“I’m back” and then back again, still looking for the sweet spot

Back last May, I initiated a blog mechanism that I called “What We’re Reading Now”, which I hoped would give me a basis for more regular, if shorter posts.  That didn’t work the way that I had hoped, for two reasons.

I decided that don’t like the bundling of individual posts, for one thing, once I had a chance to see the bundles in action.  Each post loses it’s identity in these bundles, especially the separate tags and categories that help people to find my posts on the web, and help them at least to search the blog for posts on specific topics.  That’s why I have gone back and dismantled the confinement of “What We’re Reading Now,” releasing the individual posts to stand on their own, jiggered to keep the same May posting dates (a wonderful feature of WordPress, I might add).

The other failure of this ruse is that it didn’t facilitate more regular posts.  As I shared in the “I’m back” post last May, I tend to approach my blog as a scholarly outlet, with the goal of being factually correct and at least reasonably thoughtful about the ideas I put forth.  They will be my ideas, for sure, but they will have been self-edited to at least be more than idle rants. That takes time, and my life as a full-time professor doesn’t leave much of it available.

Paul Raeburn at Knight Science Journalism Tracker had an inspiring essay over the summer about compulsiveness in blogging that touches on this very topic. The focus of the essay was a response to, and an analysis of, a post by Smithsonian Magazine blogger David Schultz, who endeavors to write his blog posts quickly, “in an hour,” in part by curating other people’s posts and in part by forgoing deep analysis in favor of turnaround.  Paul offered respect for the approach, especially when it involves thorough attribution to the work being curated, but also seemed to find speed-writing more challenging personally.  I posted a comment to Paul’s post, which I offer here:

The example you give of short posts from NOVA Next reminds me of what some non-science outlets like The Dish do, namely, a lot of curating.  As de Chant says, and not in a self-serving way, I think, there is honesty in citing, but then passing through, entire chunks of another writer’s ideas.  Certainly, in the case of The Dish, there is no missing Andrew Sullivan’s philosophy lurking behind every curation, so the pieces selected come to represent the blog as a whole, and sometimes even a common theme (e.g., the recent posts on neuroscience).  They each are small contributions, perhaps, but useful, nonetheless.  That said, I am grateful that “thinkers” like you and your colleagues at the Tracker take the necessary time to flesh out and more thoroughly consider the nuances of a story, no matter the length of the piece.

Thus, I share Paul’s conclusion that there is a place in the science blogosphere for curation, as well as his personal experience that this often goes against the grain of one’s own tendency to want to accomplish more.  As for my own writing, I am still searching for the sweet spot.

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Measles surge years after vaccine-autism scare: science denial comes home to roost

The AP reported this past week that the incidence of measles has surged in the UK since Andrew Wakefield and colleagues first made their report in 1998, now considered fraudulent, that cases of autism are linked to administration of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine to children.  Many parents in the UK and throughout the world thought that withholding the vaccine from their children would protect them from autism, when in fact it made them more susceptible to contracting measles, and in turn made it more likely that they could spread it to others.  Ironically, this spring is the 50th anniversary of the creation of the first mumps vaccine by American microbiologist Maurice Hilleman, as chronicled in a fascinating story by Richard Conniff at the New York Times.  Hilleman ultimately combined his mumps vaccine with measles and rubella vaccines developed by other scientists to create and refine the MMR vaccine that was the source of the trumped-up controversy.  Now, medical professionals are scrambling to convince hesitant parents to bring in their unvaccinated children, a challenge exacerbated by the lack of a legal requirement in the UK for MMR vaccination.


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What tooth chemistry says about Neanderthal behavior: a classical example of science sleuthing

It’s only one case.  One tooth from a Neanderthal infant.  One tooth that provides a suggestive piece of evidence for when that infant may have transitioned from mother’s milk to solid food some 100,000 years ago. But the foundation of science built around this one case, as explored in coverage by Adam Cole at NPR, John Noble Wilford at the New York Times, and others,  make it an impressive example of how scientists attempt to reconstruct biology and behavior in the distant past, and come away with some degree of confidence in their effort.  The research reported in Nature was not in fact focused on the Neanderthal tooth, but instead on documenting how weaning from breastmilk in modern human and macaque infants affects, and can be documented in, tooth development.  However, these studies served as critical positive controls for the Neanderthal analysis, essentially validations for using the same techniques in studying a fossil tooth.  To wit, the element barium is reliably transferred in breast milk from primate mothers to their infants, and can be detected with substantial precision in layers of tooth enamel, with an inherent time stamp, producing similar patterns detectable in the infant teeth of humans, macaques, and now a Neanderthal, which indicate when weaning off breast milk occurs in each case.  Sure, the news reports probably put too much emphasis on the Neanderthal part of the research.  One case certainly does not prove that Neanderthal infants stop breast feeding at about 14 months.  On the other hand, there is good reason to expect that this finding will be affirmed as additional cases are studied, with the interesting possibility that Neanderthals were not obviously different from their primate cousins.

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Angelina’s mastectomy story overshadows the Myriad gene patent case

As covered widely in numerous news outlets over the past several weeks (see links and critique by Paul Raeburn at KSJ Tracker), Angelina Jolie recently announced that she had a double mastectomy based on the positive outcome of genetic testing for the BRCA genes, predictive of certain kinds of breast cancer, using test kits developed and patented by Myriad Genetics.  There appears to be widespread admiration for the decision she made, facing significant certainty that she would eventually develop breast cancer.  However, as some have complained, the gene tests from Myriad are enormously expensive, and beyond the reach of some women, because of the monopoly they hold on any testing for the BRCA genes, derived from their patents.  Myriad defends their monopoly by arguing that the BRCA tests are provided free to those who can’t afford it, and are normally covered by insurance.  However, there is a more fundamental issue at stake, that is often overlooked in these stories:  should genes, any genes, be patentable?  Indeed, Myriad Genetics is defending the constitutionality of these patents in a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court (Assoc. for Molecular Pathology v Myriad Genetics), with a ruling expected in the next few weeks.  SCOTUSblog is a huge resource on the arguments (see summary posts by Amy Howe and Lyle Denniston after the initial hearing in the case in April, plus the posts from a symposium on the case held in February).  Also worthy is a recent edition of the WGBH Radio program, Innovation Hub, hosted by Kara Miller, on “Your Genes: Patent Pending.”    

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Say it isn’t so, CJR

The Columbia Journalism Review may be cutting back or dropping The Observatory and its editor, Curtis Brainard, according to a post by Paul Raeburn at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, based on an article by Joe Pompeo at Capital New York.  This would be a huge loss of an important, and critical voice in science journalism, especially concerning environmental science.  And, it comes on the heels of the January’s announcement by the New York Times that they, too, are cutting back on their commitment of staff and resources to coverage of environmental news.  This includes the recent cancellation of the Green blog that Brainard 1st reported.    As climate change and other environmental issues appear in the news with increasing frequency, this couldn’t be a worse time for critical voices to be silenced.

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The moral and scientific issues surrounding Plan B

I have struggled with the appropriate reading of the issues swirling around the implementation of Plan B as an approved and freely available emergency contraceptive. On the one hand, there is the clear scientific evidence that Plan B is a contraceptive, preventing ovulation, not an abortifacient drug like RU486.  However, assuming that there is little basis for concern about any possible negative health effects of Plan B on young girls, and that is not entirely clear, was it inappropriate for our executive branch of government to modify the recommendation from solid physiological and medical science to make a policy conform to a different social norm (i.e., concerning parental responsibility for minors)?  A recent piece by Joanna Weiss at the Boston Globe provides a compelling perspective on the debate that I hadn’t seen before.  She offers the view that making Plan B freely available to all ensures that those, generally poorer girls who lack significant parental guidance will still be able to avoid unwanted pregnancies.  Since half of all pregnancies are unplanned, and pregnancy is a significant challenge to a women’s health, there is a significant medical and scientific basis for seeking to reduce the incidence of unintended pregnancy.  If making Plan B freely available can help, even if it sidesteps a parent’s responsibility for a minor, but sexually active daughter, then that’s what we should do.  So, I’m rooting for Judge Korman on this one.

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I’m back

I am returning to active writing on this blog after a hiatus of nearly 9 months.  Not coincidentally, this is also the period of my academic year as a university professor that followed starting up the blog last summer 2012.  This is when my work as a classroom teacher, research mentor, and professional colleague all took precedence over my contributions to the blog.  This is regrettable, and unacceptable, as the purpose of a blog, I think, ought to be regular postings to stimulate continuing conversations, in this case, about public science.  But also it is unnecessary, as there is no reason why my work on Dissecting Public Science should have lower priority than other activities in my professional life.

After all, I consider my writing and research on public science to be a distinct part of my continuing scholarship as an academic scientist, along with my laboratory research on olfaction and my pedagogical research on classroom technology.  But perhaps that’s the rub.  In approaching my blog posts as scholarship, I usually am engaging in a time-consuming process of research, fact-checking, and editing that prohibits timeliness.  After all, “dissecting” requires careful attention to detail.  And I can be rather obsessive-compulsive about research and writing, as my colleagues, students and family know well.

Yet, public science is anchored in journalism, which is often fast paced and can’t wait for too much depth.  While I would prefer science journalism to be more scholarly at times, I recognize that events often move too quickly for that.  Daily deadlines and competition to be first proscribe depth, or at least interfere with work on anything else that day.  Comprehensiveness comes later, upon reflection and more extensive research.

So, what’s a scholarly blogger to do?  I’ve decided to follow the suggestion of my daughter Amy, who is editor of this blog, to institute regular “What We’re Reading” posts, every week or so, that will give short comments on a small set of recent articles that deserve more attention (including here, in subsequent, more elaborate essays on the blog).  At the very least, this will keep the blog reasonably current, and provide a hint of more expansive things to come.

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Overbye’s teaching moment about scientific discovery and uncertainty

In my humble opinion (alright:  IMHO), the best science writing combines reporting on current advances in science — the knowledge or content — with insights into the process of science — how the new knowledge was acquired, and with what certainty.

Thus, I was delighted to read a recent article by Dennis Overbye in the New York Times about the kerfuffle over the claimed discovery of a so-called Goldilocks planet — aka, Gliese 581g  Continue reading

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Our “Darwin problem” is really about power and influence (and doubt)

A key challenge to the public perception and acceptance of science, and to the scientists and science writers charged with communicating scientific results to an interested public, is the increasingly common rejection of mainstream science by influential non-scientists. A long-standing example of this problem concerns public reception to Darwin’s theory of evolution.

This past February, biologist Ken Miller took the occasion of Darwin’s 203rd birthday to address in The Huffington Post what he called “America’s Darwin Problem.”  Miller is a Continue reading

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Searching for objectivity in the nature vs. nurture debate

We like to think that science is objective, that its approach to knowledge derives from the lack of bias. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

Despite the best of intentions, scientists confront and fight with bias all the time, both within themselves and  when interpreting the work of others.  Scientists have agendas just like anyone else, whether it’s a pet hypothesis or a cultural ideology, and it can be manifested in the way that the data are collected and interpreted.  So, how can the interested non-scientist find the truth amid the bias in the science they’re reading and hearing about? Continue reading

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