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“Destructo-Critics” and Mean Bloggers: The Study

Cartoon of person fiercely scribbling



A couple of years ago, psychologist Susan Fiske launched a broadside against science bloggers – since taken offline – packed with name-calling. That launched a spate of blogging, musing on what it meant to call us and our ilk destructo-critics, methodological terrorists, self-appointed data police, etc.

The next year, I was sitting in the front row of a National Academies of Science colloquium, listening to Fiske present. I was the speaker after her. That’s when I learned she was taking her concerns about bloggers on methods in psychological science further by studying a group with colleagues … and that this blog, Absolutely Maybe, was one of them. A weird experience!

I’m not a psychologist, and I don’t blog specifically on methods in psychology much, so that was part of the weirdness for me. I am pleased, though, to be on PsychBrief’s list of blogs on psychological science methods, and that’s the sample they were studying. But it was weird mostly because in the methodology and the way Fiske spoke about the subject, there was a disconnect from bloggers and blog readership. It was hard to see the value in the exercise at that point.

It was clear even at that early stage of their process, that the results weren’t supporting “mean bloggers” being a big thing. And so it turns out for the completed study, just published by Gandalf Nicolas, Xuechunzi Bai, and Fiske.

It’s tempting to let my “self-appointed data police” side loose. In some ways, the study has more relevance to a debate about weaknesses in methods in psychological science than it does to science blogging. It’s a small, disparate English-language-biased sample of unknown representativeness, with loads of exploratory analyses run on it. (There were 41 blogs, with 11,539 posts, of which 73% came from 2 blogs.) Important questions about power are raised, but far too much is made of analyses by gender and career stage for such a small and biased sample. And they studied social media, but not Twitter.


Cartoon: Hands up who's not here!



However I’m pleased that it isn’t an exercise in wringing out material to discredit bloggers. There was an attempt to quantify the some-bloggers-are-harassers claim and the hypothesis that women scientists might be more targeted by them. Nicolas and colleagues did this by seeing if a particular list of people, including Fiske, were mentioned a lot. The result: mentions of these people were, they said, “rare”, and there were more mentions of the men on the list than the women.

News to me, that will interest some: some blogs are getting a fair few citations on Google Scholar – a median of 3 (range 0 to 308). Their results, suggest Nicolas and colleagues, raise the issue of whether blog posts should “count” for academics.

If you’re one of the bloggers, or interested in us, check out the supplementary info – if you don’t have access to the journal, it’s here as well.

I come in about average or over in most things. But I still don’t know where I fit on readership. That’s partly because 41% didn’t provide that data when asked, and that’s way too much missing data to mean much. But also because I’m one of the 41% who didn’t provide it, and I honestly don’t know where I would land. I would have had to dig out post-specific data on over 100 posts from 3 sources in a short time, and I wasn’t even sure if I had access to one of the datasets.

To be honest, though, after Fiske’s name-calling and put-downs about “some” bloggers, I’m not sure I would have done it even if it was a simple data download. Let’s face it, if you’re publicly neither neutral nor respectful of a group of people, you might not be well-placed to gain their cooperation. Still, I strongly recommend science bloggers pay serious attention to the paper, despite the history.




“Destructo-critics” timeline:

Around September 2016: Original “destructo-critics” piece goes online.

September 2016: The blogosphere responds – here’s mine, including links to tap into others.

November 2016: Association for Psychological Science (APS) published a version with most of the name-calling excised.

March 2017: National Academies of Science Sackler Colloquium on reproducibility, including – Fiske’s talk here, and mine here.

June 2019: Paper by Nicolas, Bai, and Fiske epublished in an APS journal, with data and code at OSF.


[Update 19 June 2019]: The sentence that reads “(There were 41 blogs, with 11,539 posts, of which 73% came from 2 blogs.)”, originally said 2 bloggers, as I have not checked whether it was a single blogger per blog.


The cartoons are my own (CC BY-NC-ND license). (More cartoons at Statistically Funny and on Tumblr.)



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