Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Science 2.0

In addition to giving my blog a nod, Carl Zimmer at The Loom wrote about how scientific discourse is changing in the internet era. It used to be that most scientific debate took place over the course of months (years?) on the pages of august journals or in the hallways at scientific conferences. Criticism, whether positive or nasty, tended to be visible to a select few specialists in the field, and rarely spilled over into the popular press.

Today that is changing. The internet permits a wider exchange of ideas, and is open to anyone who cares to log on and direct their browser thither. Scientists are increasingly looking to blogs as additional outlets for their ideas and comments. Consequently, the pace of scientific debate is speeding up tremendously, with positive and negative repercussions.

Case in point. Yesterday a paper by Liu and Ochman was published online by PNAS. I wrote about it later that evening, highlighting it as additional evidence against the concept of Irreducible Complexity proposed by creationists. Later Nick Matzke of the National Center for Science Education blogged about it at the Panda's Thumb and TR Gregory wrote about it for Genomicron (where Larry Moran of the Sandwalk added his two cents in the comments). All this (and Zimmer's comments) happened within 24 hrs of the paper being released.

I find this discourse thrilling and am happy to be part of the burgeoning movement of scientists to the blogosphere. Moreover, it is fantastic that the general public has an opportunity to observe scientific debate. Facts in textbooks aren't simply placed there by fiat, but are the result of plenty of give and take on the part of working scientists. However, it is important to remember that this new debate is open to all, not just a few close colleagues, and hence, it is especially important to maintain a civil tone. I think Matzke could have chosen his words better in titling his piece, but I commend him on making his comments known. Nothing illustrates the validity of the scientific process like the free exchange of ideas.

The ideal model for this type of discourse is, as Zimmer pointed out, PLoS ONE. I, for one, love the idea of an open-access, freely annotatable journal, and I hope to see it drive pay-journals to a much deserved extinction. True, it is a bit quiet over there now, but I suspect, once scientists get used to the idea, it will be buzzing with activity soon enough.

Notes: The photo was obtained from Joe Felsenstein's website. It depicts the speakers at the International Union of Biological Sciences Symposium on Genetics of Population Structure in Pavia, Italy, in 1953. Their identities are as follows.

Back row: Mather, da Cunha, Haldane, Dobzhansky, Waddington, Epling, Carson, Robertson, Falconer

Middle row (crouching): Ford, Wallace, ?, (large gap) Lerner, Cordeiro(?)

Bottom row (sitting on ground): Mayr, Levine, Buzzati-Traverso, Fisher, Clausen, Pavan

The unidentified one may be Renzo Scossiroli. I have a complete list somewhere and will post it when I find it.


  1. I call it a good thing because it shows laymen like me that science is committed by people like us.

    It could also improve general scientific literacy, and the communication skills of many scientists.

  2. Hi John,

    I agree completely. It would be great if more professional scientists participated actively in such discussions. I also agree about the importance of upholding professionalism in the tone, as you probably saw in my posts on the issue.

    ps: It's TR (vs. TJ).

  3. The debate about "civility" is important. I happen to prefer speaking bluntly.

    But there's one other thing in your posting that I'd like to comment on. Both you and Carl Zimmer seem to think that open internet debate began with the invention of blogs just a few years ago. Not true. Scientists have been discussing papers on listerves since about 1980. These lists may not have been open to the public but there were lots of participants.

    Usenet is almost as old. The newsgroups talk.origins and sci.bio.evolution have been full of scientific debates for several decades. BIONET may not be very active right now but it has been in the past. Furthermore, many websites have carried discussions about science since 1994. Some of the articles on the TalkOrigins Archive, for example, have been highly critical of published work.

    Blogs are not taking us into a new era. We've already been here for twenty years or more.

  4. Whoops sorry TR.

    For the record, Larry, I thought your comments, though blunt, were civil.

  5. I promote science at the local level, perhaps up from the masses and down from the specialists. While i'm not likely to be persuaded that the eye (etc.) is evidence for God, there do seem to be a few at the local Astronomy club that are. I try very hard to put talks into the context of the audience. I get to listen to the audience too.

    My view is that the words "framing" and "spin" have the same meaning, even if "framing" sounds more positive. We don't seem to have a neutral term. If "framing" is intended as neutral, "spin" is so negative that "framing" is, by comparison, positive. And, of course, one can take "spin" all the way to "a lie".

    I'm looking for a story. The story might inspire wonder, action, or change of view point. But even a poor story is easier to remember than a naked fact. So Greek myths tied to patterns in the sky are easier to remember than the patterns themselves. And if the story gives hints as to what it looks like and where it is found, so much the better. No one believes these myths as fact.

    At this level, it's mostly about entertainment. My audience has self selected for science. Giving it to them fills some need. But the level of rigor needed for this entertainment is the same level needed to promote ID. These talks don't often site references.

    Astronomy covers everything in the Universe. But that's not all inclusive. It doesn't cover dental hygiene AFAICT. It could cover bacteriophages, but not without pictures and a story.

  6. The ideal model for this type of discourse is, as Zimmer pointed out, PLOS One. I, for one, love the idea of an open-access, freely annotatable journal, and I hope to see it drive pay-journals to a much deserved extinction.

    Hear, hear!

  7. I'm also quite keen on the concept of PLoS One - but just like for the Nature and Cell attempts at inviting comments - well, we know it takes a while to write a thoughtful review, even when anonymous. Here, it's like writing a review after the publication, and usually it doesn't add much more to it at that point. So it takes up valuable time to make the comments, that we are not used to spending in this way. I am less optimistic than you that we'll have a *lot* of discourse.

    My colleague on the other hand brings up the point that this sort of exchange does rather replace the need for "Letters to the Editor" and allows some debate on more controversial topics.