Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Blurred Lines: The Science Blogosphere and the Borasphere

Hey, hey, hey

                      Hey, hey, hey

                             Blurred Lines
                                     ------Robin Thicke

full size image at ScienceBloggingHR.jpg
One depiction of the science blogosphere (~2010), by Brian Reid

This is a post about the neuroscience blogosphere. It exists as a loose entity separate from the infographic above. Oh, there are a few stray overlaps here and there. But not many.

I was initially going to call this post Parallel Lines.

The story is subjective. It's told from one point of view. Mostly mine. So it's the perspective of a blogger who is a scientist. Not a science writer. Not exactly a "science communicator" either. Not part of a blog network. One who has never attended ScienceOnline. Therein lies the rub, the reason my ilk don't exist on infographics.

The Science Blogosphere

Other stories, many sad and angering and tragic tales, should really take precedence now. Stories of blurred lines and clearly crossed lines. Recent instances of censorship and harassment have deeply affected that parallel community, the one that dominates the discourse on science blogging. The reverberations have been felt far and wide. Perhaps the ongoing conversations about racism and sexism and sexual harassment and abuse of power will lead to positive lasting changes.

Time will tell.

graphic from the Journal of Feelsynapsis

The Borasphere

Bora Zivkovic was an incredibly influential, powerful, and prolific presence in the science blogging world, especially in the US. He was the community manager for the Scientific American Blog Network. He built it nearly from scratch. He encouraged and promoted a large number of young talented writers (most of whom were women).1 He was a manager / organizer of the ScienceOnline conference, the Open Laboratory anthologies, and the ScienceSeeker website.

He was known as The Blogfather. In 2010, he described the Changing Science Blogging Ecosystem in 8,247 words (mostly in terms of the ScienceBlogs network). In 2012 he went further and got to define what a science blog is and to write their history (6,868 words).

Many people came to confuse the Borasphere with the totality of the Science Blogosphere. Blogs that fell outside his sphere of influence barely existed. Should any one person be this powerful?

Blurred Lines

The Bora story above uses past tense verbs because everything changed October 16 to October 18.  Bora was forced to resign his positions when detailed accounts of sexual harassment came to light. While he devoted years to the cause and contributed many great things to science blogging at large, his legacy is tainted by these inappropriate violations of trust.

There is another tale that has not been told. It is not mine to tell. It exists in the realm of sheer speculation and might be better left unsaid.

Here's where the neuro/psych blogging comes in.

Laura Helmuth is the only person who's hinted at it publicly (that I know of), in her excellent piece at Slate:
At the most reprehensible end of the spectrum of possible explanations, Zivkovic is a predator who surrounded himself with inexperienced women because he considered them easy prey. Or perhaps he has some mental health problems with impulse control.  

Some of his behavior might be consistent with bipolar disorder, with mania/hypomania in particular. Bora was a chronobiologist who studied circadian rhythms in animals. He was also extremely knowledgeable about Lithium, Circadian Clocks and Bipolar Disorder and wrote lengthy posts on the topic. He was very prolific and energetic. Blog Around the Clock has an obvious double meaning.

If true, this DOES NOT excuse his behavior, but it may provide a possible explanation. You see, hypersexuality is a common symptom in those experiencing a hypomanic episode:

B. During the period of mood disturbance, three (or more) of the following symptoms have persisted (four if the mood is only irritable) and have been present to a significant degree: 
(1) inflated self-esteem or grandiosity
(2) decreased need for sleep (e.g., feels rested after only 3 hours of sleep)
(3) more talkative than usual or pressure to keep talking
(4) flight of ideas or subjective experience that thoughts are racing
(5) distractibility (i.e., attention too easily drawn to unimportant or irrelevant external stimuli)
(6) increase in goal-directed activity (either socially, at work or school, or sexually) or psychomotor agitation
(7) excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences (e.g., the person engages in unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish business investments)

The Neuroscience Blogosphere

On October 14, Adam J Calhoun wrote a provocative post asking Why is there no neuroscience blogosphere?
Obviously, there are tons of great neuroscience blogs out there – I’m not even going to try to list them because they are numerous and I don’t want to accidentally leave one out. But there does not seem to be a blogosphere. To get all middle school on you, Wikipedia defines the blogosphere as the collection of all blogs and their interconnections, implying that they exist as a connected community.

When I look around at the Economics blogosphere, I see a lot of give-and-take between blogs. One blog will post an idea, another blog will comment on it, and the collective community has a discussion. I see this discussion, to a greater or lesser extent, in the other communities I follow: math, physics, and ecology. Yet missing in all this is neuroscience, and perhaps biology in general. Why is this?

. . .

Are biologists just less interested in discussing broad ideas? I wouldn’t think so, but I don’t see any equivalent to, say, Dynamic Ecology, where discussions on neuroscience ideas big and small can kick off. I think the closest we get is the Neuroskeptic/critic axis.

Well, I was very flattered indeed to be part of the axis of evil...

One thing I've tried to do in my many years of neuroblogging is to provide a loose sense of community by the mere aggregation of independent, non-network neuroscience and psychology blogs. The impetus for this was the rise in number, prominence, and clout of the blogging networks in 2010, and a definition of science blogging that excluded our voices. We're in the @neuroghetto, folks. This alternate history is recounted in Independent Neuroblogs as part of the science blogging ecosystem.

Obviously, many excellent network-based blogs have long been part of Adam's neuroscience blogosphere too, and some of these straddle multiple worlds.2  I'm not here to be exclusionary.

In general, I’d rather be critiquing the latest faux pas in neuro/psych research then blathering on about the current state of the blogosphere (i.e., blogging about blogging).3 But with all these recent events I felt like my head was going to explode.  I wish everyone well.


1 This caused #RipplesOfDoubt.

2 Foremost among them (in my mind) is Scicurious, who was an early protégé of Bora. In fact, I waited for her thoughtful response to the scandal before posting anything myself. Very insightful commening as well; this comment by Razib Khan was especially notable.

3 There’s nothing inherently wrong in blogging about blogging, but it’s usually not my thing.

                                              Hey, hey, hey

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At October 23, 2013 4:19 AM, Blogger Dirk Hanson said...

As a blogger who was happily included in the Neurocritic's initial roundup of indie neuroscience bloggers, a dynamic little ghetto known as Indie Neuroblogs, may I say how much I like this post.

I, too, was kind of waiting to hear what Scicurious had to say....

At October 23, 2013 10:03 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks, Dirk. You're such a great writer, I always love reading your work.

At October 23, 2013 3:06 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I was surprised to hear what Sci had to say. She joined so many others and blogged about other people's reported experience of Bora rather than sticking to an account of HER OWN experience of Bora. Janet and many others did the same.

At October 23, 2013 3:08 PM, Blogger Angela Ronson said...

I'm followed...but out of the loop. This is all news to me. Thank you.

(P.S. I'd also like to hear Scicurious.)

At October 23, 2013 6:43 PM, Blogger TheCellularScale said...

Interesting post. I like hearing this perspective because it's the closest to mine (as a scientist who writes, not a "science writer"). I am not a #sciox person, and don't know bora. It's weird to hear these really personal accounts from people I know a lot about, but don't actually know. And yet I can't take my eyes off it.

At October 25, 2013 8:18 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Anonymous of October 25, 2013 4:58 PM - Thanks for that interesting bit of information, but I think I'll keep it to myself for now.


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