Archive for: July, 2011

Pseudonymity and ethics (with a few more thoughts on Google+).

In a comment on my last post, Larry Moran takes issue with my defense of pseudonymity:

Janet says,

But Larry, other than my say-so (and that of those with whom I've cultivated online ties), how do you know "Janet D. Stemwedel" is really my "real" (by which I assume you mean "legal") name? You didn't peek at my driver's license, so maybe the government here knows me my some other name.

That's not a very good argument from someone who specializes in ethics! 🙂

The issue is whether I prefer dealing with people who identify themselves or with people who use fake names to disguise their real identity. What you're saying is that there will always be unethical people who will get around any rules designed to avoid false identities, therefore we shouldn't even try to enforce a policy requiring real names.

I doubt very much that you use an argument like that when you discuss other issues like plagiarism, or preparing a CV. Let's drop that argument, okay? We all know that there will be unethical people who will lie and cheat to get around any rules. That's not an argument against having rules.

The issue before us is whether we want to live in an internet society where people identify themselves and stand behind what they say and do, just as they do in the real face-to-face world, or whether we want an internet society with different rules. I try to teach my students that it is important to take a stand on certain issues but they have to be prepared to suffer the consequences (both good and bad).

Larry is right that the part of my comment he's quoted isn't a very good argument. Indeed, I meant it mostly as a suggestion that Larry's comfort dealing with me as a person-attached-to-her-real-name is based on a certain amount of trust that I really am properly attached to that legal name (since Larry has yet to demand to see my papers).

Neither, of course, would I want to say that the existence of people who get around a rule is a good reason to abandon the rule or attempts to enforce it. Instead, my support for the rule would turn on what the rule was meant to accomplish, what it actually accomplished, and whether the intended and/or actual effects were worth pursuing.*

However, Larry seems also to be suggesting that something stronger than his own personal preference against the use of pseudonyms.

As I read what he's written, it seems like he's suggesting that there's something inherently unethical about using a pseudonym -- that being pseudonymous online is somewhere on a spectrum of deeds that includes plagiarism and C.V.-padding. Let the record reflect that I'm not convinced this is actually what Larry is saying. But given that it might be read that way, I want to examine the suggestion.

Is pseudonymity always deceptive?

At the heart of the matter, I think we need to look at the question of how pseudonyms are used.

The suggestion in Larry's comment is that a pseudonym is a fake name intended to disguise one's identity. However, it strikes me that "disguise" might be a loaded term, one that has an additional connotation of "mislead" here.

Misleading is a variety of lying, and I'm happy to grant that lying is generally unethical (although, unlike Kant, I'm prepared to accept the possibility of a case where lying is less unethical than the existing alternatives).

But, my sense from the pseudonymous people I have encountered online (and from my own brief experience as a pseudonymous blogger) is that not all people using pseudonyms are aiming to deceive. Instead, I think it's more accurate to say that they are choosing how much of their personal information to disclose.

And, I'm inclined to think that non-disclosure of personal information is only unethical in specific instances. I don't think we have a positive right to total information about everyone with whom we engage.

Indeed, I don't think we actually want total information about all of our contacts, whether online or in real life. My students have no interest in the current state of my digestive health, nor in what's in my record collection (let alone what a "record" is). My children have no need to know whether the user interface for grade entry at my university is well-designed or clunky. Readers of my blog probably care less about my opinion of baseball teams than about my opinions on recent news stories about scientific misconduct.

Even being on the receiving end of an accidental overshare can feel like a violation of a relationship, as I had occasion to note a few years ago:

There was an academic blog I used to read that I enjoyed quite a lot. I had to stop, though, when it became apparent that the (anonymous) blogger was married to someone that I knew. (What clinched it was a post about a social occasion that I attended.) To keep reading the blog would have felt, to me, like a violation of the blogger's trust -- from real life, I knew certain details about the blogger that had not been revealed to the blog's readers, and from the blog, I knew certain details about the blogger's life that had not been revealed to the blogger's real-life friends and acquaintances. Caring about the blogger (and the real-life person) meant I had to respect the walls of separation the blogger had erected.

We are always making judgments about what pieces of our experiences and ourselves it's relevant to share. And we make those judgments differently depending on with whom we're interacting, in what kind of context, how that will affect our comfort level (and theirs), and what kinds of consequences (deserved or undeserved) sharing what we share may bring.

I'm happy to be accountable for my views on research with animals, for example, but voicing them publicly can make me (and my family members) targets of people who think it's OK to use threats of violence to silence me. I can fully understand why people actually conducting research with animals might not want to attach their real names (which are attached to addresses and phone numbers and license plate numbers of cars under which someone might put incendiary devices) to their candid views online -- and, I think that our public conversation about research with animals would be greatly impoverished without their participation in it.

Courage, as Aristotle would remind us, is the right balance of confidence and fear for the circumstances at hand. Too little confidence makes us cowardly, but too little fear makes us foolhardy.

I should also note that many of the notable users of pseudonyms in the blogosphere choose pseudonyms that are extremely unlikely to be mistaken for legal names -- which is to say, in withholding certain personal details they are not also trying to deceive others into believing that their "real" names in the three-dimensional world are "SciCurious" or "GrrlScientist" or "DrugMonkey" or "Prof-like Substance". That's not to say that such a clear 'nym can't be intentionally deceptive -- for example, if GrrlScientist were male, or if PhysioProf were a certified public accountant, or if SciCurious had not a whit of curiosity about matters scientific. But either way, you'd have no expectations that a Social Security search on the surname Curious would help you locate Sci.

Perhaps ironically, it is the people with obviously assumed names like these, not people with "real-looking"** assumed names that might actually fool others into thinking they're real, who have had their access to Google+ accounts revoked.

I won't claim that no one uses an assumed name to mislead -- obviously, there are people who do so. But this doesn't make it the case that everyone using a 'nym is using it to deceive. Indeed, pseudonymity can create conditions in which people disclose more honest information about themselves, where people share opinions or experiences that they could not comfortably (or safely) share using their real names.

I understand that not everyone is comfortable dealing with online persons who could, in an instant, dismantle their pseudonymous online identities and vanish. Especially if you've dealt with troll-y exemplars of pseudonymity, your patience for this may be limited. That's fine. I'm happy to live in a world where people get to choose with whom they engage in their own online spaces, as well as which online spaces maintained by others they will frequent.

Indeed, I even noted that Google is free to make its own rules for Google+. That Google establishes a real-name rule for Google+ doesn't raise it to the level of a moral precept ("Thou shalt use only thy full legal name"). If the rule is clearly explain in the Terms of Service, it probably imposes an obligation on the person who agrees to the ToS to follow the rule ... but it probably also imposes an obligation on Google to enforce the rule consistently (which so far it has not).

And, Google setting its own rules does not preclude our discussing whether these are reasonable rules, ones with well thought out aims that have a reasonable chance of achieving those aims or some close approximation of them.

I think Larry is right that the names policy (and/or who will want to sign up for Google+) is going to come down to people's comfort levels. Opting for one set of rules may make some groups of potential users very comfortable and others so uncomfortable that it effectively bars their participation. Google needs to think about it in those terms -- who do they want in, and who are they happy to cede to their competition.

Right now, to me, Google+ feels a little like a country club to which I was admitted before I knew what kind of people the membership rules were going to exclude (because they're "not our kind, dear"). Personally, this particular sort of "exclusivity" makes me less comfortable, not more. Depending on Google's next move, I may be removing myself from the spiffy new clubhouse and spending a lot more time on the internet's public beaches.

*Of course, I don't need to tell you that rules are not always completely congruent with what's ethical. There are plenty of rules that are unjust, loads of rules that we use to encode our ethical commitments, and a plethora of rules that seem to have no ethical content to speak of. (How would a utilitarian, a Kantian, and a virtue ethicist come down on "No white shoes after Labor Day"?)

**Naturally, which names look "real" and which look "made-up" is tied up in lots of cultural assumptions.

23 responses so far

Pseudonymity and Google.

In case you haven't been following recent developments with the much-hyped Google+ (hailed by social media mavens as in position to replace both Facebook and Twitter), you may not have heard the news (e.g., in the linked ZDnet article by Violet Blue) that Google unceremoniously deleted "[a] striking number of Google+ accounts", many apparently owing to the requirement that people with Google+ accounts must be registered under their "real names".

A follow-up from Violet Blue notes that the real-name policy is not being enforced uniformly (e.g., Lady Gaga's profile is still intact), and that the disabling of accounts that seems to have started July 22 or so was notable in that there were no notifications sent to users ahead of time that their accounts would be disabled (or why). Moreover, there seem to be at least a few cases where people deemed out of compliance with the real-name policy loss access not only to Google+ but also to other Google products like Gmail and Google Docs.

There are plenty of posts kicking around the blogosphere in response to this, pointing out legitimate reasons people might have for not using their "real name" online. (In the past, I wrote such a post myself.) You should definitely read what SciCurious has to say on the matter, since she explains it very persuasively.

There are those who argue that a real-name policy is the only effective deterrent to bad online behavior, but I have yet to see convincing evidence that this is so. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better citizen of the blogosphere than SciCurious, and "SciCurious" is not the name on her birth certificate or driver's license. However, I'd argue that "SciCurious" is her real name in the blogosphere, given that it is connected to a vast catalog of blog posts, comments, interviews, and other traces that convey a reliable picture of the kind of person she is. Meanwhile, there are people using their legal names online who feel free to encourage violence against others. Is it more civil because they're not using pseudonyms to applaud car-bombs?

Google, being a private company, is of course free to set its own terms of service (although enforcing them consistently would be preferable). That means it can set the rules to require people who want the service to sign up using their legal names. However, unless they are going to require that you submit documentation to verify that the name you are using is your legal name (as, apparently they have from some folks trying to get their Google+ accounts back) it strikes me that the safest default assumption is that everyone is signing up with an assumed name. How do you know that Paul Butterfield is Paul Butterfield if he's not scanning his passport for you, or that Janet D. Stemwedel isn't a totally made-up name?

The truth is, you don't.

And if Google wants to get so far into its users' business that they do know who we all officially are, that's going to be enough of an overreach that a bunch of people drift off to Yahoo or Hotmail or some other company that isn't quite so desperate for a total information dossier.

All of this is disappointing, since Google+ looks like it might be a spiffy little product. But if it can't get out of beta without Google burning through the good reputation it had with netizens, pseudonymous or not, who were most likely to embrace it, Google+ may have all the success and longevity of Google Buzz and Google Wave.

14 responses so far

A modest proposal to or California big-box outlets.

Jul 24 2011 Published by under Current events, Passing thoughts, Politics

... whichever can muster a shred of corporate social responsibility.

As has been noted elsewhere, is put out that states are asking it to collect sales tax on online purchases. You may have had occasion to notice that most states are still experiencing major economic difficulties. Especially given major anti-tax sentiments among lawmakers, the states are relying on sales taxes for an ever increasing proportion of state revenue.

Yes, sales taxes are regressive, and tend to hit the poor more heavily than the rich. But my guess is that some non-negligible proportion of Californians making online purchases with Amazon are living comfortably above the poverty line. is so committed to not collecting California sales tax that it is prepared to spend several buckets of money to get a measure on the ballot to free it from having to collect the sales tax.

Meanwhile, word on the streets is that the brick-and-mortar big-box retailers that are Amazon's biggest competition here -- who, naturally, collect sales tax on purchases -- are prepared to spend their own buckets of money to urge a "no" vote on the ballot measure.

I offer this proposal in the hopes of being able to dodge yet another situation where we're calling for a plague on both your houses.

The state of California needs that sales tax revenue at the moment, surely more than Jeff Bezos needs it. California consumers (at least the ones who still have disposable income to spend) are sold on the convenience you offer and the wide range of goods you sell. They happily pay sales tax on online purchases they make with other retailers. You won't lose them by collecting sales tax, at least, not too many of them.

However, you may lose a bunch of them if you pour lots of money into a ballot measure. The whole governing-by-ballot-measure thing has gotten pretty tired, and it's expensive, and we don't love it when big corporations buy all that commercial time to lie to us about our best interests.

So, why not collect that sales tax and look like a benevolent corporate entity rather than greed made flesh (or whatever the cyber-retail equivalent of "flesh" might be)? Heck, you could even just meet us halfway and create a sales tax opt-in toggle for California consumers who would like to avail themselves of Amazon's selection and convenience without feeling like greedhead-supporting scumbags?

Big-box retailers in California:
I get where you're coming from here. You're not wrong that Amazon gets an unfair advantage by dodging collecting California sales tax. And undoubtedly the Amazon-bankrolled ballot measure will be supported by all sorts of misleading (and self-serving) claims that you'll want to counter.

But this is a golden opportunity to be the less evil of corporate entities here. That might reward you with dividends, whether from California consumers, or communities who make zoning decisions, or lawmakers, down the road.

Why not take that money that you're prepared to spend to defeat the get-Amazon-out-of-sales-tax-collection ballot measure and use it to create jobs in California communities?

I reckon that embarking on such an unorthodox move would get you all sorts of free publicity from reporters on the economic and political beats, among others. Probably some bloggers would talk it up, too.

The California budget is broken enough that we need every dollar we can get to support crumbling infrastructure, essential services to the poor and the sick, little things like education. This is not an auspicious time to be pouring money into fighting about whether can keep stiffing California. The corporate entity that steps away from the expensive game of chicken and uses its power and money for good may end up winning lots goodwill from California consumers -- goodwill that carries over to better economic times (assuming someday we'll have those) when people have more money to spend and want to feel good about where they're spending it.

On the other hand, both sides can stay the course and help Californians feel better about pulling back from consumer culture.

4 responses so far

Harvard Psych department may have a job opening.

... because Marc Hauser has resigned his faculty position, effective August 1.

You may recall, from our earlier discussions of Hauser (here, here, here, and here), that some of his papers were retracted because they drew conclusions that weren't supported by the data ... and then it emerged that maybe the data didn't support the conclusions on account of scientific misconduct (rather than honest mistakes). Harvard mounted an inquiry. Hauser took a leave of absence from his position while the inquiry was ongoing. Harvard found Hauser "solely responsible, after a thorough investigation by a faculty member investigating committee, for eight instances of scientific misconduct under FAS standards." In February, Hauser's colleagues in the Psychology Department voted against allowing him to return to the classroom in the Fall. Meanwhile, since Hauser's research was supported by grants from federal funding agencies, the Office of Research Integrity is thought to be in the midst of its own investigation of Hauser's scientific conduct.

So perhaps Hauser's resignation was to be expected (although it's not too hard to come up with examples of faculty who were at least very close to scientific fraudsters -- close enough to be enabling the fraud -- who are still happily ensconced in their Ivy League institutions).

From Carolyn Y. Johnson at the Boston Globe:

“While on leave over the past year, I have begun doing some extremely interesting and rewarding work focusing on the educational needs of at-risk teenagers. I have also been offered some exciting opportunities in the private sector,” Hauser wrote in a resignation letter to the dean, dated July 7. “While I may return to teaching and research in the years to come, I look forward to focusing my energies in the coming year on these new and interesting challenges.”

Hauser did not respond to e-mail or voicemail messages today.

His resignation brings some resolution to the turmoil on campus, but it still leaves the scientific community trying to sort out what findings, within his large body of work, they should trust. Three published papers led by Hauser were thrown into question by the investigation -- one was retracted and two were corrected. Problems were also found in five additional studies that were either not published or corrected prior to publication.

“What it does do is it provides some sort of closure for people at Harvard. ... They were in a state of limbo,” said Gerry Altmann, editor of the journal Cognition, who, based on information provided to him by Harvard last year, said the only plausible conclusion he could draw was that some of the data had been fabricated in a study published in his journal in 2002 and retracted last year. “There’s just been this cloud hanging over the department. ... It has no real impact on the field more broadly.”

Maybe it's just me, but there seems to be a mixed message in those last two paragraphs. Either this is the story of one bad apple who indulged in fabrication and brought shame to his university, or this is the story of a trusted member of the scientific community who contributed many, many articles to the literature in his field and now turns out not to be so trustworthy. If it's the latter, then we're talking about potential impacts that are much bigger than Harvard's reputation. We're talking about a body of scientific literature that suddenly looks less solid -- a body of scientific literature that other researchers had trusted, used as the basis for new studies of their own, perhaps even taken as the knowledge base with which other new findings would need to be reconciled to be credible.

And, it's not like there's no one suggesting that Marc Hauser is a good guy who has made important (and presumably trustworthy) contributions to science. For example:

“I’m deeply saddened by the whole events of the last year,” Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard, said today. “Marc is a scientist of enormous creativity, energy, and talent.”

Meanwhile, if the data from the Harvard investigation best supports the conclusion that Hauser's recent work was marred by scientific misconduct characterized by "problems involving data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results," this seems to count against Hauser's credibility (and his judgment). And, although we might make the case that teaching involves a different set of competencies than research, his colleagues may have decided that the his to his credibility as a knowledge-builder would also do damage to his credibility as a teacher. The Boston Globe article notes:

Another researcher in the field, Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said today that Hauser’s departure was not unexpected. “Once they didn’t let him teach –- and there are severe restrictions in his ability to do research -- you come to office and what do you do all day?” he said. “People in the field, we’re just wondering -- this doesn’t change anything. We’re still where we were before about the [other] studies.”

What could Hauser do at work all day if not teach and conduct research? Some might suggest a full slate of committee work.

Others would view that as cruel and unusual punishment, even for the perpetrator of scientific misconduct.

7 responses so far

Helpful hint for ethics students.

Let's say you have been given a case study and asked to suggest an ethical course of action for the protagonist in the case.

If, in the course of explaining the course of action you are recommending, you find yourself writing, "Even though it would be unethical, the protagonist should ...," you may be doing it wrong.

5 responses so far

A small happy parenting moment.

A conversation yesterday at the dojo where my better half and the younger Free-Ride offspring do aikido:

Younger offspring: I think [Dr. Free-Ride's better half] needs to man up and start coming to aikido regularly again.

Dr. Free-Ride: I get what you're saying, but when you say "man up", what are you suggesting about women?

Younger offspring: Oh, I didn't think about that.

Dr. Free-Ride: Because the quality you want [Dr. Free-Ride's better half] to summon isn't something only men have, right?

Younger offspring: No, women have it too. I didn't mean men were better.

Dr. Free-Ride: I know that. But sometimes our words seem to say things we don't mean them to mean.

Younger offspring: I could say "toughen up" instead, 'cause that's what I mean.

Dr. Free-Ride: That would totally work.

I'm especially happy that it took all of five minutes for the younger offspring, aged 10, to get the distinction between what she meant to say and what the words themselves might communicate -- and that she was able to have this discussion without feeling attacked or turning it into an exchange focused on the innocence of her intent.

To me, this feels like significant progress towards maturity.

5 responses so far

State budget cuts mean ... executive salary increases?

Jul 14 2011 Published by under Academia, Current events, Personal

The California State University Board of Trustees met July 12. As expected, they approved yet another student fee increase. Because, how could they not when they're facing down at least a $650 million budget cut for the 23-campus system?

Not so expected (at least by those of us not on the inside) was their vote to pay Elliot Hirshman, the new president of San Diego State University, an annual salary of $400,000. Because ... remember that $650 million budget cut for the 23-campus system?

How is this supposed to work again?

It should be noted that California Governor Jerry Brown sent a letter to the Board of Trustees urging them not to approve this salary increase. The letter (PDF here) is so clear in identifying the problem that I'm going to quote the whole thing:

As this Board well knows, California is still struggling to overcome the effects of the great recession which forced tens of billions of dollars in state budget cuts.

The state university system has been particularly hard hit with painful sacrifices on the part of faculty and students alike. As trustees, you have to make tough calls and strive as best you can to protect our proud system of higher education.

It is in this context, and prompted by the salary decision you are about to make today, that I write to express my concern about the ever-escalating pay packages awarded to your top administrators.

I fear your approach to compensation is setting a pattern for public service that we cannot afford.

I have reviewed the Mercer compensation study and have reflected on its market premises, which provide the justification for your proposed salary boost of more than $100,000. The assumption is that you cannot find a qualified man or woman to lead the university unless paid twice that of the Chief Justice of the United States. I reject this notion.

At a time when the state is closing its courts, laying off public school teachers and shutting senior centers, it is not right to be raising the salaries of leaders who -- of necessity -- must demand sacrifice from everyone else.

If it were me writing the letter, in the last paragraph I might also mention the already deep cuts to the CSU (many of which I'm sure have been obvious to the students at SDSU, as they have been to students here at SJSU). This is a situation where maybe President Hirshman and the trustees are banking on the students not following state news, because if they do keep up on current events, it might get awkward.

Of course, it's being reported that some of the 12 trustees who voted to approve Hirshman's compensation package (3 voted against it) say it's necessary to pay him so much because of "the complexity of running a major university and the salaries that other university presidents around the country are paid". This strikes me as a variant of the old saw that "we need to pay administrators so much because of how much they could be making in the private sector".

Maybe it's the larger class sizes, the absence of funds for graders or for work-related travel, or possibly the fact that the existence of my public-employee pension (which, given the way this job is going, I might not live long enough to use) has been used to demonize me and other CSU faculty like me in the minds of the voters, but I need to call shenanigans on this.

Could university administrators be making buckets of money in the private sector? It's not clear to me that the private sector is doing a lot of hiring these days. But if they are, I'm inclined to tell those administrators, Vaya con Dios. Do what you must to feed your family, to fortify your compound, to get your yacht ready for the sailing season, to find fulfillment, but right now we can't afford you. In a perfect world, maybe we could pay you what you feel you're worth, but this, my dear, is nothing like a perfect world.

I'm sure your cash-strapped students can fill you in on some of the local details of its imperfection.

In the meantime, it's worth noting that this newly increased salary doesn't put President Hirshman close to the top slot of best-compensated California public employee. That honor goes to UC Berkeley football coach Jeff Tedford, at $2.3 million a year, with UCLA basketball coach Ben Howland ($2.1 million) a close second.

For comparison, Jerry Brown earns $173,987 a year to be Governor of the state.

14 responses so far

Blogospheric navel-gazing: where's the chemistry communication?

The launch last week of the new Scientific American Blog Network* last week prompted a round of blogospheric soul searching (for example here, here, and here): Within the ecosystem of networked science blogs, where are all the chem-bloggers?

Those linked discussions do a better job with the question and its ramifications than I could, so as they say, click through and read them. But the fact that these discussions are so recent is an interesting coincidence in light of the document I want to consider in this post.

I greeted with interest the release of a recent publication from the National Academy of Sciences titled Chemistry in Primetime and Online: Communicating Chemistry in Informal Environments (PDF available for free here). The document aims to present a summary of a one-and-a-half day workshop, organized by the Chemical Sciences Roundtable and held in May 2010.

Of course, I flipped right to the section that took up the issue of blogs.

The speaker invited to the workshop to talk about chemistry on blogs was Joy Moore, representing Seed Media Group.

She actually started by exploring how much chemistry coverage there was in Seed magazine and professed surprise that there wasn't much:

When she talked to one of her editors about why, what he told her was very similar to what others had mentioned previously in the workshop. He said, "part of the reason behind the apparent dearth of chemistry content is that chemistry is so easily subsumed by other fields and bigger questions, so it is about the 'why' rather than the how.'" For example, using chemistry to create a new clinical drug is often not reported or treated as a story about chemistry. Instead, it will be a story about health and medicine. Elucidating the processes by which carbon compounds form in interstellar space is typically not treated as a chemistry story either; it will be an astronomy-space story.

The Seed editor said that in his experience most pure research in chemistry is not very easy to cover or talk about in a compelling and interesting way for general audiences, for several reasons: the very long and easily confused names of many organic molecules and compounds, the frequent necessity for use of arcane and very specific nomenclature, and the tendency for most potential applications to boil down to an incremental increase in quality of a particular consumer product. Thus, from a science journalist point of view, chemistry is a real challenge to cover, but he said, "That doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of opportunities." (24)

A bit grumpily, I will note that this editor's impression of chemistry and what it contains is quite a distance from my own. Perhaps it's because I was a physical chemist rather than an organic chemist (so I mostly dodged the organic nomenclature issue in my own research), and because the research I did had no clear applications to any consumer products (and many of my friends in chemistry were in the same boat), and because the lot of us learned how to explain what was interesting and important and cool to each other (and to our friends who weren't in chemistry, or even in school) without jargon. It can be done. It's part of this communication strategy called "knowing your audience and meeting them where they are."

Anyway, after explaining why Seed didn't have much chemistry, Moore shifted her focus to ScienceBlogs and its chemistry coverage. Here again, the pickings seemed slim:

Moore said there is no specific channel in ScienceBlogs dedicated to chemsitry, but there are a number of bloggers who use chemistry in their work.

Two chemistry-related blogs were highlighted by Moore. The first one, called Speakeasy Science, is by a new blogger Deborah Bloom [sic]. Bloom is not a scientist, but chemistry informs her writing, especially her new book on the birth of forensic toxicology. Moore also showed a new public health blog from Seed called the Pump Handle. Seed has also focused more on chemistry, in particular environmental toxins. Moore added, "So again, as we go through we can find the chemistry as the supporting characters, but maybe not as the star of the show." (26)

While I love both The Pump Handle and Speakeasy Science (which has since relocated to PLoS Blogs), Moore didn't mention a bunch of blogs at ScienceBlogs that could be counted on for chemistry content in a starring role. These included Molecule of the Day, Terra Sigillata (which has since moved to CENtral Science), and surely the pharmacology posts on Neurotopia. That's just three off the top of my head. Indeed, even my not-really-a-chemistry-blog had a "Chemistry" category populated with posts that really focused on chemistry.

And, of course, I shouldn't have to point out that ScienceBlogs is not now, and was not then, the entirety of the science blogosphere. There have always been seriously awesome chem-bloggers writing entertaining, accessible stuff outside the bounds of the Borg.

Ignoring their work (and their readership) is more than a little lazy. (Maybe a search engine would help?)

Anyway, Moore also told the workshop about Research Blogging:

Moore said that Research Blogging is a tagging and aggregating tool for bloggers who write about journal articles. Bloggers who occasionally discuss journal articles on their blog sites can join the Seed Research Blogging community. Seed provides the blogger with some code to put into blog posts that allows Seed to pick up those blog posts and aggregate them. Seed then offers the blogger on its website [sic]. This allows people to search across the blog posts within these blogs. Moore said that bloggers can also syndicate comments through the various Seed feeds, widgets, and other websites. It basically brings together blog posts about peer-reviewed research. At the same time, Seed gives a direct link back to the journal article, so that people can read the original source.

"Who are these bloggers?" Moore asked. She said the blog posts take many different forms. Sometimes someone is simply pointing out an interesting article or picking a topic and citing two or three articles to preface it. Other bloggers almost do a mini-review. These are much more in-depth analyses or criticisms of papers. (26)

Moore also noted some research on the chemistry posts aggregated by ResearchBlogging that found:

the blog coverage of the chemistry literature was more efficient than the traditional citation process. The science blogs were found to be faster in terms of reporting on important articles, and they also did a better job of putting the material in context within different areas of chemistry. (26)

The issues raised by the other workshop participants here were the predictable ones.

One, from John Miller of the Department of Energy, was whether online venues like ResearchBlogging might replace traditional peer review for journal articles. Joy Moore said she saw it as a possibility. Of course, this might rather undercut the idea that what is being aggregated is blog posts on peer reviewed research -- the peer review that happens before publication, I take it, is enhanced, not replaced, by the post-publication "peer review" happening in these online discussions of the research.

Another comment, from Bill Carroll, had to do with the perceived tone of the blogosphere:

"One of the things I find discouraging about reading many blogs or various comments is that it very quickly goes from one point of view to another point of view to 'you are a jerk.' My question is, How do you keep [the blog] generating light and not heat." (26)

Moore's answer allowed as how some blog readers are interested in being entertained by fisticuffs.

Here again, it strikes me that there's a danger in drawing sweeping conclusions from too few data points. There exist science blogs that don't get shouty and personal in the posts or the comment threads. Many of these are really good reads with engaging discussions happening between bloggers and readers.

Sometimes too, the heat (or at least, some kind of passion) may be part of how a blogger conveys to readers what about chemistry is interesting, or puzzling, or important in contexts beyond the laboratory or the journal pages. Chemistry is cool enough or significant enough that it can get us riled up. I doubt that insisting on Vulcan-grade detachment is a great way to convince readers who aren't already sold on the importance of chemistry that they ought to care about it.

And, can we please get past this suggestion that the blogosphere is the source of incivility in exchanges about science?

I suspect that people who blame the medium (of blogs) for the tone (of some blogs or of the exchanges in their comments) haven't been to a department seminar or a group meeting lately. Those face-to-face exchanges can get not only contentious but also shouty and personal. (True story: When I was a chemistry graduate student shopping for a research group, I was a guest at a group meeting where the PI, who knew I was there to see how I liked the research group, spent a full five minutes tearing one of his senior grad students a new one. And then, he was disappointed that I did not join the research group.)

Now, maybe the worry is that blogs about chemistry might give the larger public a peek at chemists being contentious and personal and shouty, something that otherwise would be safely hidden from view behind the walls of university lecture halls and laboratory spaces. If that's the worry, one possible response is that chemists playing in the blogosphere should maybe pay attention to the broader reach the internet affords them and behave themselves in the way they want the public to see them behaving.

If, instead, the worry is that chemists ought not ever to behave in certain ways toward each other (e.g., attacking the person rather than the methods or the results or the conclusions), then there's plenty of call for peer pressure within the chemistry community to head off these behaviors before we even start talking about blogs.

There are a few things that complicate discussions like this about the nature of communication about chemistry on blogs. One is that the people taking up the issue are sometimes unclear about what kind of communication it is they're interested in -- for example, chemist to non-chemist or chemist-to-chemist. Another is that they sometimes have very different ideas about what kinds of chemical issues ought to be communicated (basic concepts, cutting edge research, issues to do with chemical education or chemical workplaces, chemistry in everyday products or in highly charged political debates, etc., etc.). And, as mentioned already, the chemistry blogosphere, like chemistry as a discipline, contains multitudes. There is so much going on, in so many sub-specialities, that it's hard to draw too many useful generalizations.

For the reader, this diversity of chemistry blogging is a good thing, not a bad thing -- at least if the reader is brave enough to venture beyond networks which don't always have lots of blogs devoted to chemistry. Some good places to look:

Blogs about chemistry indexed by ScienceSeeker

CENtral Science (which is a blog network, but one devoted to chemistry by design)

Many excellent chemistry blogs are linked in this post at ScienceGeist. Indeed, ScienceGeist is an excellent chemistry blog.

Have you been reading the Scientopia Guest Blog lately? If so, you've had a chance to read Dr. Rubidium's engaging discussions of chemistry that pops up in the context of sex and drugs. I'm sure rock 'n' roll is on deck.

Finally, David Kroll's blogroll has more fine chemistry-related blogs than you can shake a graduated cylinder at.

If there are other blogospheric communicators of chemistry you'd like to single out, please tell us about them in the comments.
*Yes, I have a new blog there, but this blog isn't going anywhere.

3 responses so far

Astounding claims made on the internet.

On this post, from a commenter named Zac*:

I'm a philosophy student. When we disagree we reason, we argue, we discuss. We do not, ever, ever call for a boycott of those with opposing views.

My thoughts on this:

  1. What would make you think that reasoning, arguing, and discussing necessarily rule out boycotting? Where's the logical contradiction you're assuming?
  2. Also, would you like to offer a positive argument that people with whom we disagree are entitled to our money? I means, if we take their goods and services they have a claim to our money, but do they have a right to demand that we not take our business elsewhere?
  3. And look, for this particular X, the claim that "Philosophers do not do X" turns out to be clearly false. Perhaps you meant to make a normative claim rather than a descriptive one. If this is the case, you'll probably also want to offer a defense of the particular "oughts" you are asserting.

This edition of "Astounding claims made on the internet" brought to you by my current inability to settle down and grade case study responses.
*The permalink may be wonky. The comments appears at July 13, 2011 at 01:51 AM.

2 responses so far

Assumptions that seem reasonable to undergraduates.

Gleaned from my "Ethics in Science" students:

  1. There exists an Official Scientist's Code of Ethics to which all scientists swear allegiance.
  2. There exists an Ethics Board that operates nationally (and maybe internationally) to impose penalties on scientists who violate the Official Scientist's Code of Ethics.
  3. In the 22 years since the publication of Cantor's Dilemma, the scientific community has likely evolved to become more civilized and more ethical.
  4. Anyone who has earned a Ph.D. in a scientific field (at least in the past 22 years) must also have had extensive training in ethics -- at least the equivalent of a semester-long course.

As to the origins of these assumptions, I don't know what to tell you. I'm curious about that myself.

3 responses so far

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