Elizabeth (greyautumnrain) wrote,

Know the Source

Today the infertility blogging world was hit by a spat, as Julie wrote an angry post in response to a post by Cecily. The subject is pre-eclampsia, which both women suffered from as a pregnancy complication. The issue is that Cecily overstated her case for the preventive measures she took in her second pregnancy, which annoyed Julie. Of course Julie then links to an abstract that indicates that one of the things that both she and Cecily used the second time around (baby aspirin) is indeed moderately effective in at-risk women, which would seem to undermine her own point that it’s just luck; looks to me like the article means there’s probably a 14% chance that Cecily’s use of baby aspirin did indeed help. The whole thing makes me vaguely irritable. People either don’t read blogs critically or read them a little too critically, and the emotional reactions are often a tad overdone.

Bloggers are usually good about telling you a bit about themselves. I expect that the vast majority of my readers actually know me in real life since I’m not some famous blogging personality, but I’d expect that if some random person stumbled across my blog they’d figure out in fairly short order that my name is Elizabeth, I have a baby, I struggled for a long time with unexplained infertility that turned out to probably be caused by endometriosis, and that I went to MIT. That’s my biography in under 50 words. As such, there are certain expectations you might reasonably have about my blog: a certain amount of nerdly discussion and very little pop culture. You can expect me to be good at science and pitiful at humor. That’s what you can expect here. If you read some other blog, with some other blogger who is way cooler than I am you would probably have different expectations.

I first heard about pre-eclampsia when my friend enugent had it during her first pregnancy back in 2004. I know her pretty well, and seeing as how she also went to MIT and got a PhD in course 3 (and then for fun went to Harvard Law School), I expect her to get the science right when she blogs about it. With other bloggers I have different expectations. I expect them to blog accurately about their own personal experiences and treatment, but if they start talking about the general science stuff I take it with a grain of salt. If they post links to science articles I’ll follow the links to see what the articles say, and there is certainly some very good information to be gained that way. Sometimes I will disagree with the blogger about what the article actually means and sometimes I won’t. So when Cecily writes a post about some genetic testing she did and her genetic predisposition to pre-eclampsia and what she did in her second pregnancy that she believes worked to prevent a reoccurrence of the condition, it’s all very interesting, but it is neither an article in Science or a post by the other Elizabeth in my mind. If I were interested enough and had time enough I’d start by questioning the methodology of the folks who did the genetic testing. It’s not that I doubt their results, but before I accept the whole thing I want to know about what gene sequences these are and where are they getting their data about genes and genetic risk factors from and so on and so forth. Without the show your-work-portion from the testing company the whole thing is not settled fact in my mind. When Cecily said something about how being proactive prevented a second bout of pre-eclampsia it sort of just slid by me, because of course she didn’t know for sure that she would have gotten it again or anything. At best she knows that some studies have indicated that some of the things she did improved her odds. It’s not a big deal to me because Cecily isn’t a science person. I don’t expect scientifically precise statements from her; I expect irreverent humor and a point of view that is different from my own.

It’s easy to over-react when people get science wrong, especially when it’s something that is near and dear to our hearts. Of course some of us are just so darn used to the main-stream media mangling science left right and center that we’ve just become numb to it. Perhaps I am particularly jaded because our group at work routinely gets requests to violate the laws of physics. Heck, we routinely get people telling us how to violate the laws of physics. Sure, adding more bandwidth will increase the speed of light and fix the fact that you wrote a chatty application where the users and the server are halfway around the world from each other. Yeah, good luck with that. Experience says that it’s just not worth getting annoyed over, and actually most of the bloggers I read are a lot better than the mainstream media. True, that’s setting the bar low, but the media is being paid for it and still doing a worse job. The real problem is that most people don’t have very good source memory. They learn a “fact” and then they remember the fact but not where it came from. This can be bad when people start making assertions, but I think the reasonable fix is for the readers to either develop better source memory or just not accept things as facts unless they’ve carefully considered the expertise of the source and/or the data that backs it up. If you get angry every time someone is less than precise about science you’re going to be angry a whole lot.

Blogging is an emotional business. People get upset. I don’t have a cure for this. I’ve had someone say some very hurtful things in response to a comment that I made that I thought was part question part expression of mild interest and it really puzzled me. I’ve been very lucky in my own blog. I had some weird drive-by troll once who was more funny than anything else but other than that noting more than an occasional dose of unwanted but well-meaning advice. Misunderstandings can get blown out of proportion online. I read a lot of blogs where I disagree with the blogger on any number of things. To me it's just not worth getting upset about what someone else writes in their blog, but I know it can be hard not to get annoyed on those near and dear issues. I'm tired and I guess I don't really have much of a point beyond remember who the source is as a person, a fallible human being with strengths and weaknesses.
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