Sunday, February 02, 2014

The Decline of Neurocriticism

In the last post, I celebrated Eight Years of Neurocriticism but wistfully noted that this blog's popularity peaked in 2012. The traffic last year showed a decline to 2009-2010 levels. Why did this happen? And does it matter? No it does not, but it gives me the opportunity to comment on the state of a specialized little corner of science blogging. The sort of piece where people say things like “blogging as a chance to exercise our voices doesn’t seem to be going anywhere” and “the blog is dead.”

Except not that.

@practiCalfMRI politely suggested it's the quality of visitor that counts. In 2013 the Average Time on Site for my homepage was indeed up 25%, but I could have been inadvertently cherry picking the data...

Commenters on the post anticipated some of my thoughts. Perhaps it was related to the demise of Google Reader, said one. A drop did occur when the service stopped in July 2013, but traffic started trending downward in April-May 2013. So I don't think this can explain it. Instead, the format may have been a victim of its own success and run its course. As another commenter aptly put it:
What happened? Well, what always happens: with time, people get bored. Of anything. From marriage to cereal bar flavor. When you started Neurocritic, it was new, and people were sick of all the neurocrap published out there. Then, the neurocrap people and others, started realizing that talking crap about neuro stuff got a lot of hits! And so everybody started doing it, from Voodoo correlations to Retraction Watch. It was the fashionable thing to do. That's when it got boring.

The Decline of Neurocriticism

In the latter half of 2012, the backlash against Insula iPhone opinion pieces and the neural correlates of ______ fMRI studies was noticed in the popular press. Allegations of neurobollocks, neurodoubt, and neuroscience fiction had become fashionable. The Mainstreaming of Neurocriticism had arrived, and you know what that means: it's all downhill from there. It's like when The Sartorialist wrote about meggings in 2010, but then USA Today declared them the latest male fashion trend just the other day. So now it's time to throw yours away (or to give them to Justin Bieber).

Then Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience was published in June 2013, prompting a resurgence of dualism (e.g., “The brain is not the mind”).

As I've said before, this general trend has been useful in pointing out flawed studies, overblown conclusions, and overly hyped press releases. But some working neuroscientists thought the naysaying had gotten a little out of hand, because expert critiques are easily misinterpreted. A little neuronuance is needed here, the middle ground that acknowledges limitations yet avoids global condemnations. Around this time, I initiated my own little backlash against the anti-neuro backlash by starting a new blog, The Neurocomplimenter.

Daniel Engbar went out on a limb and proposed that “the public turned its back on neuro-hype” long ago (in 2008) and that “2008 may also have been the high point for critical neuroscience blogging.” But I place the date later than that, in 2012. Nevertheless, popular new blogs like Neurobollocks started after then, and Neuroskeptic shows no signs of slowing down. And there's plenty of blogging to be done that doesn't involve neurocriticism.

Maybe I'm just getting boring (or bored). So perhaps it's time to use a new platform like Tumblr to post animated gifs of brains from cheesy horror movies OMG Neurocritic!

"How many ways can you distort the human mind?"

Instead of blogging, people are posting to Tumblr, tweeting, pinning things to their board, posting to Reddit, Snapchatting, updating Facebook statuses, Instagramming, and publishing on Medium.  ...  Blogs are for 40-somethings with kids.

-Jason Kottke, The blog is dead, long live the blog

There are 123 independent neuroscience and psychology blogs aggregated on @neuroghetto now, and some huge number in networks. Science blogging isn't dead yet, long live science blogging.

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At February 02, 2014 11:02 AM, Blogger practiCal fMRI said...

Oh yeah, the rise of Twitter must be a huge factor. Only this very morning I opted to read the Tweeted replies to a blog link Tweet, rather than go to the blog itself and read the blog and its comments. I've gone meta.

Post publication peer review sites should also drain some of the emphasis from scientific blogs in the long run. At least, they may change the content we opt for in blogs. It's always fascinating to watch transitions.

At February 02, 2014 1:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is really no comparison between Neuroskeptic and Neurocritic, in my opinion. Neuroskeptic is way more superficial than Neurocritic. It takes some effort to read the posts by Neurocritic (probably only a fraction of what it takes Neurocritic to write them). I'm oversimplifying here, but Neuroskeptic is more about entertainment and gossiping tidbits; the kind of place where the "cool" high school kids go to. Neurocritic is just more serious (though there is a ton of clever and dark humor there). Perhaps, that is why more people may end up finding it boring or too "nerdy".

At February 02, 2014 11:32 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Anonymous - Thanks so much for reading, I'm glad you find the effort to be worth it. We each have our strengths and weaknesses...

practiCal fMRI - Right, Twitter and other types of social media are definitely pulling traffic away from blogs (and are being used instead of blogging). One can collect Twitter discussions on Storify, like TV is not killing your child's Theory of Mind.

And post-publication review on sites like PubPeer and PubMed Commons (and even in journal comments sections) is on the rise. But I think blogs are still the place for lengthy HIBAR-type reviews (Had I Been A Reviewer).

At February 03, 2014 5:27 AM, Anonymous Roger Dooley said...

I think it's the channel factor. Much like today's TV, the proliferation of channels and content spreads the traffic and encourages quick grazing. It's tough for thoughtful content to compete with clickbait headlines and one-bite content. Keep up the good work!

At February 04, 2014 12:06 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks, Roger. I'm tempted to try and keep up with the times, though. I don't know, maybe host a reality show on competitive neuroimaging...

At February 04, 2014 1:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quick bait and superficial attraction is indeed digitally omni-present. We find new means of our technological pursuits to bring more of it and faster than ever before. It no doubt represents and contributes to the litany of ailments striking our minds. Isn’t the cure within our reach? Isn't it substance? Couldn’t substance stop the rapid wave of sensory overload? I have more hope than to believe mediated, tantalizing hypnosis will blunt every mind. I hope wisdom and discernment will prevail and crash the wave of channel surfing. Some form of showing control over our thoughts must emerge. We can only hope those rising above the alpha wave beaches are staying away from what are certainly dangerous waters.

At February 05, 2014 9:20 PM, Blogger J. F. Aldridge said...

I can see a rough correlation between your graph and the arc of Lady Gaga's cultural saturation. Perhaps that's something you should look into?
Have you considered trying your hand at anecdotes. I've been reading mind hacks on and off for about four years now and the post that best sticks in my mind was written almost entirely in scene. It detailed his acquisition of a drug from a back-alley, immigrant establishment. It said something about his specialty in a way that was subtle and allowed the readers to draw their own conclusions. I like opinions and rational--I wouldn't frequent blogs if I didn't--but a little bit of concreteness every once and a while can be a nice release.
If you're getting bored of blogging, or trying to find new ways to prod at neuroscience, it could be worth a shot.

Have a good one.


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