Meta-encounters and non-overlapping magisteria (or, why Virginia Heffernan wrote what she wrote about ScienceBlogs)


What happens when a cultural critic applies her Derrida-ean apparatus to the volatile goings-on at a network of empiricist bloggers? Heffernangate!

Such was my takeaway from last night’s “beer summit” between Virginia Heffernan and a handful of science bloggers, organized by John Timmer from Ars Technica.

John rightly figured that getting a few folks together face-to-face would make for a more civil and interesting discussion of the de/merits of Heffernan’s article, compared to the swarm-of-flesh-eating-locusts manner in which many sciencebloggers initially reacted online. I tagged along because

  • I wanted to meet some science folks I follow on Twitter in real life
  • I had met Heffernan a few years before under similar circumstances (she wrote something I disagreed with; I flamed her online; she was open-minded enough to suggest a meet to discuss) and was curious to see if this meetup would have similarly collegial results
  • I was interested in the meta-topic at hand — is it possible for these two “tribes,” with their vastly different sets of working assumptions and critical worldviews, to teach each other anything?

The answers to those last two questions were, happily, “yes” and “sure, probably.”

It’s always interesting to see the stark differences between a person’s “writing self” and her “in real life self.” Much of the rancor towards Heffernan seemed at least partly motivated by the just-plain-nasty tone of her piece. But in person, she exuded an earnest, almost childlike curiosity, asking (and answering) all kinds of professional and personal questions without bringing any knee-jerk “judgment” to bear. The irony, of course, is that had her article evinced this same sort of charming/disarming “beginner’s mind” attitude, it would have been vastly more interesting, and we probably would’ve avoided all the brouhaha in the first place.

That said, she did make some statements last night that threw the disconnect between herself and the sciencebloggers into pretty sharp relief (to my mind, anyway). I didn’t have a tape recorder at the table, so I’m going off of memory, but she said that her piece was “all about Derrida,” that she “[doesn’t] believe in point-counterpoint,” and that, in contrast to the criticisms she received from many sciencebloggers, “the more stinging response [to her article] would have been, ‘This is not a legitimate deconstruction.'” When Arikia Millikan asked Heffernan why she didn’t “do more research” before writing about ScienceBlogs, Heffernan asked (again, quite earnestly): “What do you mean by research?” and “But what would that have done for me?” She also said that if she could write the piece over again, she wouldn’t change anything — aside from that unfortunate recommendation of Anthony Watts’s climate-denialist blog.

That’s when the whole flap crystallized in my mind: it was all about non-overlapping magisteria (to crib Steven Jay Gould’s famous assessment of science and religion). Heffernan, cultural critic, with an intellect forged in heavy-duty poststructuralist Humanities, and sciencebloggers, scientists or journalists but staunch empiricists all, were about as naturally at-odds as two groups can be. Heffernan approached, explored, thought about, and wrote about ScienceBlogs in the same way she would any other cultural artifact she writes about in her column (whether it’s YouTube mashups, the iPad, or Craigslist): that is, aesthetically.  Facts, “research,” empirical truth… these tools-of-inquiry are about as applicable to aesthetic critique as a calculator is to a Picasso canvas.

Meanwhile, any scienceblogger worth his or her salt — whether it’s a journalist like David Dobbs or a biologist/pundit like PZ Myers — does what they do because at the core they are interested in uncovering, illuminating, and defending The Real. Hard facts, scientific method, empirical truth. Objective reality that for all practical purposes exists, independently of what perspective or “critical methodology” you bring to bear on it.

Is it any wonder that sparks flew?

Temperamentally and intellectually, I’m more aligned with the latter of those two camps. But over time I’ve gotten better at avoiding a zero-sum attitude — I can apprehend, comprehend, even appreciate (within reason) other “magisteria” as well. Are they “right,” do I agree with them? At this point, that’s not as interesting a question to me as “what happens when they collide, overlap, or cross-pollinate?” And what do those meta-encounters illuminate, if anything?

The funny (?) thing is that this meetup helped me understand how I could at once agree with Heffernan’s column and also forcefully disagree with it. The truth is that I really related to her aesthetic judgment of the ScienceBlogs network as self-obsessed and often-obnoxious. Knee-jerk? Unfair? Maybe. De gustibus non disputandum est. That’s what all aesthetic arguments boil down to, however interesting or uninteresting they may be.

At the same time, I really disagree with her media-ethics argument viz. PepsiGate. It struck me as pat — not leastwise because I had a similar reaction myself, at first. Journalists like her (and me, and many of us) are, indeed, well-schooled in the peccadilloes of edit/ad tension — we know the rules, we know what to expect, we know how to recognize egregious lapses. The rub is that the PepsiGate thing actually, really did mutate those peccadilloes into an unfamiliar form — one that deserves serious consideration. Why else would so many people be debating it? If it were a simple matter of issuing a commonsense reminder — “Oh, grow up you whiny bloggers, we’re all part of a business at the end of the day” or the like — I doubt people would have gotten so incensed on either side.

So did Heffernan “deserve” the vicious drubbing she received from the community which she critiqued? Yes and no. But the meta-encounter at Henry Public in Brooklyn last night sure illuminated a lot of more interesting territory, at least for me.

[Postscript: this very blog post is not an act of reportage any more than Heffernan’s infamous article is. If I misrepresented anyone’s views who was there that night, I apologize, and feel free to correct me; I’m just trying to express what sense (or not) I made of them that night, for myself.]

10 Responses to “Meta-encounters and non-overlapping magisteria (or, why Virginia Heffernan wrote what she wrote about ScienceBlogs)”

  1. Thanks, John. This post was clarifying. Would be interested to hear Virginia’s thoughts about how you characterized her philosophical leanings…

    • 2 Me

      Yeah… let’s hope I wasn’t galactically mistaken. 🙂

  2. Too civil by half. Next time, I hope there are fisticuffs.

  3. “What do you mean by research?”


    • 6 Me

      Aw, come on Carl. In the context of the discussion it was a legitimate question — the whole rub was that H’s working-definition of that term (for her column’s purposes) was at odds with Arikia’s. So why NOT ask for clarification? It’s not like she was all, “What are these mysterious things you call “facts”?” while cocking her head like a Corgi…

      • …though that visual is highly entertaining.

      • What you say about her alienation from empiricism is very interesting. I’m curious whether she’d agree that “Facts, ‘research,’ empirical truth […] are about as applicable to [her] aesthetic critique as a calculator is to a Picasso canvas” — especially considering her just-published piece about how she used to be a fact-checker at the New Yorker. But maybe she has fully abandoned the empirical project; the piece does include this classic bit of faux-profound tomfoolery: “But if the Web has changed what qualifies as fact-checking, has it also changed what qualifies as a fact?” Come to think of it, was she even a fact-checker for the New Yorker? That may be a fact that no longer qualifies as a fact. Or something.

        Which is exactly the problem. I don’t care if she uses post-structuralist deconstruction (or perhaps half-assed deconstruction) for aesthetic questions. But Pepsipocalypse centered around an ethical question, which concerned a lot of empirical facts (how the new blog was presented, etc). And if you’re not going to take those facts seriously, your analysis/deconstruction/opinion doesn’t mean much.

        PS: I think I get bonus points for that use of “alienation.”

  4. The thing is, there are serious folks doing Derrida and deconstruction who actually bother to do research (of the sort it was pretty clear that Heffernan did not do on the object of her deconstruction). And I have to wonder how much of Team Science’s outright rejection of any post-structuralist project has to do with the prevalence of half-assed post-structuralism of this sort.

    (Not that I’m going to indulge in the “no true post-structuralist” fallacy here — I’ll cop to having a philosophical training so immersed in the analytic tradition that it sometimes made the “hard sciences” seem squishy, at a university where the post-modernists were lurking in the German and French departments. But there were Derrida followers who knew from rigor!)

    • 10 Me

      That’s a fine point. I have next to no way (or desire) to evaluate how in/effective VH’s application of her “Derrida-ean apparatus” actually was in this instance. Maybe post-structuralist types would pitch a fit about it just as much as Team Science did!

      And if they did, I’m sure I wouldn’t understand a f*cking word.

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