How to start a science blog (scary version)

Having run across two recent notes on science blogs by academics, and written a post about the benefits of blogs to scientists here, I felt compelled to issue a warning for readers, that while there are positives and negatives to blogs — they just don’t get it.

One called Environmental Science Adrift in the Blogosphere (summary free) worries that statements concerning the range of estimates of the number of species going extinct diverge from the ‘scientific consensus’ and urges scientists to get involved in order to fix them. Despite appearing in Science magazine, the paltry evidence used to support their claim was a Google web search. Claims to scientific consensus on daily extinctions was supported by a single reference to an obscure Journal of Paleontology paper.

The other, Bloggers need not apply, related their experiences with screening of job applications where perusal of their weblog revealed personal information that killed their employment chances. Their problem with blogs seemed to be that without the controls of peer review people would post embarrassing rants.

Academics be afraid

The vague anxiety about blogs displayed in these articles is misplaced. Rather — they should be afraid, be very afraid. Why?

Consider the example of Dr Hwang, the formerly prominent stem cell researcher. Credit for his takedown is given to Korean bloggers here and here.

The nation’s young scientists made the allegation at the Web site of the state-backed Biological Research Information Center (bric.postech.ac.kr), which played a pivotal role in pinpointing manipulations at Hwang’s 2005 paper on patient-specific stem cells.

The lack of data archiving and due diligence in Nature and Science that may have contributed to this fraud has been highlighted again and again here. ClimateAudit is dedicated to documenting the ongoing quasi-litigation of journals and authors in the dendroclimatology field to make public their data and methods. What? Scientists don’t reveal their data and methods! Difficulties in exactly replicating the famous hockey stick theory of recent temperatures, may have been instrumental in the formation of a National Academy of Science panel Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Past 2,000 Years: Synthesis of Current Understanding and Challenges for the Future.

I admit I have a dog in this fight, having tapped out a short article on simulations using random numbers that produce temperature histories remarkably similar to most reconstructions (here and here). These results show that concerns that climate histories may be affected by various forms of undocumented ‘cherry-picking’ such as inter-site selection, are justified. To claim that temperature proxies deliberately selected for an upturning pattern in the 20th century provide evidence that such warmth is anomalous, as was done here is an example of the logical fallacy known as circular reasoning.

Self defence

Not only do blogs enable an aggressive falsification program, they enable you to defend yourself against stones thrown from ivory towers. On May 11, 2005, on the day that Ross McKitrick and Steve McIntyre were presenting their results debunking the hockey stick in Washington, UCAR issued a press release announcing that one of its scientists, Caspar Ammann and one of its former post-doc fellows, Eugene Wahl, had supposedly demonstrated that their criticisms of the hockey stick were “unfounded”. S&M have used the blog medium masterfully to reveal that a crucial unfavorable r2 verification statistic was withheld from the Nature publications, thus proving the UCAR accusations, not only unwarranted, but totally unfounded. Claims that scientists have been ‘harrassed’ about archiving their data have been shown false by posting all relevant correspondence on the web.

We have been given fair warning — the scrutiny that can be focused on a field of science by the blog community is so great that scientists should ensure their own house is in order. The academic authors of the two articles I mentioned at the beginning of this post should read “The World Is Flat” — Thomas L. Friedman’s account of the great changes taking place in our time, as lightning-swift advances in technology and communications down a whole range of barriers and tyrannies. Academics locked in ivory towers should be anxious of the bulldozer that blogs are driving through their midst. But they seem largely unaware of the leveling taking place, or want to stand in front of them.

After blogs (AB)

How do you protect yourself from the scrutiny of the blogosphere? Vigorously communicate your views, and adopt with professional standards of data archiving, reporting and openness. In a world where a freelance web journalist can walk around with at cell phone camera instantly relaying stories back to a web site with thousands of hits an hour, perhaps a new breed of freelance scientist will emerge, replicating experiments, falsifying theories and reporting the results in real time. Or perhaps Open Science, where data are posted and contributors analyse it for free. Why change? The second wave of the Internet now called [tag]Web 2.0 promises to have even more profound effects on our societal structures than the first — and academe will not be immune.