Guest post by W. Jackson Davis (who attended the seminar today as listed below)
The contrarian discourse in the blogosphere–what are blogs good for anyway?
Franziska Hollender, Institute for Social Studies of Science, University of Vienna CSTPR Conference Room, 1333 Grandview Avenue. Tuesday Sept. 11, 2012
Summary from CSTPR
The media serve to inform, entertain, educate and provide a basis for discussion among people. While traditional media such as print newspapers are facing a slow decline, they are being outpaced by new media that add new dimensions to public communication with interactivity being the most striking one. In the context of climate change, one question has arisen from recent events: what to do with the contrarians? Some propose that the contrarian discourse is merely an annoying sideshow, while others think that it
is science’s responsibility to fight them. Blogs, being fairly unrestricted and highly interactive, serve as an important platform for contrarian viewpoints, and they are increasingly permeating multiple media spheres.
Using the highly ranked blog ‘Watts up with that’ as a case study, discourse analysis of seven posts including almost 1600 user comments reveals that blogs are able to unveil components and purposes of the contrarian discourse that traditional media are not. They serve as extended peer communities as put forth by post-normal science, however, blog users themselves do not see post-normal science as a desirable goal. Furthermore, avowals of distrust can be seen as linguistic performances of accountability, forcing science to prove its reliability and integrity over and over again. Finally, it is concluded that the climate change discourse has been stifled by the obsession of discussing the science basis and that in order to advance the discourse, there needs to be a change in how science as an ideology is communicated and enacted.
Approximate Transcript by W. Jackson Davis
(vetted for accuracy by Ms. Hollender)
I did this study because this “mediated” society [one blanketed with diverse media] calls the integrity of science into question. A changing media landscape provides new possibilities for public discussion and participation.
Anthony Watts received an invitation to this talk and posted it online. It received 476 comments. The comment section verified my results and provided extended peer-review at the same time.
This study was done as a Master’s thesis–a small scale study by a graduate student. I sampled 7 blog posts by Anthony Watts between 2006 and 2012. I used principles of critical discourse analysis (Fairclough, Wodak). The climate blog “Watt’s Up With That” (WUWT) is ranked 118 of more than one million. WUWT gets 3 million hits per month. My results should be seen as an in-depth case study rather than overview of the field.
Discourse analysis–my primary methodology–is used to analyze prevalent power structures and views language as a social practice. provides overview of prevalent power structures.
Normal science (as promulgated by Thomas Kuhn) is seen as the goal by bloggers above all else. However, their request is to provide people broadly with the means and education to evaluate and disseminate the scientific data they provide, which does not fit with the principles of normal science in which the production and review of results of inquiry stay inside the scientific community and even within a certain paradigmatic community.
Post-normal science (defined by Funtowitcz and Ravetz) as practiced by the blogger community is described as anti-scientific, yet the blog community does extended peer-review and demands the further opening of science towards the public. She believes that whether post-normal science is anti-scientific may be debatable.
Post-normal science is, in her view, a description, not a prescription. Normal science no longer fits with complex socio-economic factors that influence science.
Analyzing the seven WUWT posts, she finds discursive strategies on WUWT to include ridicule, personal attacks, and name-calling. She says this is formally discouraged on the site, but nonetheless occurs.
Narrative structures utilized on WUWT include: 1) Scientific data dissemination. 2) Critique of scientific findings. 3) Social and political implications of climate change. 4) Climate change as a political tool to challenge capitalism and impose a new model of wealth onto the American public.
Comment thread narratives include: 1) The authority and trustworthiness of science. 2) The role of science in society. These are often discussed at length.
Science itself is not a sound action-basis and does not determine what the results of scientific inquiry imply for society. Science is not free of values and beliefs, it is not done under the exclusion of social, economic and political factors.
Data represent a social construction. Who constructs the data, and for what purpose, is relevant to the analysis. Nothing is without (observational) bias. In fact data construction is never unbiased. There is always a translation between the observed phenomenon,what we observe and what we record as the data that represent what we have observed.
The choice of media arena is crucial to the discourse. Some people say blogs, and post-normal science, is a sideshow (WUWT), irrelevant, and unimportant. However, choice of media is crucial. This is among the reasons she wanted to research it.
Gate-keeping exists implicitly and explicitly on blogs, including WUWT. Censorship is taking place. Hostile comments prohibit an open and constructive discourse–but gate-keeping is no longer imposed by the medium but by human intervention. Interactivity is high, manifest as responses to posts and subsequent responses to posters.
Not all of this is true for WUWT–there is definitely gate-keeping, however. Certain kind of comments are welcome, while others are deleted by the site manager (gate-keeper).
There are very few dissenting comments on WUWT, and if so, they are viciously attacked. Self-selection of contributors therefore takes place, under the influence of and to avoid prospective attacks on views expressed.
These are all things that happen at WUWT–it is not that free, not everyone is welcome. There is gate-keeping.
Interactivity of the WUWT blog is high. No post has less than 50 comments, and the seven posts analyzed here received up to 400 comments.
Example: The post advertising this talk was published on Sept. 1, 2012, receiving at least 476 comments. Personal attacks on Ms. Hollender were commonplace, including “This girl has a brain the size of a peanut.”
She experienced extensive misunderstanding of certain terms and notions “science as ideology, “avowals of distrust, “linguistic performances.” Plans to disrupt and intervene in her presentation were posted. One comment said to offer her another Zoloft and put her by the window, she’ll enjoy the bright colors in the sunlight.”
On the plus side, the constant questioning encompassed in blog comments holds scientists accountable. She agrees with this function, which she considers valuable. This is what she expressed as avowals of distrust, which is a term from speech-act theory and describes linguistic performances that accomplish something beyond a statement.
The example of the post announcing her talk, and the many responses, illustrate exactly some of the problems she sees with the blog. About 250 have nothing to do with her talk, and instead diverge to off-track issues–and there is no formal mechanism to keep the comments on track.
Post-normal science is a description, not a prescription. It is something that is happening, not something that should be happening. We have problems now, certain things are at stake. What comes out of science is one thing–what we do with it is another.
“Science is not an ideology, but it is not free of values and beliefs–and what role science plays in our society is a matter of ideology.”
“Blogs are an underrated media arena and need to be taken more seriously in academia–extended peer review works very well in the Blogosphere, but constructive discourse is not happening because of personal attacks and ridicule.”
Peer-review needs to be extended toward wider public, “extended peer review” using non-traditional approaches. People who are not expert in the field should engage, look at material, point out mistakes. This function works very well in the blogosphere. Often papers are reviewed like this (example of Roger Pielke on his blog). This facilitates uncovering of mistakes and inconsistencies. Constructive discourse is mixed up, however, with “noise”–personal attacks, non-constructive replies, etc.
Every scientist used to criticism–but not used to being called “ridiculous.” Blogs would work better without the non-constructive discourse.
She personally takes no position on climate change in order to remain objective in her analysis. She is unbiased, deliberately avoids sitting in either of the corners.
“Q and As”
Q: Are you personally involved [in the issue of climate change and its causes]?
A. No, she deliberately avoids taking either side on ethical grounds. She will not engage, because this would compromise her objectivity.
Q. Productive criticisms emerge from this blog–does same come out of journals? Does vitriol facilitate critical attitude even though it is harsh?
A. Yes, generates content and visibility, and so vitriol is not all bad. It can lead to constructive discourse. Also steers away many people. Also generates a lot of media attention.
Re: open source journals–they still stay within the scientific boundaries. You can access them, though it is hard if you are a lay person. Blogs a better medium to reach a wider public than just your own colleagues. Access is not the same. Blogs are superior in this regard.
Q. Have you observed any difference between Anglo sphere blog tradition and European tradition?
A. She has not read many German blogs–not as many. She does read some institutional blogs, but there is less of a divide in Germany than in US, so do not have two oppositional views on climate. Don’t have the same diversion of opinion in Europe.
Q. How can you learn and take back to journals to get them to engage a broader audience?
What can the journals do [to reap this benefit of blogs]?
A. The journal Nature Climate Change offers a possible model–it has moved to an online format, there are chat rooms. There is still a barrier to access, however. The reason is economic; when you have a print journal, have to pay for it. The access [under this business model] cannot be free to everyone. Individuals can always seek out information by going to a University library, but this is not generally done. Nature Climate Change has made a step toward broader access with online forum. Scientific journals do use a certain kind of language, but it is not journals’ responsibility to teach this to the public, it is the responsibility of each individual.
Q. Your presentation is concerned with discourse between two groups ["warmists" and "skeptics"]; how do you view the two camps and where do you sit?
A. She is still undecided on the science. She feels she cannot take either side because she does not have all the [scientific] information required. She is not a climate scientist–she is undecided. Adapting to climate change may require certain lifestyle changes, which she does embrace (such as recycling). She nonetheless believes that it is important to keep an open mind on both sides. Science never proves anything beyond doubt. Still, the question remains as to what we should do about climate change. The precautionary principle is important–it is essential to act sooner than later.
Q. Do blogs help generate new ideas and avenues of research?
A. Different roles of commenters–there is the police function, aimed at exerting power and silencing oppositional voices. Another role is productive–criticism, reinforcement, engaging information.
Q. Do you see same people serving the same role repeatedly, or do people switch roles?
A. Both. Blogs are more complex than they appear.
Q. My question is about the blogs’ influence on the relation of “normal” and “post-normal” science. Many people who post on WUWT do so because they cannot get their findings published in what they consider a biased and even corrupted climate science peer-review system. Do the blogs enable exposure of new ideas that can enter the discourse of “normal” science?
A. She only looked at Watt’s posts, and not at the guest posts that would pertain more to this question. Guest posts are written by knowledgeable people. She cannot judge whether guest posters would be able to publish what they write on WUWT. It is generally not clear whether they tried. Anyone can write anything they want–there probably are ideas that do not have peer review that can be beneficially published on blog.
Q. Do other blogs have a more balanced or “intermediate” view on climate change? I am thinking of the Judith Curry blog–is this an intermediate view on climate?
A. Judith Curry has adopted “warmist” views [views supportive of the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming], in Watt’s opinion, but her blog gets many diverse comments as well. Interaction between bloggers is interesting. Most blogs have distinct viewpoints, but none encourage diverse views.
Comment from audience. Competitive discourse as on blogs may be a “purer” method of sorting out the “truth.” Aristotle used in his rhetoric. Blogs may be modern equivalent. Gecker [sp?] and Posner [sp?] at the University of Chicago have economic blog where they debate each other on economic matters using this format.
Reply. There is initiative in Europe called “deliberative democracy”–citizens have access to information and experts. It works well, although it takes a lot of effort and expense.
Comment from audience. People are generally getting very negative on blogs right now in U.S., maybe because of the political season.
Reply. She says this is part of the reason she looked at 2006-2012–she wanted to integrate over time. She wanted to control for short-term fluctuations, including seasonal and political, as a kind of “control.”
Comment from audience. There is a major misunderstanding of [your position on] blogs — you (she) is not taking a side, but rather just describing what is going on.
Reply. She agrees–she does not take sides. She is descriptive, not prescriptive. She feels very misunderstood in that regard.
Comment from audience. A book that comes to mind is Republic of Science, by Ian C. Jarvie. He edited some journal the philosophy of social science. He defends an Anglo-American norm, very much non consciously adopted by most scientists. Ravetz came out that it is the urgency of the matter that drives standards.
Reply. She replies that post-normal science does NOT promote lower standards…one of the main problems is that whether climate change is taking place, and whether anthropogenic. The other side is concerned with what to do about it after having adopted what they perceive as a scientific consensus, so the discussion between the two opposing groups is not about the same thing anymore, which makes it frustrating for both sides.
The representative of the host organization, CSTPR, stated that both audio and visual of this seminar will be posted on sciencepolicyColorado.edu in the next couple of weeks.
Comment by Anthony:
For the record, Ms. Hollender never contacted me nor asked any questions online that I am aware of. She states that she sampled seven WUWT blog posts to come to her conclusions. As of this writing, there are 7,764 published stories, which would make her sample size 7/7764 = ~ 0.0009 or .09%. I think that if I were to do a study with a sample size that small, I’d probably be laughed at.
Since she chose what posts to sample, I have no idea what if any personal bias she might have intentionally or inadvertently introduced by her choices. I do know this though, her statement of:
Interactivity of the WUWT blog is high. No post has less than 50 comments, and the seven posts analyzed here received up to 400 comments.
The “no post has less than 50 comments” is demonstrably false. There are many many posts at WUWT which have less then 50 comments, especially in the early days of 2006 and 2007. However, even recent posts such as:
Weekly Climate and Energy News Roundup for 9/9/2012
…has only 7 comments, so this suggests to me that she wasn’t very careful with her sampling methods, and perhaps used personally formed opinions rather than hard data to come to that conclusion.
Also as of this writing there are 895,357 approved comments and the traffic count is at 125,607,045 views.
I don’t claim WUWT to be the perfect venue, and clearly there are many things that could be done better here, but I think the numbers speak for themselves. If there’s any other climate blog that can garner that kind of reach, please let me know. I encourage her to do an identical study on RealClimate, and note what she finds there, especially when it comes to gatekeeping.
UPDATE: Just a few minutes after posting, Fran Hollender responded in comments. Here’s that comment along with my reply:
Fran Submitted on 2012/09/11 at 9:39 pm
I wish you had consulted me on your added comments, too. In my talk I specifically said that in my sample (!), no post had less than 50 comments.
REPLY: It certainly doesn’t read that way, and you vetted the document by W. Jackson Davis before posting was done here. Not knowing which posts you sampled, I can’t confirm anything of what you talked about.
And further, how could I contact you? You’ve never revealed yourself to me or to WUWT that I am aware of….until now. But a search shows you commented under a fake name here on 02/07/2012 as “thedetroiter”.
Here’s the two comments:
thedetroiter 2012/02/07 at 4:27 am
Oh, as an addition: even here in Germany we know not to trust anything the BILD writes. Most of you won’t understand the BILDblog, but its mission is to debunk their bullshit.
Before using a BILD article as a basis for an argument, thing again. Next time maybe just enjoy the naked ladies and move on.
thedetroiter Submitted on 2012/02/07 at 3:25 am
Right. Green activist, you say? Vahrenholt was a lobbyist for Shell and responsible for “improving their public image”. He now works for one of the biggest energy companies in Germany.
These suggest you have biases too.
UPDATE2: Fran has responded to criticisms in a lengthy comment here