Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Uncommon Descent Waxes About Science Blogs

Science Blogs has, to read the press, had problems. As Virginia Heffernan writes in the New York Times (quoted from Genomicron):
Hammering away at an ideology, substituting stridency for contemplation, pummeling its enemies in absentia: ScienceBlogs has become Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd. Though Myers and other science bloggers boast that they can be jerky in the service of anti-charlatanism, that’s not what’s bothersome about them. What’s bothersome is that the site is misleading. It’s not science by scientists, not even remotely; it’s science blogging by science bloggers. And science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word “science” and from occasional invocations of “peer-reviewed” thises and thats.
Genomicron agrees and opines that science blogs hasn't provided anything useful for some time. To be sure, some of the examples that Heffernan relates do not paint Science Blogs in the best light. That is unfortunate. Originally, it was a great platform for scientists to write about what was near and dear to them and discuss it in an open forum context.

Using this as a springboard, Uncommon Descent raises questions not about the scientists themselves, but the underlying science. Denyse O'Leary writes:
The whole article is worth reading. Frankly, anyone interested in the intelligent design controversy or – for example – concerned about tax-based mismanagement of public issues like climate change or conservation – would do well to support Heffernan’s main point.

In my personal view, too many scientists are tax mooches. They do not need to be reasonable, because they are not doing anything that is obviously useful.
This is an astounding thing to write for someone representing a web site that is trying to promote a scientific viewpoint—intelligent design. Whether or not Science Blogs is fulfilling its mandate, has little to do with the underlying science. Scientists are humans too and are subject to the same foibles that other folk are. I have yet to see a blogger that doesn't call someone a name in the heat of the moment. Witness Cornelius Hunter's recent column on Uncommon Descent, in which he referred to "evolutionary clowns."

It is the underlying science that is the focus of the attack here and "it is her opinion" that most scientists are not useful. How does she know this? Does she know what the scientists she is insulting actually do? As a society, we take science for granted and much of our everyday life is possible because of scientific advancements that go largely unnoticed by the general public. Discoveries in astronomy and cosmology have helped us to understand how our world works. Which of those would be useless and which would be useful?

Every hypothesis that is asked about a particular phenomenon helps to focus the theory of that discipline and even seemingly mundane hypotheses answer broader questions. But here is where the problem really hits: discoveries in genetics and evolutionary studies have helped us to understand how we can best adapt to our world. Understanding of organ transplant and repair is now progressing by leaps and bounds with the help of evolutionary medicine. Understanding of how viruses respond to selection forces and how they affect populations differentially is possible with the understanding of evolutionary theory and the interaction of genetics and the environment. It is not clear that any of these advances would have been "obviously useful" a decade back.

Further, if the viewpoint that O'Leary and other ID supporters have underpinned the way "science" is performed, it is not clear that they would have happened at all. We might not like some of the viewpoints that some scientists espouse but as long as they ask questions about the world around us, they are useful.

Now playing: The Alan Parsons Project - Eye Pieces (Classical Naked Eye)
via FoxyTunes


  1. That is indeed an outrageous comment from Denyse O'Leary. "they are not doing anything that is obviously useful" is actually true in many cases, but how is that connected to being reasonable? Tim Berners-Lee was not doing anything "obviously useful" to the taxpayer when he invented a way in which interconnected computers could share text and pictures. Something we now call the "web". And here's O'Leary blithely using the result. Pretty ironic.

  2. Standard fair for what comes out of the ID press machine. Steve Matheson becomes more correct every day.