February 5, 2007

Recently, on ScienceBlogs

A couple of recent posts from ScienceBlogs on the general culture of science (and science in the culture) that I found interesting:

  • Chris Mooney and Alan Sokal have collaborated on a op-ed piece in the LA Times. Sokal being a noted critic of science abuses by the left and Mooney on abuses by the right, they join together to call for a rational way forward, a place for science in the broader culture that's not distorted or denied by political or cultural biases, but based on the scientific method. Needless to say, they're not too impressed with the current state of affairs.
    In truth, there was nothing wrong with inventing science studies; the error was to leap from the valid observation that science arises in a social context to the extreme conclusion that it is nothing more than politics in disguise.

    Such introspection on the academic left has been a heartening sign, and the pronouncements of extreme relativism have subsided significantly in recent years. This frees up defenders of science to combat the enemy on our other flank: an unholy (and uneasy) alliance of economically driven attacks on science (on issues such as global climate change, mercury pollution and what constitutes a good diet) and theologically impelled ones (in areas such as evolution, reproductive health and embryonic stem cell research).

    The potency of this combination has become apparent during the six years of the Bush administration, as many if not most scientific agencies of our government have become embroiled in scandals involving the misrepresentation or suppression of scientific information, gag orders on scientist employees, or other interferences with the processes by which science feeds into decision-making. Tracing these intrusions back to their source, we almost always uncover the same pattern: It concerns an issue in which one of the two principal constituencies of the current administration — religious conservatives or big corporations — has a vested interest.


    At the same time, journalists and citizens must renounce a lazy "on the one hand, on the other hand" approach and start analyzing critically the quality of the evidence. For, in the end, all of us — conservative or liberal, believer or atheist — must share the same real world. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria do not spare deniers of evolution, and global climate change will not spare any of us. As physicist Richard Feynman wrote in connection with the space shuttle Challenger disaster, "nature cannot be fooled."

    To avoid nature's punishment, we must take steps now to restore reality-based government.

    This is a great article, full of terrific ideas that are applicable to more than just the USA; it's already generating quite a lot of discussion on the blogosphere. We should all hold our governments to a reality-based agenda.

  • Janet Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics and Science has a post about the impact of blogging on academic scientists' tenure decisions.
    While I am of the opinion that many blogging academics are engaged in serious thinking, educating, communicating (to other academics, students, and the broader public), and even mentoring on their blogs -- all of which does contribute to their profession and to society -- how exactly their "work" and "contribution" should be evaluated is unclear. And the reality is, for an activity to "count" for tenure and promotion, it need to be evaluated. At this stage, academic blogs are new enough that few people on tenure and promotion committees would have a clear view of how to judge their quality or "impact". (Indeed, the list of potential axes for judging them helmut suggests seems like it might miss the point of some of what makes blogging useful.) Also, in the absence of general agreement about how blogging might fit into the range of professional activities, it's hard to believe there wouldn't be a good number of folks on the committees judging blogging time as time one could have been using for real professional activities.

    Personally, I think that blogs should definately count as part of a faculty (or librarian's) tenure profile. What I think is important is that it be evaluated in the proper context the person's entire scholarly and professional output. Blog posts won't generally count as peer-reviewed science articles, they won't count as service to the institution, so what's left? Teaching? Are blog posts, even if not directly delivered to students, part of a profs teaching profile? An interesting possibility -- to the extent that the posts in some way explain scientific concepts, comment on the place of science in the broader culture, advocate for a particular political point of view on scientific issues, and probably a lot of other kinds of posts too then yes, I think a scientists blog should probably count in some way as part of their teaching profile. Just not for their own students, but for the rest of the world. I'm sure that there's a million reasons why this will be very difficult to implement, but at least by starting the conversation on where blogging should fit into a academic's long term career profile we might eventually get to a point where blogging finds its proper place.

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