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Royce Murray on "Science Blogs and Caveat Emptor"

Larry Moran has a post on Royce Murray's editorial in the journal Analytical Chemistry titled, "Science Blogs and Caveat Emptor." Murray, a highly respected scientist, bemoans the unedited candor of science bloggers:

...these new freelancers, with the megaphone of the internet, can reach a much larger audience of potential clients than was possible in the past (and harness free "information sources"). This magnifies, for the lay reader, the dual problems in assessing credibility: a) not having a single stable employer (like a newspaper, which can insist on credentials and/or education background) frees the blogger from the requirement of consistent information reliability, so that b) blogging "agencies" are popping up that openly advertise "no formal qualifications are necessary" (as an internet search for "qualifications of bloggers" revealed). Who are the fact-checkers now? There are no reviewers in a formal sense, and writing can be done for any purpose--political, religious, business, etc.--without the constraint of truth. What is the feedback loop of truth and quality for the consumers of blog-info, other than statistics on how many people read the blogger's posts? And how is any received feedback to posts disentangled from the wild currents of disinformation promulgated by anti-science societal elements?

Murray misses his own logic. Isn't it precisely the scientists who are freed from "the requirement of consistent information reliability" and who misrepresent science for "political, religious, [and] business" reasons who are the "anti-science societal elements"? Murray is wrong as well to be concerned about "qualifications" of science bloggers. Most science bloggers are qualified scientists, and many if not most hold significant positions in academia. There's nothing wrong about communicating the culture and politics of science to the public in a way that is relatively free of editorial control. But Murray is right to note the enormous impact that the science blogsphere is having and will have on the public. He is also right to bemoan the enormous impact science blogging will have on the public's perception of scientists. And the perception that the public gains will be, largely, an accurate one.

I think that this impact is very healthy, for the public at least. The content is unedited, and refreshingly honest. The science blogsphere is free of journal editors and science journalists who have dressed up science for public presentation for generations. It's raw and uncensored. Think of science blogs as a wire-tap in the laboratory and the seminar room.

Information about the culture in which science is conducted is indispensable to an informed citizenry. In this age of "scientific consensus" and of many scientists' fervent efforts to mold public policy, science blogs provide context in which to understand scientific conclusions and recommendations. Never before have citizens who fund science had available to them such clear expression of the culture of science. Some of that culture is professional and sober; some not.

Science blogs provide context to the generally dry conclusions published in professional science journals, and context to the polished press releases in the mainstream media. Perhaps the science blogs present the most contentious aspect of the environment in which science is done, but ideological and political pressure has a profound impact on scientific work, on peer review decisions on publication and tenure, and on the selection of research topics and conclusions divulged to the public. And in order to make informed decisions on science funding and on public policy related to science, the public must know the ideological and political basis for scientific work.

Ideological and political context has always molded science, of course, but the science blogs provide the tax-paying public the opportunity to learn first-hand about the culture into which their hard-earned dollars flow. In a national political environment in which citizens demand public accountability from recipients of government (i.e. taxpayer) largesse, science blogs are indispensable to the informed citizen.

Science blogs provide the public with an incomparably rich context for publicly-funded science. An example: Here are questions that were difficult for the average American to answer prior to the rise of science blogs:

Do biologists who publicly assert that design plays no role in biology have an ideological agenda that dictates their supposedly objective scientific conclusions? To what extent do taxpayer dollars support an ideological, rather than a scientific, agenda? What do evolutionary biologists think about the beliefs and values of most Americans? Can scientists in fields such as evolutionary biology and climate science be trusted to teach our children in public schools and in colleges without pushing a religious or ideological agenda?

These questions are easier to answer now. The most popular science blog in the world is P.Z. Myers' Pharyngula, and it has spawned many imitators. Read Myers' blog. You'll learn more about evolutionary biology than any prior generation of citizens had an opportunity to learn. Myers has a gift for explication; you'll learn much about evolutionary biology, and much about the ideological agenda that drives work in the field. Unlike science journals and textbooks, Pharyngula isn't the least bit dry. You'll learn a great deal about how evolutionary biologists do science on your dime. Myers and his commentors have a lot to say about you and your beliefs as well.

Thank goodness for science blogs. They flesh out the process by which science is done in ways never before available to the public, and they provide a context in which to understand 'consensus science.'

Caveat taxpayer.