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Thursday, December 01, 2005 

Science blogs getting noticed by the big guns

PZ noted that Science magazine contained a blurb about Panda's Thumb in this post:
Darwin's contemporaries Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker championed his theory in print and in lectures. If they were alive today and had a little attitude, they might craft something like The Panda's Thumb, a Web log in which a cadre of Darwin's modern-day defenders pummels antievolution pseudoscience such as "intelligent design" (ID). The site gets its name from a Stephen Jay Gould essay about the giant panda's adaptation for stripping bamboo leaves--it's a jury-rigged feature a clever designer wouldn't engineer. Panda's Thumb regulars--who range from Ph.D.s and grad students to a businessman and a lawyer--comb the news media for follies to expose and errors to correct. The site provided blanket coverage of the recent trial on the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board's decision to require teaching of ID (Science, 18 November, p. 1105). Panda's Thumb also highlights evolution-related research, such as a study showing that the antibiotics produced by our immune systems may not be a panacea for drug-resistant bacteria.
Today, Nature gets into the game, featuring quotes from PZ as well as Revere from Effect Measure:
Scientists who blog see their activities as a useful adjunct to formal journals, not a replacement. "The standard scientific paper is irreplaceable as a fixed, archivable document that defines a checkpoint in a body of work, but it's static, it's very limited," says Paul Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, who blogs at Pharyngula. "Put a description of your paper on a weblog, though, and something very different happens," says Myers. "People who are very far afield from your usual circle start thinking about the subject. They bring up interesting perspectives." By sharing ideas online, you get feedback and new research ideas, he says.

A senior US epidemiologist who blogs once or twice a day under the pseudonym 'Revere' on his public-health blog Effect Measure, has attracted a diverse readership. "About 1,500 people visit each day," he says. "If someone told me that I could show up at a lecture hall every day and deliver a short opinion, and that 1,500 people would show up to hear me, I'd be pretty satisfied — 1,500 is twice the subscription of many speciality journals."

But for most scientists and academics, blogs and wikis remain unattractive distractions from their real work. Many consider them an online version of coffee-room chatter, background noise that goes against the very ethos of heavily filtered scholarly information.
Sounds pretty rosy, so they do include a counter-point:
Yet even the most web-savvy scientists remain unconvinced that blogs have any useful role in science. "I have my doubts that blogging reduces information overload, but blogging will survive as it appeals to all the exhibitionists," quips Rolf Apweiler, a bioinformatician at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Hinxton, UK, and head of the UniProtKB/Swiss-Prot protein-sequence database.
Ouch. Rolf's certainly entitled to his opinion, but I wonder how much science weblog reading went into formulating it. Me, I write not to be an "exhibitionist," but because I am, quite simply, a complete science geek. I love reading about this stuff, and sharing what I read with others (and my friends and family are getting sick of it, heh). And even if no one reads it, just the act of writing about various topics forces *me* to give deeper thought to them, and improves my own understanding of the issue. I think (hope) this also makes me both a better scientist and a better teacher. And finally, one of my pet issues is making science available (and understandable) to the general public. Scientists often bemoan science journalists for not getting things quite right, so why not let them hear it straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak?

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About me

  • I'm Tara C. Smith
  • From Iowa, United States
  • I'm a mom and a scientist, your basic stressed-out, wanna-have-it-all-and-do-it-all Gen Xer. Recently transplanted from Ohio to Iowa, I've spent most of my life in the midwest (with 4 years of college spent out east in "soda" territory). My main interest, and the subject of my research, is infectious disease: how does the microbe cause illness? What makes one strain nasty, and another "avirulent?" Are the latter really not causing any disease, or could some of those be possible for the development of chronic disease years down the road? Additionally, I've spent a lot of time discussing the value of teaching evolution, and educating others about "intelligent design" and other forms of creationism. My interest in history of science and medicine is also useful as a way to tie all of the above interests together. [Disclaimer: the views here are solely my own, and do not represent my employer, my spouse, that guy who's always sitting by the fountain when I come into work, or anyone else with whom I may be remotely affiliated.]
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