Last week I wrote about Randy Olson’s book Don’t Be Such a Scientist. Now that I have finished the read, I want to revisit Chapters 3 (Don’t be such a poor storyteller) and 4 (Don’t be so unlikeable). These chapters touch on current issues in the blogosphere.
In chapter 4, Olson expresses dismay about the foul language and intolerance displayed in evolution posts on ScienceBlogs:
The voice that came through in all of these blog posts, and even more intensely in the comments of fellow evolutionists, was not just offensive; it was also incredibly condescending and arrogant.
In this chapter, Olson concerns himself with likeability of scientists; in other words, maintaining civility within the discussion (a topic at SciOn later this week). He does have a point; people are unlikely to listen after you have called them fuckwits.
Unfortunately, a reasonable civil discussion violates chapter 3; let’s face it, conflict is essential for a good story. People don’t pay to watch two guys glare and name-call in the ring; they want to see punches! Conflict sells and drives blog traffic (and income); the only way to make this bigger is to make it a nude-mud-wrestling grudge match (although I doubt most of the contributors on ScienceBlogs should be seen nude).
Let’s face it: some of those conflicts in commentary are damn entertaining! Virtual evisceration is sort of like “Shark Week” for readers, especially when you agree with the sharks! The danger, though, is that less aggressive species get scared off, leaving only those voices in complete agreement (see this post by Isis for more on this danger). You end up preaching to the choir (egads, a scientist uses a religious analogy), and you have to work even harder to generate conflict, leading to fights among the choir (this is why there are no longer any moderate republicans).
Unfortunately, I don’t have the solution to this problem (if I did, do you thing I would be plugging away on this post?). I try to stay civil on my little soapbox on the web, and I have to remain civil in ASN Kidney News, the magazine I edit. I do allow my inner snark to appear when I’m commenting on others’ sites.
Perhaps being a medical doctor is good training for this sort of conflict; if a teenager asks me about getting tattoos, I can say no, absolutely not, tattoos are stupid. Or I can talk to them about the safety issues surrounding the procedure, not to do it on the day they get hemodialysis and receive anticoagulation, and then discourage it (in med school I saw the effects of time and gravity on most tattoos, and it isn’t pretty). Most of the time, the latter approach has prevented or delayed the onset of tattooing without alienating my patient. Of course, the first scenario would make a much better story… especially if s/he gets the tattoo and returns to shoot up my clinic.
Photo courtesy of PhotoXpress.