Archive for the 'Scientist/layperson relations' category

Civility, respect, and the project of sharing a world.

In recent days, this corner of the blogosphere has come back to the question of what constitutes civil engagement online (and, perhaps, offline).

If you've not being keeping up with the events that spurred this iteration of the conversation, you might want to read this, this, this, this, and this as background. However, believe me when I say the discussion in this space -- in this post -- is about the broader issue, and that you are not invited to weigh in here on behalf of your "team" in the recent events.

I'm someone who "does" ethics for a living, and my sense is that at its most basic level, ethics is a matter of sharing a world with other people.

Sometimes that world is one where we're sharing physical space, close enough to look each other in the eye or punch each other on the arm. Other times, the world in question is a virtual space in which we interact primarily by way of words on a screen.

Either way, whether sounds or strings of characters, the words we use are connected to ideas, and the people sending out or taking up those words are humans with their own interests, histories, social environments, grasp of the language, powers of empathy. These humans have privileged access to their own thoughts, intentions, and emotions, but not to those of the others with whom they're sharing a world. The words passed back and forth are part of how a human might get some (necessarily incomplete) information about what's going on in other humans' heads.

Conversation, in other words, is a hugely important tool for us in the project of sharing a world. So, arguably, figuring out what's happening when our conversations derail could help us do a better job of sharing that world. Continue Reading »

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How we construct 'failure' and professional communities.

Bethany Brookshire (perhaps better known in the blogosphere as SciCurious) has posted moving personal musings on her experience "failing" as an academic scientist and of being failed by the system that trained her to be one. She notes that grant-writing was the canary in the career coal mine for her. While she loved doing research, and still loves writing (which has become her professional focus in the aftermath of her tenure track faculty aspirations), she found she couldn't generate new, important, and fundable ideas to drive a research agenda. Indeed, Brookshire's experience of scientific training was that mentors weren't teaching her how to generate such ideas, nor even giving her many opportunities to try doing so. It wasn't until her postdoctoral research that she discovered that what felt like an essential ingredient for success as an academic scientist was not a tool in her toolbox.

And yet, her scientific training seemed to have a singular focus on pointing trainees toward a career as an academic scientist, preferably at a research-focused university. She writes:

I drank the academic koolaid HARD, and believed that "success" looked like a tenure track position. It doesn't help that other people drank the koolaid, too. I have been called a failure, a quitter. I've been told that it's my fault that I didn't stay to be a role model to women in science. Every time I interact with people from my "former life", I feel like I failed them, failed my training, failed myself. I feel like I should have worked harder, worked more, maybe not had a blog (something that has been mentioned to me many, many times) or studied harder or been more careful, somewhere.

I know now that 80% of PhDs won't get a TT position. I think I always knew, deep down, that I wasn't in the top 20%. And I like what I do now! I'm good at it! It's fun! It's interesting! I like the people I work with and the things we talk about and the atmosphere. I feel like I am learning and growing every day. I think I can be successful in this. I think I can still make a difference in the world, maybe a really, really powerful one. Possibly a bigger difference than I ever could have made in science. But it's not academia, and sometimes, it still feels like failure.

Maybe academia failed me in more than one way. Maybe it would have been better had I NOT had that koolaid to drink. If it had been openly acknowledged and "ok" for people to go after non-TT positions (everyone SAYS it's ok, of course, if asked, they will always SAY it's ok and encouraged. But what they say, and what they do, are very different things).

As someone who earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and then promptly leaked out of the science pipeline myself, I can identify with the feelings Brookshire describes. I recognize the anxiety involved in plotting a career trajectory and then trying to discover or decide whether you're suited for the form of life of that career. I also remember seeking, but not always finding, the information I would need to make this discovery or decision. Getting that information earlier, rather than later, could make a difference, informing how you invest your time and effort -- and whether you cling to your original plans or explore other possible trajectories instead.

I'm using both "discover" and "decide" above because I recognize there are differences of opinion here, and though I have my own hunches, the jury's still out. "Discovery" suggests to me that there are objective facts about the skills and inclinations required to succeed as an academic scientist, as well as hard limits to what someone lacking them could do to get them. "Decision," on the other hand, frames things in terms of the ends one sets for oneself (given one's skills and inclinations, but a whole mess of other factors besides).

The setting of ends as a feat of human agency matters here, since "failure" is always relative to some particular goal. The hard question that those training new scientists (or new members of other disciplines more broadly) really should grapple with is who is setting the goal? Who is judging particular trajectories worth pursuing or not?

For those being trained in a discipline at the Ph.D. level, it is very hard not to internalize the voice of the advisor with respect to what "success" looks like. It is also very common for the definition of "success" against which you are judged -- against which you come to judge yourself -- to be very narrow indeed.

This is a problem for the people being trained who discover (sometimes quite late in the process) that the odds of "success" after all of their hard work are much lower than they imagined. It creates conditions where social ties forged in the crucible of one's training become fragile because of the Malthusian competition in conditions of increasing scarcity.

Academic science red in tooth and claw may not have much of an actual body count, but not succeeding in the one approved trajectory (and further, believing that success in that trajectory is a matter of pure merit rather than of non-deterministic factors) can render you someone discounted, dead to your chosen profession, forgotten by those you trained with and those who trained you.

This is a problem for people being trained in these disciplines, but it isn't just a problem for them. It's also a problem for their disciplines.

I imagine at this point someone might pipe up and assert that the point of Ph.D. training is precisely to produce additional academic researchers in the field -- in other words, that it is nothing more and nothing less than career training for the One True Path.

If that were so, of course, it might surely be humane to train fewer people, or ethical to admit that the cynics are right that Ph.D. programs in the sciences exist largely to recruit throngs of relatively cheap laborers to do research for the scientists advising them. As well, if the whole point of the Ph.D. program were to provide job training for the One True Path, then the training offered is often pretty deficient, missing vital components like serious attention to grant writing, working with the IACUC or the IRB, teaching, mentoring, or being an effective member of a collaborative team or a committee.

Maybe we should recognize that another reason for engaging in Ph.D.-level training is to learn how new knowledge is built in a discipline by actually participating in building some.

Further, we could acknowledge that, while the skills developed in learning how to build new knowledge in your field are essential in pursuing the One True Path (in which you would devote your career to building new knowledge in your field), these skills also have the potential to be applicable in a wide range of other situations and careers. We could notice that people might have an interest in seeing the knowledge-building from the inside without wanting to make a lifetime commitment to building more knowledge.

Recognizing broader value and utility of the lessons learned from being immersed in knowledge-building is the kind of thing that could change both the experience of being a Ph.D. trainee and of being part of a professional community.

If there is One True Path that defines success, that makes it harder to explore other trajectories or to seek the training, experiences, or information one might want to evaluate them. Doing so is viewed as defeatist thinking or a distraction from preparation for the One True Path (not to mention from generating results from your advisor's research projects).

If there is One True Path, advisors and graduate programs can convince themselves that they have no individual or collective responsibility for providing any of the training, experiences, or information relevant to other career trajectories. Why would you need any of that in a program focused on preparing you for the One True Path? Indeed, the people training you, those who have succeeded on the One True Path, may say, "What know I of other paths? Information about requirements of those paths I have not. Train you for them I cannot." (Like Yoda, advisors sometimes speak with syntax that is challenging for trainees to follow.)

If we embrace the One True Path as defining both what counts as professional success for trainees and who even counts as properly in our professional community, we doom large proportions of those trained to failure and professional death. In so doing, those charged with the task of training new members of the profession squander the potentially rich network they might be building of people trained in their discipline who have succeeded in other paths -- people who could, among other things, share training, experiences, or information with those in the process of learning how to build new knowledge in the discipline, with those still in the process of deciding their own trajectories.

Recognizing that some of the people engaged in learning how to build new knowledge in the discipline may end up choosing other trajectories for themselves doesn't lessen the value of your discipline. Recognizing that the skills developed during Ph.D. trainings have broader applicability doesn't lessen the value of Ph.D. training. Indeed, noticing the utility of those skills in a wide array of situations would argue for greater value. Sending the tentacles of your disciplinary community further into the world would speak to the relevance of your discipline.

Cedar Riener explains this quite nicely:

The gatekeeping scientists that have told Sci she is a failure, or not a real scientist, think the currency of science should be creating new knowledge (and new, expensive, fundable knowledge, at that). What they don’t realize is that by denying the multiplicity of ways of being a scientist, in seeking to carefully guard the prestige they have so carefully amassed, they are diminishing their own status. In chipping away at their own exclusive island, they are ignoring the public sea levels of discontent with science that continue to rise. The biologist might snicker, as political science gets its entire NSF funding cut, thinking “Well, it wasn’t a real science after all.” But the biologist ignores that just because he is standing on higher ground, doesn’t mean that the logic of people like Tom Coburn will spare basic biological science. Too many legislators are happy to call biology science, but really what they want is immediately applicable medical research. Which results in idiotic statements like Sarah Palin mocking fruit fly research and real harm to basic science funding.

So here’s my challenge to Sci (and hearty defense of my own work): You ARE a scientist. Stand on that island and say “I am Science, hear me roar!” and do the things you love to do, promote science, explain science, call out shady science, etc. This too is science. If it is not we are all lost. Science will not regain public trust through careful exclusivity and identity policing.

Defining success for those training in a discipline in terms of One True Path -- even if we only do it implicitly (say, by describing everything else as an "alternate" career path and professing our helplessness to prepare trainees for those) -- means setting up most trainees for failure. It means recognizing a much smaller and less diverse professional community, one that is less well-positioned and less able to interact with the larger society than it might be if success were defined more broadly.

It means disrespecting trainees' abilities to set their own ends. It means undervaluing their happiness.

Why on earth would anyone want to join a professional community that did that?

(Crossposted at Academe Blog)

2 responses so far

Questions for the scientists in the audience.

Today in my "Ethics in Science" class, we took up a question that reliably gets my students (a mix of science majors and non-science major) going: Do scientists have special obligations to society that non-scientists don't have?

Naturally, there are some follow-up questions if you lean towards an affirmative answer to that first question. For example:

  • What specifically are those special obligations?
  • Why do scientists have these particular obligations when non-scientists in their society don't?
  • How strong are those obligations? (In other words, under what conditions would it be ethically permissible for scientists to fall short of doing what the obligations say they should do?)

I think these are important -- and complex -- questions, some of which go to the heart of what's involved in scientists and non-scientists successfully sharing a world. But, it always helps me to hear the voices (and intuitions) of some of the folks besides me who are involved in this sharing-a-world project.

So, for the scientists in the audience, I have some questions I hope you will answer in the comments on this post.*

1. As a scientist, do you have any special duties or obligations to the non-scientists with whom you're sharing a world? If yes, what are they?

2. If you have special duties or obligations, as a scientist, to the rest of society, why do you have them? Where did they come from? (If you don't have special duties or obligations as a scientist, why not?

3. As a scientist, what special duties or obligations (if any) do the non-scientists with whom you're sharing a world have to you?

Who counts as a scientist here? I'm including anyone who has been trained (past the B.A. or B.S. level) in a science, including people who may be currently involved in that training and anyone working in a scientific field (even in the absences of schooling past the B.A. or B.S. level).

That means I count as a scientist here (even though I'm not currently employed as a scientist or otherwise involved in scientific knowledge-building).

If you want to say something about these questions but you're a non-scientist according to this definition, never fear! You are cordially invited to answer a corresponding set of questions, posed to the non-scientists with whom scientists are sharing a world, on my other blog.
_____
* If you prefer to answer the questions on your own blog, or in some other online space, please drop a link in the comments here, or point me to it via Twitter (@docfreeride) or email (dr.freeride@gmail.com).

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SPSP 2013 Plenary session #4: Sergio Sismondo

SPSP 2013 Plenary session #4: Sergio Sismondo

Tweeted from the 4th biennial conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 29, 2013.

  1. Last plenary of conference: Sergio Sismondo, "Toward a political economy of epistemic things," starts in ~10 min #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto
  2. Knowledge as a quasi-substance (takes work, resources to make; requires infrastructure; moves w/ difficulty) #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto

    Continue Reading »

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SPSP 2013 Contributed Papers: Communities & Institutions: Objectivity, Equality, & Trust

SPSP 2013 Contributed Papers: Communities & Institutions: Objectivity, Equality, & Trust

Tweeted from the 4th biennial conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 28, 2013, during Concurrent Sessions VI

  1. This was a session, by the way, in which it was necessary to confront my limitations as a conference live-tweeter. The session was in a room where the only available electrical outlets were at the front (where the speakers were), and my battery was rapidly running out of juice.  And my right shoulder was seizing up.  And I ended up in Twitter Jail (for "too many tweets today!" per Twitter's proprietary algorithm), which meant that the last chunk of tweets I composed for the second talk got pasted into a text file and tweeted hours later, while my notes for the third talk in the session went into my quad-ruled notebook.

    With multiple live-tweeters in a given session, this trifecta of fail (in my tweeting -- the session papers were a trifecta of good stuff!) would have been less traumatic for me.  But philosophers are not quite as keen to live-tweet as, say, ScienceOnline attendees ... yet.
    There was, however, a bit of backup!  Christine James was driving SPSP's shiny new Twitter account,   SocPhilSciPract, and she happened choose the same session of contributed papers to attend and to tweet.  She also tweeted some pictures.
  2. Continue Reading »

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A passing thought about a certain flavor of "citizen science" project.

I think that better public understanding of science (and in particular of the processes by which scientific knowledge is built) is a good thing.

I'm persuaded that one way public understanding of science might be enhanced is through projects that engage members of the public, in various ways, in building the knowledge. Potentially, such "citizen science" initiative could even help develop some public good will for traditional science projects.

But, I think there's a potential for engagement with the public to go very wrong.

This is especially true in situations in which there's not a clear line between the citizen-as-participant-in-knowledge-building and the citizen-as-human-subject (who is entitled to certain kinds of protection -- e.g., of autonomy, of privacy, from various kinds of harms), and even more so in cases where the citizen scientist-cum-human subject is also a customer of the entity conducting the research.

And, while it may not be the case that heightened ethical oversight (e.g., from an Institutional Review Board) is necessary in cases where the citizen science project is not aimed at publishing results in the scientific literature or bringing a medical product or device to market, it strikes me that scientists engaging with members of the public (citizen scientists-cum-human subjects-cum-customers) might do better to lean on the side of more ethical consideration than less, of more protection of human subjects rather than "caveat emptor".

Indeed, scientists engaging with members of the public to build the knowledge might be well served to engage with those members of the public in a consideration of the ethics of the research. This could be an opportunity to model how it should be done, not simply what you can get away with under the prevailing regulations. It could also be an opportunity for researchers to listen to the members of the public they're engaging rather than simply treating them as sources of specimens, funding, and free labor.

Playing fast and loose with ethics in projects that engage citizen scientists-cum-human subjects-cum-customers could have blowback as far as public attitudes toward science and scientists. I suspect such blowback would not be limited to the actual researchers or organizations directly involved, but also to other researchers with citizen science projects (even ethically well-run ones), and probably to scientists and scientific organizations more broadly.

In other words, the scientific community as a whole has an interest in the purveyors of this kind of citizen science getting the ethical engagement with the public right.

* * * * *
These general musings were sparked by more specific questions raised about a specific commercial citizen science project in two posts at The Boundary Layer. Click through and read them.

UPDATE: And Comrade PhysioProf weighs in.

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Question for the hivemind: Where do you draw the line in associating with a party that has done something objectionable?

I am thinking my way through a longer discussion of this general question, and I decided it would be useful to get a sense of the intuitions of people who are not me on this matter.

Say there's a person or an organization (or a corporation, which, I've heard, is a person) that has done something you find pretty objectionable.

Say that this person or organization is in a position to contribute something to a goal that you support -- perhaps providing material and/or labor to help build something you think needs to be built, or money to help support a conference you think will serve the good, or speakers to help explain science-y stuff to a general audience.

Would you associate with the party that has done something you find objectionable to the extent that you would accept that contribution of help?

What kind of conditions would you require in accepting the help? For example, would you require that the party not be able to micromanage how their donation is used, who gets to speak at the conference their money is supporting, etc.? Would you insist that they only be allowed to provide help if they also agree to face questions about what you view as their objectionable conduct?

Or, would you rather forgo the help in order not to associate at all with the party that has done something you find objectionable?

Does it matter here whether the party is an organization, some of whose members or organizational units have done something you find objectionable -- but where the help on offer is coming from other members or organizational units -- rather than a person who's done something you find objectionable offering her help?

Feel free to share your thoughts on the ways the precise nature of the "something objectionable" matter to your line-drawing here.

7 responses so far

Friday Sprog Blogging: You've made it clear "it's a girl thing," but is "it" science?

If your Tweeps have been hashtagging about the same things mine have today, there's a good chance you've already seen this video from the European Union:

http://youtu.be/oZtMmt5rC6g

Ummm ... yeah. As science outreach, this would never have worked on a younger time-slice of me. But maybe I'm not the target audience.

In the interest of generating empirical data from the two possible members of the actual target audience to whom I have access, I showed the video to each of the Free-Ride offspring (both daughters, as related in my newly-published story at Story Collider) separately, then asked for their reactions, which I've transcribed below:

From the elder Free-Ride offspring, almost 13 years old:

I didn't really see those women doing science. Plus, they were trying to act too sexy. Yuck.

Me: Did you find any of the visuals engaging?

Some of the sprays of orbs were cool.

Me: How about the glassware?

Sort of. But we don't actually see how any of it is used to do science.

Based on this teaser, I would not watch the full music video.

Me: Um, I think it's supposed to be a teaser for an outreach campaign rather than a music video, although it's interesting that it read to you as "music video."

Or whatever. I feel like I've seen enough of this.

Me: Did you feel like it conveyed any information about science?

No.

Me: Did you feel like it conveyed any information about what kind of people do science?

The only clear scientist in that video was the man. The women in that video didn't come across as scientists. They were more like giggly models with scientific props.

Me: If it were you, what kind of strategy would you use to get girls interested in science?

Don't show me make-up, lipstick, and high heels. Show me an actual scientist at work.

* * * * *

From the younger Free-Ride offspring, 11 years old and no stranger to feminine accoutrements:

Why the high heels?

It was bad. I didn't like it. And science isn't just a girl thing.

Me: What didn't you like about it?

How the guy was all seduced by the girls. And the girls were acting too girly -- abnormally girly.

I didn't feel like anything in the video had anything to do with science. It was just lipstick and stuff -- that's not science.

Me: Well, there's science that goes into making cosmetics.

We didn't see that in the video. We saw make-up exploding on the ground and women giggling.

I don't think this is a good science outreach strategy except to girls who want to have exactly that image.

* * * * *

It appears the sprogs aren't the target audience either -- or, if they are, that this video is 53 seconds of highly produced FAIL.

UPDATE: While the original video was reset to "private", there is a mirror of it:

Because you want to know what the fuss is about, right?

15 responses so far

Blogospheric navel-gazing: where's the chemistry communication?

The launch last week of the new Scientific American Blog Network* last week prompted a round of blogospheric soul searching (for example here, here, and here): Within the ecosystem of networked science blogs, where are all the chem-bloggers?

Those linked discussions do a better job with the question and its ramifications than I could, so as they say, click through and read them. But the fact that these discussions are so recent is an interesting coincidence in light of the document I want to consider in this post.

I greeted with interest the release of a recent publication from the National Academy of Sciences titled Chemistry in Primetime and Online: Communicating Chemistry in Informal Environments (PDF available for free here). The document aims to present a summary of a one-and-a-half day workshop, organized by the Chemical Sciences Roundtable and held in May 2010.

Of course, I flipped right to the section that took up the issue of blogs.

The speaker invited to the workshop to talk about chemistry on blogs was Joy Moore, representing Seed Media Group.

She actually started by exploring how much chemistry coverage there was in Seed magazine and professed surprise that there wasn't much:

When she talked to one of her editors about why, what he told her was very similar to what others had mentioned previously in the workshop. He said, "part of the reason behind the apparent dearth of chemistry content is that chemistry is so easily subsumed by other fields and bigger questions, so it is about the 'why' rather than the how.'" For example, using chemistry to create a new clinical drug is often not reported or treated as a story about chemistry. Instead, it will be a story about health and medicine. Elucidating the processes by which carbon compounds form in interstellar space is typically not treated as a chemistry story either; it will be an astronomy-space story.

The Seed editor said that in his experience most pure research in chemistry is not very easy to cover or talk about in a compelling and interesting way for general audiences, for several reasons: the very long and easily confused names of many organic molecules and compounds, the frequent necessity for use of arcane and very specific nomenclature, and the tendency for most potential applications to boil down to an incremental increase in quality of a particular consumer product. Thus, from a science journalist point of view, chemistry is a real challenge to cover, but he said, "That doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of opportunities." (24)

A bit grumpily, I will note that this editor's impression of chemistry and what it contains is quite a distance from my own. Perhaps it's because I was a physical chemist rather than an organic chemist (so I mostly dodged the organic nomenclature issue in my own research), and because the research I did had no clear applications to any consumer products (and many of my friends in chemistry were in the same boat), and because the lot of us learned how to explain what was interesting and important and cool to each other (and to our friends who weren't in chemistry, or even in school) without jargon. It can be done. It's part of this communication strategy called "knowing your audience and meeting them where they are."

Anyway, after explaining why Seed didn't have much chemistry, Moore shifted her focus to ScienceBlogs and its chemistry coverage. Here again, the pickings seemed slim:

Moore said there is no specific channel in ScienceBlogs dedicated to chemsitry, but there are a number of bloggers who use chemistry in their work.

Two chemistry-related blogs were highlighted by Moore. The first one, called Speakeasy Science, is by a new blogger Deborah Bloom [sic]. Bloom is not a scientist, but chemistry informs her writing, especially her new book on the birth of forensic toxicology. Moore also showed a new public health blog from Seed called the Pump Handle. Seed has also focused more on chemistry, in particular environmental toxins. Moore added, "So again, as we go through we can find the chemistry as the supporting characters, but maybe not as the star of the show." (26)

While I love both The Pump Handle and Speakeasy Science (which has since relocated to PLoS Blogs), Moore didn't mention a bunch of blogs at ScienceBlogs that could be counted on for chemistry content in a starring role. These included Molecule of the Day, Terra Sigillata (which has since moved to CENtral Science), and surely the pharmacology posts on Neurotopia. That's just three off the top of my head. Indeed, even my not-really-a-chemistry-blog had a "Chemistry" category populated with posts that really focused on chemistry.

And, of course, I shouldn't have to point out that ScienceBlogs is not now, and was not then, the entirety of the science blogosphere. There have always been seriously awesome chem-bloggers writing entertaining, accessible stuff outside the bounds of the Borg.

Ignoring their work (and their readership) is more than a little lazy. (Maybe a search engine would help?)

Anyway, Moore also told the workshop about Research Blogging:

Moore said that Research Blogging is a tagging and aggregating tool for bloggers who write about journal articles. Bloggers who occasionally discuss journal articles on their blog sites can join the Seed Research Blogging community. Seed provides the blogger with some code to put into blog posts that allows Seed to pick up those blog posts and aggregate them. Seed then offers the blogger on its website Researchvolume.org [sic]. This allows people to search across the blog posts within these blogs. Moore said that bloggers can also syndicate comments through the various Seed feeds, widgets, and other websites. It basically brings together blog posts about peer-reviewed research. At the same time, Seed gives a direct link back to the journal article, so that people can read the original source.

"Who are these bloggers?" Moore asked. She said the blog posts take many different forms. Sometimes someone is simply pointing out an interesting article or picking a topic and citing two or three articles to preface it. Other bloggers almost do a mini-review. These are much more in-depth analyses or criticisms of papers. (26)

Moore also noted some research on the chemistry posts aggregated by ResearchBlogging that found:

the blog coverage of the chemistry literature was more efficient than the traditional citation process. The science blogs were found to be faster in terms of reporting on important articles, and they also did a better job of putting the material in context within different areas of chemistry. (26)

The issues raised by the other workshop participants here were the predictable ones.

One, from John Miller of the Department of Energy, was whether online venues like ResearchBlogging might replace traditional peer review for journal articles. Joy Moore said she saw it as a possibility. Of course, this might rather undercut the idea that what is being aggregated is blog posts on peer reviewed research -- the peer review that happens before publication, I take it, is enhanced, not replaced, by the post-publication "peer review" happening in these online discussions of the research.

Another comment, from Bill Carroll, had to do with the perceived tone of the blogosphere:

"One of the things I find discouraging about reading many blogs or various comments is that it very quickly goes from one point of view to another point of view to 'you are a jerk.' My question is, How do you keep [the blog] generating light and not heat." (26)

Moore's answer allowed as how some blog readers are interested in being entertained by fisticuffs.

Here again, it strikes me that there's a danger in drawing sweeping conclusions from too few data points. There exist science blogs that don't get shouty and personal in the posts or the comment threads. Many of these are really good reads with engaging discussions happening between bloggers and readers.

Sometimes too, the heat (or at least, some kind of passion) may be part of how a blogger conveys to readers what about chemistry is interesting, or puzzling, or important in contexts beyond the laboratory or the journal pages. Chemistry is cool enough or significant enough that it can get us riled up. I doubt that insisting on Vulcan-grade detachment is a great way to convince readers who aren't already sold on the importance of chemistry that they ought to care about it.

And, can we please get past this suggestion that the blogosphere is the source of incivility in exchanges about science?

I suspect that people who blame the medium (of blogs) for the tone (of some blogs or of the exchanges in their comments) haven't been to a department seminar or a group meeting lately. Those face-to-face exchanges can get not only contentious but also shouty and personal. (True story: When I was a chemistry graduate student shopping for a research group, I was a guest at a group meeting where the PI, who knew I was there to see how I liked the research group, spent a full five minutes tearing one of his senior grad students a new one. And then, he was disappointed that I did not join the research group.)

Now, maybe the worry is that blogs about chemistry might give the larger public a peek at chemists being contentious and personal and shouty, something that otherwise would be safely hidden from view behind the walls of university lecture halls and laboratory spaces. If that's the worry, one possible response is that chemists playing in the blogosphere should maybe pay attention to the broader reach the internet affords them and behave themselves in the way they want the public to see them behaving.

If, instead, the worry is that chemists ought not ever to behave in certain ways toward each other (e.g., attacking the person rather than the methods or the results or the conclusions), then there's plenty of call for peer pressure within the chemistry community to head off these behaviors before we even start talking about blogs.

There are a few things that complicate discussions like this about the nature of communication about chemistry on blogs. One is that the people taking up the issue are sometimes unclear about what kind of communication it is they're interested in -- for example, chemist to non-chemist or chemist-to-chemist. Another is that they sometimes have very different ideas about what kinds of chemical issues ought to be communicated (basic concepts, cutting edge research, issues to do with chemical education or chemical workplaces, chemistry in everyday products or in highly charged political debates, etc., etc.). And, as mentioned already, the chemistry blogosphere, like chemistry as a discipline, contains multitudes. There is so much going on, in so many sub-specialities, that it's hard to draw too many useful generalizations.

For the reader, this diversity of chemistry blogging is a good thing, not a bad thing -- at least if the reader is brave enough to venture beyond networks which don't always have lots of blogs devoted to chemistry. Some good places to look:

Blogs about chemistry indexed by ScienceSeeker

CENtral Science (which is a blog network, but one devoted to chemistry by design)

Many excellent chemistry blogs are linked in this post at ScienceGeist. Indeed, ScienceGeist is an excellent chemistry blog.

Have you been reading the Scientopia Guest Blog lately? If so, you've had a chance to read Dr. Rubidium's engaging discussions of chemistry that pops up in the context of sex and drugs. I'm sure rock 'n' roll is on deck.

Finally, David Kroll's blogroll has more fine chemistry-related blogs than you can shake a graduated cylinder at.

If there are other blogospheric communicators of chemistry you'd like to single out, please tell us about them in the comments.
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*Yes, I have a new blog there, but this blog isn't going anywhere.

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Scientific knowledge and "what everyone knows".

Those of you who read the excellent blog White Coat Underground have probably had occasion to read PalMD's explanation of the Quack Miranda Warning, the disclaimer found on various websites and advertisements that reads, "These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease." When found on a website that seems actually to be offering diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention, PalMD notes, this language seems like a warning that the big change that will be effected is that your wallet will be lightened.

In response to this, Lawrence comments:

This statement may be on every quack website but is on every legitamate website and label as well. Take vitamin C for example. Everyone knows that it can help treat & cure diseases. Vitamin C has been used for centuries to cure disease by eating various foods that are high in it. Even doctors tell you it is good to take when you are sick because it helps your body fight off the disease. So the fact that this statement is required to be on even the most obviously beneficial vitamins pretty much means that the FDA requires a companies to lie to the public and that they have failed in their one duty to encouraging truth in health. Once I realized this, it totally discredits everything the FDA says.

Sure if something is not approved by a big organization whose existance is supposed to safeguard health it makes it easier for the little con artest to step in at every opportunity, but that doesn't mean that the big con artests arn't doing the same thing

PalMD's reply is succinct:

"Everyone knows..."

A phrase deadly to science.

I'm going to add my (less succinct) two cents.

There are plenty of things that people take to be something everyone knows. (The "everyone" is tricky, because there are enough people on the planet that it's usually (always?) possible to find someone who doesn't know X.). And, I'm happy to grant that, for some values of X, there are indeed many people who believe X.

But belief is not the same as knowledge.

What "everyone knows" about celebrities should help us notice the difference. Richard Gere? Jamie Lee Curtis? Even in the event that everyone has heard the same rumors, the extent of what we actually know is that there are rumors. Our propensity to believe rumors is why the team at Snopes will never want for material.

This is not to say that we have to do all of our epistemic labor ourselves. Indeed, we frequently rely on the testimony of others to help us know more than we could all by ourselves, But, this division of labor introduces risks if we accept as authoritative the testimony of someone who is mistaken -- or who is trying to sell us snake-oil. Plus, when we're accepting the testimony of someone who knows X on the basis of someone else's testimony, our connection to the actual coming-to-know of X (through a mode other than someone else's say-so) becomes more attenuated.

At least within the realm of science, the non-testimony route to knowledge involves gathering empirical evidence under conditions that are either controlled or at least well characterized. Ideally, the effects that are observed are both repeatable in relevantly similar conditions and observable by others. Science, in its methodology, strives to ground knowledge claims in observational evidence that anyone could come to know (assuming a standard set of properly functioning sense organs). Part of how we know that we know X is that the evidence in support of X can be inspected by others. At this basic level, we don't have to take anyone else's word for X; the testimony of our senses (and the fact that others who are pointing their sense organs at the same bits of the world and seeing the same things) gives us the support for our beliefs that we need.

Claims without something like empirical support might inspire belief, but they don't pass scientific muster. To the extent that an agency like the FDA is committed to evaluating claims in a scientific framework, this means that they want to evaluate the details of the experiments used to generate the empirical data that are being counted as support for those claims. In other contexts, folks may be expecting, or settling for, other standards of evidence. In scientific contexts, including biomedical ones, scientific rules of evidence are what you get.

Why then, one might ask, might a physician suggest vitamin C to a patient with a cold if there isn't sufficient scientific evidence to say we know vitamin C cures cold?

There are a few possibilities here. One is that the physician judges (on the basis of a reasonable body of empirical evidence) that taking vitamin C is unlikely to do harm to the patient with a cold. If the physician's clinical experience is that cold patients will feel better with some intervention than with no intervention, recommending vitamin C may seem like the most benign therapeutic option.

It's also possible that some of these physicians accept the testimony of someone else who tells the there is good reason to believe that vitamin C cures colds. Being human, physicians sometimes get burned by testimony that turns out to be unreliable.

It's even possible that some physicians are not so clear on scientific rules of evidence, and that they make recommendations on the basis of beliefs that haven't been rigorously tested. The more high profile of these physicians are the kinds of folks about whom PalMD frequently blogs.

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