In early May, five members of SciLance made like beat poets and performed at a crowded San Francisco coffee shop. The main difference? We were waaay more self-deprecating than the beats ever were. And with good reason, it turns out – we had the material.
Asked to reflect on life and work in science writing, we talked about adventure and variety, the challenges of pitching dream stories and the delights of finding just the right metaphor. But we also converged on another shared experience that we’d never really discussed before: bad, awful, horrendous reader feedback on our work.
Anyone who writes in the public eye will get responses, and angry people and cranks are more likely to write than the (presumably) many more who make it to the end of a particular story without being outraged. That’s fine – sure, take a swipe at my pretentious writing, or question my choice of sources. But what’s surprising is how quickly some readers are to make the critiques personal. I’ve been told by way of email, post office, and comment section that I’m variously clueless, irresponsible, and irredeemably dull. Oh, and going to hell.
Energy and climate stories are right there with evolution in terms of being rant-bait. But this next one so seamlessly combines name-calling, typos, melodramatic disappointment, appeals to a deity and subscription cancellation, it’s a classic of the genre.
“Douglas Fox must be Clem Kadlddlehoper (sic), Motimer (sic) Snerd, and Alfred E. Newman all rolled into one big idiot. I have cancelled my subscription to the Christian Science Monitor. Believe that I am prepaid until the end of 2010. Please don’t send another issue. I will pay not to receive them. If you send the paper, I will burn in my fireplace to save energy. My God. I thought you were a respectable news organization.”
Sometimes, negative feedback can be a badge of honor – I’m quite proud that a creationist group took the time to deconstruct my 2002 cover story on evolution line by line, in sanity-undermining detail. That’s how Robin Mejia (bio) felt, too, when notorious taxophobe Grover Norquist took the time to critique her 2006 story about a tax preparation program for Mother Jones. “Getting a letter from him on a story about taxes made me feel like I’d done something right,” Robin notes.
But other times, the feedback is so harsh and voluminous, it can start to have a chilling effect. And there’s one topic virtually guaranteed to bring on a tsunami of science shaming. If you want to test the waters, try writing about vaccines:
“Just curious. Did the industry that paid you to publish this dribble give you enough to buy medication to help you sleep at night? Otherwise, I don’t know how you could.”
“A real journalist would investigate every angle before pushing the status quo. At least then you could do so with a clear conscience after collecting your paycheck. “
“You would think the author would have done the 2 seconds worth of research before arrogantly and foolishly trumpeting that science has spoken and that no vaccine causes autism. In light of such a glaring error, it’s hard to take anything else she says seriously.”
Liza makes the important point that if you didn’t learn to laugh about the really mean stuff, you’d just have to sit down and cry. “We all know how vitriolic online comments can be, especially when anonymous, but the sheer volume of negative comments can get you down,” she says.
The antidote? An occasional kind word. “Luckily many scientists weighed in on this piece to counter all the misinformation and one even offered praise,” she reports. “Thanks for this excellent nuanced post, Liza Gross,” the scientist wrote. “The issue of the waning effectiveness of the pertussis vaccine is particularly difficult to get across, and I think you did it well.”
A few kind words on a story, from a scientist or otherwise, can do wonders to cool the sting of cruel attacks, and keep a writer motivated to do it all again. But sometimes it’s the scientists we cover (or don’t) who lead the attacks. And sometimes it gets so bad, you just have to push back.
“Someone emailed me, outraged that his work had been accepted in [a big name journal] but not mentioned in a feature story I wrote. He questioned whether I took my job and responsibility seriously and spent several sentences pointing out my ignorance,” says one member of SciLance who, like so many of our critics, prefers to remain anonymous. “He really ticked me off, so I emailed him back and told him I’d interviewed over a dozen prestigious scientists for the story, asking each time for recommendations of other people to include and talk to, but his name never came up. (He didn’t respond.)”
Sometimes, that kind of pushback is warranted. But usually, we recommend humor.
So what are the most hilariously over-the-top ad hominem swipes your work has inspired? Please share your worst reader reactions in the comments – we don’t want to feel that it’s only us!
Angry mob photo by Robert Couse-Baker.