Lessons on communication

First Pharyngula, now this. Over at his blog, Phil Plait opted to take time from his oppressively busy schedule to once again congratulate Chris Mooney for another accomplishment, this time getting onto the board of the American Geophysical Union. There’s really nothing wrong with this, and Plait can do what he likes. But Mooney doesn’t exactly have a good reputation in the blogohedron, since he’s got this nasty habit of being bratty, arrogant, and clueless, a terrible triple threat. If you want to see details of these traits, four of those blogs in the sidebar (Butterflies and Wheels, Pharyngula, Weird Things, Why Evolution Is True) will net you a bundle with the simple trick of putting “Chris Mooney” in their search fields. I have my own posts regarding Mooney and accommodationism, his pet obsession.

In light of this, the responses to Plait’s congratulatory post didn’t exactly go the way he wanted, as a few people expressed their opinions of Mooney’s attitude and abilities. This caused Plait to come in defensively and make a left-handed accusation that these were unwarranted, causing all hell to break loose. After numerous commenters made it clear that Mooney’s behavior was hardly defensible, most especially regarding that situation I linked to in his name above, Plait allowed as to how he wasn’t aware of any of it, and promised to look into it deeper.

Initially, this is commendable – he admitted ignorance of the situation, and pledged to remedy it. But it does seem hard to believe, with the number of times that he’s promoted Mooney, including over some inane things like a sophomoric campaign to promote science by posing scientists with rock stars (no, seriously,) that he would remain unaware of a major meltdown not only on Mooney’s own blog under the same publisher as Plait’s, but chronicled in detail on several other very prominent blogs as well. And as I remarked, it seems a bit disingenuous to consider Mooney accomplished in science communication without being aware of what he was actually up to, and how poorly this was coming across to a significant number of people.

Unfortunately, upon Plait’s return, he ended up recognizing Mooney’s reluctant and inadequate apologies (for what amounted to gross incompetence for a “journalist”) as appropriate, and excused the banning of numerous commenters from Mooney’s blog under the idea that they were being mean. His example? Ophelia Benson, of Butterflies and Wheels over there to the right, referred to Mooney’s blog as a “slum” when her comments were ostensibly “held for moderation” (never to appear) while other commenters had no issues posting comments directly calling her a liar. This, mind you, came about when she actually questioned Mooney on his standpoint.

Yes, you heard that right – “slum” is, according to Plait, a worse offense than “liar.” I guess most of my posts on this blog should rate fairly highly, then. Should you think that portions of the story are missing, and perhaps that Ophelia Benson was being far more offensive than claimed, you’re welcome to visit her own blog, where she is under no restraints but her own, and of course the comments she leaves elsewhere, most especially at Why Evolution Is True.

Plait made no comment on Mooney’s inability to handle any criticism whatsoever, inability to respond to simple questions, senseless blaming of scientists for their poor “framing” of science issues to fundamentalists, and lack of a useful plan to implement his accommodationism. He made no recognition of Mooney’s pathetic elevation of an unsubstantiated e-mail story to a blog post, proudly demonstrating his point that atheist scientists are big meanies to religious scientists – only to find that it was complete fiction from a disreputable source (yes, this guy actually refers to himself as a journalist, another nail in the coffin of that term.) He missed Mooney’s petulant “Well, it could have happened anyway!” assertion, given apparently in Mooney’s defense and not, as many see it, as a whiny excuse for not having any evidence whatsoever. Plait even failed to mention that Mooney received a major grant from a religious foundation pledged to promoting religion in science publications. His various commenters missed none of these, however and missed none before Plait’s return with excuses.

I’ll be the first to admit (yeah, this far down in the post) that this is a relatively minor drama in the grand scheme of things – but then again, so is everything else. You’re welcome to seek out a blog that comments on TV shows if you like ;-). The kicker in all of this is, Plait used to be someone who promoted critical thought, and various attendant practices therein like getting all of the facts, not playing biases, holding yourself to a standard, being fair and unscrupulous, and so on. Both he and Mooney can actually be excused for being wrong – a point made by several commenters (who understand what fairness is.) The issue isn’t with mistakes or bad information or even abject ignorance – the issue is how such things are handled, corrected, and presented. If we want critical thinking to be accepted and adopted, we need to hold it as better and more useful than partisan politics. Plait’s not-pology in favor of his friend Mooney smacks an awful lot like US Representative Joe Barton’s apology to BP when the current administration held them accountable for that little fuckup in the Gulf. It’s also curious that Plait has supported Mooney in other questionable circumstances, claimed that accommodationism is a useful thing, and popped his pointless “Don’t Be A Dick” speech right after the debacle on Mooney’s blog. Coincidences do sometimes happen – and sometimes they don’t.

Someone could make a point about having clouded judgment regarding friends, or putting friends first, but these don’t fit either. Plait had ample opportunity to be aware of how his regular visitors viewed Mooney, and plenty to see the same from the general public response to Mooney’s various contretemps. And he is perfectly free to choose the friends he has, for whatever reasons. But on more than one occasion he’s gotten distinctly defensive when comments about Mooney in a negative light were left, in response to Plait’s comments in a positive light. Just because you run a popular blog doesn’t mean anyone reading must agree with you – that’s arrogance. And he should feel free to place friendship in front of blog readers – in fact I encourage this (my apologies to the five of my followers.) But doing so publicly and with noticeable disregard for his readers is another thing entirely, and still another to openly expect your readers to agree with you. To one recent negative comment about the “Rockstars of Science” advertising campaign mentioned above, Plait chimed in with,

Also, you may not be aware that I think the Rock Stars of Science is a good idea too. And I did something you didn’t: said exactly why.

My response is, so what? Others don’t agree with you. To all appearances, Plait seems to think that if he expresses his own opinion (with reasons!), that settles it.

Worst of all, both of these guys supposedly promote, “science communication,” but Mooney has never demonstrated that he even knows what the term means, and Phil has been falling further and further off the radar. To this day, he still hasn’t clarified what “Don’t Be A Dick,” was supposed to mean (I’ve made more posts clarifying that matter than he has, much less countless other bloggers out there,) and while he has at least gotten a new science show on Discovery, no small accomplishment, it rings too much like a Mythbusters clone and skips over far too much of the science itself in favor of explosions and poorly-explained demonstrations.

The thing is, science communication really isn’t that hard, and I’ll present several ideas in an upcoming post (there’s another book review coming first.) But blaming scientists, putting faith in a poorly-conceived methodology, and appealing to the lowest common denominator doesn’t cut it. Neither does turning a blind eye to all of these faults and trying to justify your standpoint with feeble excuses. And if your friend is largely unpopular, maybe you need to face the idea that there are very good reasons for this, and perhaps you’re not seeing them yourself. Another key aspect of critical thinking is considering how it applies to yourself as well.

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Thanks to Ophelia Benson for the correction of some misinformation I had repeated, and for some further info into the whole sock puppet meltdown.