Monday, January 08, 2007

Are Science Blogs Really About Science?

 
Greg Laden has posted a summary of the number of comments on articles put up on Pharyngula [Where's the beef(ing)?"]. As you might have guessed, there are way more comments on articles about creationism and religion than on articles about science.

This confirms my observation as well. I've also noted that straight reporting about, and praise for, the latest "breakthrough" seems to go down better than critical analysis and skepticism. In general, articles that challenge pre-conceived notions don't get as much attention as those that reinforce current dogma.

This raises the obvious question: are science blogs really about science?

Sometimes they are. Here's a list of the 50 best science posts as determined by an expert panel of judges [Science Blogging Anthology - The Council Has Spoken!]. Congratulations to the winners!

14 comments :

  1. This raises the obvious question: are science blogs really about science?

    Sometimes they are about Tim Horton's.

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  2. I would even go one step further...

    Are science reports really about science? What I mean by that is the usual reporting of science to the general public.

    Where, in paleontology and evolutionary biology, do we find any real use of the term "missing link?" Who uses this concept, who is looking for the missing link?

    Where in a newspaper, wire, or TV news report about a fossil find do you NOT see the use of the term "missing link?"

    Of course we can take this full circle and admit that all science is politics, so this bias in interest we observe is just the chicken coming home to roost.

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  3. I believe this is because the VAST majority of people reading science blogs (mine included) are not scientists.

    Most posts are not about science, i.e. do not concern with the proposal and evaluation of alternative hypotheses, provide evidence for existing ideas, etc..

    An example. I proposed an idea a while back about a new way of evaluation values of Fst. This is "science" and NOBODY reads it.. Now, I could could have my 9 year old describe his school lunch, I title it "female orgasm" or some such thing, and 100 people would visit in 3 hours...

    P.S. In the off chance that you want to read the Fst post: see it at http://matt-at-berkeley.blogspot.com

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  4. Matt,

    Your FsT thingie looks interesting. It looks to me like bootstrapping, but I did not read the paper closely. If it isn't bootstrapping, maybe you ought to look into boot strapping.

    Here is a way to make this interesting to the general public:

    Most of the tools that scientists use to analyze their data statistically are based on concepts and approaches that were:

    1) invented by members of King Loius XIV's court to figure out the odds at gaming;

    2) were figured out in a computer free world where certain calculations you would only want to do once ... and I mean really, once, then publish the results and never do them again; and/or

    3) were created for uses that have very little to do with what the scientist is actually doing.

    For this reason peole like Matt are compelled to reinvent or redesign the statistics for use in their particular science. This is Matt's struggle, and it is a noble one.

    There, isn't that interesting?

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  5. In general, articles that challenge pre-conceived notions don't get as much attention as those that reinforce current dogma.

    By attention do you mean comments and trackbacks? The other measure would be which sorts of posts get read.

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  6. Well, Ravi Merchandani, the man who moe or less invented pop science publishing in England, used to say that what people wanted from a pop science book was really philosophy. I should imagine that the readership for those books is pretty much the same as the readership for science blogs: ie not practitioners, but interested.

    But the sting in Merchndani's line is that scientists on the whole make lousy philosophers. What first attracted me to Pharyngula, for instance, was the purely scientific content: the stuff about development. The rantings about religion are of sociological interest -- they teach nothing about religious belief, but something about what some scientists believe.

    As to Greg Laden's point -- specialist journalism is hard. Nothing in any mass circulation newspaper is likely to look true to anyone who knows anything about the subject in any depth. And once a term has been established in th ethe public imagination ("gene" is even better than "missing link") it has a lif eof its own, and a meaning largely independent of the scientific one.

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  7. "there are way more comments on articles about creationism and religion than on articles about science."

    People like to argue. They also like to gossip. Part of the monkey makeup, I'm sure.

    "I've also noted that straight reporting about, and praise for, the latest "breakthrough" seems to go down better than critical analysis and skepticism."

    Ah, that's a tough spot. I thoroughly enjoyed, and I hope learned from, your series of posts on the three domains. Why didn't I comment? It's way outside my areas, it critically questions a model that seems to be the dominant view, and what the fuck do I know.

    Blogs from scientists without discussing science particularly could in a (very) small way tell us about science. But the most interesting ones have more science. All sorts are probably good to have.

    For example, I also like "Developing Intelligence" and "The n-Category Café". The former exclusively presents and discuss results in a fascinating area and the later presents and discuss ongoing projects in a really open for all collaboration model which is interesting to see. So perhaps I have a geek inside. :-)

    "scientists on the whole make lousy philosophers"

    On the contrary, exclusively the interesting philosophical ideas I have seen has come from scientists or philosophers trained in science. What fun would the world be without the ideas of Tegmark, Chaitin, Motl, Susskind, Wilkins, Aaronson, and dare I say it, Dennett and Dawkins?

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  8. I presume you mean Maurice Wilkins...

    I don't write about science, I write about science. Writing about science means knowing what the particulars and contexts of the reports and papers are. Writing about science means trying to comprehend the nature of science as a process and institution, etc. Much more fun.

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  9. andys asks,

    By attention do you mean comments and trackbacks?

    Yes. Over the years I've posted on a number of controversial issues. I expected to generate a lively debate since the issue hasn't been resolved.

    I'm almost always disappointed. It seems as though scientists are always willing to comment favorably on the latest "Gosh, Gee Wizz" breakthroughs and on how biochemistry or molecular biology will be overthrown by noon tomorrow according to the latest results published in Nature. On the other hand, they remain strangely silent when their own personal paradigms are challenged.

    I expected the opposite. I expected scientists to be very skeptical about the latest hype in other fields and much more willing to question and debate their own well-established worldviews in the face of conflicting evidence.

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  10. Torbjörn Larsson says,

    I thoroughly enjoyed, and I hope learned from, your series of posts on the three domains. Why didn't I comment? It's way outside my areas, it critically questions a model that seems to be the dominant view, and what the fuck do I know.

    Thank-you. That's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about. Probably 95% of scientists who read Sandwalk believe that archaebacteria and eukaryotes share a common ancestor but there wasn't a peep from any of them. Why is that? I doubt that it's because they have changed their minds.

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  11. Probably 95% of scientists who read Sandwalk believe that archaebacteria and eukaryotes share a common ancestor but there wasn't a peep from any of them. Why is that? I doubt that it's because they have changed their minds.

    ... speaking for myself (non-scientist, some science education, some previous reading perused on the subject of that very tangled question, a (very) little bit of work on gene tree/species tree reconciliation in one grad course), I guess I was more or less in the same box as Torbjörn, too, there.

    I'd add only that I guess I did change my opinion, given your description and references... so much as I had an opinion to be changed. That bushy, complicated early world of promiscuous gene transfer is messier than a nice, clean three kingdoms, but it's still awfully interesting. And I'd add that the graphic you put up with that brambled/tangled not-very-tree like tree of life (Doolittle's) was a wonderful illustration.

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  12. Don't miss the latest form the guardian: Richard Buggs in defense of Intelligent Design Creationism. You will find windy retorts on Pharyngula as well as my blog.

    In my view, the ID argument really comes down to one thing: They need to stop saying they are not creationists. Eventually even their base will realize that they are denying this.

    By the time the cock crows twice ....

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  13. John:

    "I presume you mean Maurice Wilkins..."

    Um, what, not me, no sir! I was thinking of your treatments of species concepts, bounded rationality, adaptation vs teleology, and other stuff that I have found fun and useful.

    About about and about, both can be fun. Mileage vary.

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  14. Probably 95% of scientists who read Sandwalk believe that archaebacteria and eukaryotes share a common ancestor but there wasn't a peep from any of them.

    The question is: what's wrong with the other 5%? Of course archaebacteria and eukaryotes share a common ancestor. It's just a question of whether that ancestor was measurably more recent than the common ancestor between those two and eubacteria. That is a much more finely-tuned and esoteric question.

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