers. That’s why Caroline Tucker (EEB and Flow) doesn’t post much, why Jeremy Yoder stopped blogging, why Amy Hurford stopped blogging…But not every junior person feels that way. Margaret Kosmala is a postdoc, and she just started the Ecology Bits blog, which is doing great so far.

  7. “Chill out, everybody. Yes, she’s wrong, but it’s not a big deal.”

    I’ve been watching palaeo for many years from the point of view of someone who knows about the sciences at the heart of it – and I can tell you that particular “science” is in BIG trouble. It relies on people not checking it out critically. Simply assuming that it’s some amateur vs some professional, and saying “She’s probably just…” – emphasis on “probably” – misses all the important points, and lets the problem continue.

    It IS a big deal, as my latest post explains.

    • As the post and comments make clear, I’m not a paleontologist. I’m not surprised to hear that, from the perspective of a paleontologist, the important points are to do with the technical correctness of some particular bits of paleontology. From my perspective as a blogger, the important points are those I made in the post. I’m not wrong to care about the things I happen to care about.

      You’re clearly someone who cares a lot about particular bits of paleontology, which is fine. I just hope your passion for the topics you happen to care about doesn’t cause you to mistake other people who happen to care about other topics as somehow incorrect, or as your opponents.

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