The Mindlog Part I: A Mind Inoculated.

Greetings and Hallucinations. And welcome to The Inoculated Mind. This is the first post of a great many to come on the Mindlog, my own little place for opining on the fuzziest of scientific frontiers and teaching about the solid foundations central to scientific pursuits.

The Scientific Life.

I have a passion for science, the methodology used around the world for “chipping away at the block of ignorance,” as physical chemist Peter Atkins would put it. The scientific method is the same wherever you go, no matter how politicians in Kansas vote every four years or so, and so the scientific community is perhaps the closest thing we have to a universal community worldwide. Scientists may speak English, Chinese, Spanish, French, German, and Hindi, and that’s just one lab, but they think in terms of enzymes and substrates. Or three-letter codon triplets as in DNA, radioisotopes and silicates and microfractures, or perhaps as physicists they think in terms of the four fundamental forces of nature.

Scientists come from every political and religious flavor, and every cultural and socio-economic background, and thus come with innumerable biases and agendas. But what makes science more than just an exercise in convincing other people of your own predisposition is that the research, methods, logic, and conclusions are open to everyone, and can be tested an evaluated repeatedly. Before scientific research can be published, even, it goes through a process called peer review, where experts in the field dice it up and usually reject it anyhow. But that’s when you do more experiments and strengthen your ideas and resubmit them. Even then not everyone will accept its conclusions without more research to back it up. It has been said that conclusions are bronze, hypotheses silver, and observations, gold. The method is platinum.

Not every piece of research comes upon mountains of opposition. What, are old crotchety chemists going to make public appearances to declare that some new chemical synthesis breaks the laws of nature? (okay, so there’s cold fusion) Research that extends old predictions into new areas unopposed is like meat and potatoes, (or tofu and rice, if so inclined) the staple that keeps the scientific enterprise going strong, although sometimes it can seem rather uninteresting. Some research is exploratory, and highly specialized, and it may be decades before it all coalesces into some practical application. These are the promises made by our long-term commitments. But there are areas of science that plug directly into people’s nerve endings — whether they confirm or deny the beliefs of scientists and laypersons alike, or solve a longstanding mystery or controversy — this is the spice of the scientific life.

Inoculating Minds.

Some of you may be reading this because you used to read my column in The California Aggie, the UC Davis daily student newspaper. Or, perhaps you’ve listened to my radio talk show on the 100-watt community radio station in Davis, KDRT 101.5 FM. Then there’s the podcast version of my show, called the Mindcast, which links directly to this website. Or you got here from some circuitous path via search engines, www.daviswiki.org, or a trackback from another blog. In any case, welcome. I hope to entertain, inspire, and fool you into learning a few things.

No fooling, actually. I’m going to be right up front and say I want to help people learn a few things about science and build up a desire to know more. I want to create a place on the web where ideas can be presented, exchanged, fleshed out, and augmented with new information. There are several ways I could have done this, such as post an e-column periodically, put together an internet forum or chat room, or finally, a full-fledged weblog. But these all differ in their strengths and weaknesses.

E-columns present similar issues to newspaper columns. First, it allows for well thought-out and researched articles. Although these could be more in-depth than a newspaper like the ol’ Aggie could provide space for, it makes dynamic interactions between myself and readers cumbersome, as it would be limited to email exchanges. Good responses could be posted, like letters to the editor, but it would still be limited. And just like in a newspaper, good responses might be overlooked if the volume of responses gets high.

A critic once accused me of “hiding behind my column” in The Aggie because I didn’t address a visiting creationist’s claims in person, but wrote about the creationist’s organization’s website and mission in my column. It was a silly mistake on his part, because my column was written and submitted to the whole Aggie editorial process on a Monday, the creationist came Tuesday, and the column printed Wednesday. The creationist came on my show Thursday (sorry, no recording!) and I addressed his claims then and the following week in a followup column. Still, however, there is room with an e-column for people to feel that their questions are being avoided. More on that later. And finally, the interaction would mostly be between myself and individual readers, which is not what I want at all!

Science. Discuss!

A discussion board can overcome these kinds of issues. There are many of them out there, from yahoo chat rooms to advice forums for computer programs. Discussion boards allow users to post messages back and forth, respond and link to news, or start their own threads to ask each other questions. Talk Origins (www.talkorigins.org) runs a very good example of a science-based forum that concerns itself with issues surrounding the origins of species and life itself. So perhaps I could have a forum to accompany the mindcast and also an e-column?

But forums have their issues. Talk Origins is very successful because it has many contributors and concerns itself mostly with one general topic. But there are two examples I can think of where a discussion board sounds like a good idea but hasn’t really panned out in practice.

The first is on the website of another science show, This Week in Science. It is sort of an older sibling show, broadcasting from the same town as I do, although not the same radio station. Their show broadcasts live over the internet (www.kdvs.org), and they run a podcast and a chat board through their website (www.twis.org). Kirsten Sanford, who has been hosting the show for about five years now, has gathered a substantial following over the internet.

Hypothetically, a discussion board can be useful because it allows listeners to comment on the show, post news, and ask questions. But the most popular discussion topic at TWIS was over a recent two-month gap in the podcast, attracting some unwarranted vitriolic responses from listeners. It was completely inappropriate considering that they were getting so upset over free entertainment from a low-tech operation. Besides light issues with spammers and trolls, there hasn’t been very much discussion going on. There have been a few questions from listeners, which I have helped answer, but I think there is far more potential for discussion. But how can you pull people from a show to engage in discussion?

There is another chat room that is worthy of note. The Pulse of Science (www.pulseofscience.org), run by UC Berkeley researcher and biotech critic, Ignacio Chapela, was intended to be a place to discuss issues in biology, most notably discussion on genetic engineering in agriculture. Chapela referred to one of his first posts as a “humble scoop of fertilizer” to get his website going, although fertilizer seems to do nothing if you don’t plant seeds and water.

During the summer of 2005 a research paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that contradicted his claims that genetically engineered corn DNA had “contaminated” up to 1% of the corn on farms and landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico. The new 2-year analysis found no evidence of genetically engineered genes in any of their samples. So Chapela started a thread on The Pulse of Science for the purpose of discussing the recent paper that found no GMO genes in the Mexican corn, and announced that they would soon have their response to the new research. Two months later, there were no new posts. So I finally made a post asking them what the status of their response was, and a month later there was still no response to that. Apparently no one, including the people managing the website, seems to want to discuss anything there. Science is alive and well, but The Pulse of Science is a discussion board that is clinically dead.

Each of these problems makes it difficult to keep genuine conversations going on a discussion board, but the biggest overarching obstacle in my view is getting them going. There are countless political, social, religious, and economic issues being discussed everywhere, but as I see it, there’s hardly any discussion of science. To have an effective discussion going on scientific issues, you may need to have people regularly inject opinions, ideas, or news to spearhead the discussion. Dare I say, inoculate it? Dare! Dare!

To log a mind.

A weblog is the obvious answer to these issues. Granted, they are not perfect, but there is so much flexibility (especially with WordPress) that they can evolve into unique resources given time. I’ll be able to post in-depth articles, on a larger scale than my old Aggie columns, short news blips, information on upcoming shows, reader polls, e-columns delivered to your inbox or firefox browser… and so much more. And listeners and readers alike can join in the discussion, ask and have questions answered, and bring more ideas to the virtual table.

Coming back to my discussion of the scientific life above, as I said the whole enterprise seems complex, remote, even boring except for the classic hot issues. During my Aggie stint, there’s been pressure to “dumb things down” in order to get people interested. I’ll have none of that. So how can one present the complexities of science so that laypersons to post-doctorate experts might find it interesting and informative to read? And how can one run a weblog that fosters rational, cogent discussion? How about taking a survey of a few notable science weblogs?

Next: Part II, Entering the Blogosphere.

P.S. You’ll also get to see a picture of me.

Advertisements