The Mindlog Part II, Entering the Blogosphere.

So I’ve decided to start a weblog. The weblog, or blog for short, has had a shaky beginning. This is largely because of the stereotype that blog authors are just bored and lonely technophiles who have nothing to say but are telling people they have never met what they had for breakfast, featuring a live mood-indicator. Or perhaps you’ve thought of them as places where angry people vent their grammatically poor, factually atrocious, and ethically mal-adjusted personal views hoping that someone will subscribe to their drivel. Finally, perhaps you heard warnings about blogs through the print, radio, or television media during political campaigns as having posted dubious information and so-called anonymous ‘expert analyses’ about candidates or political issues. Yes, they can be used for that, just like the print media has its tabloids, television has its trash, and even radio has its idiotic ideologues.

But blogs as a delivery system for information have far more potential than people may yet realize. A weblog makes use of what is called a “Content Management System,” or CMD, which is a computer program that organizes information that you can access over the internet. If you are relatively new to blogs, then I suggest that you read the above link to Contentious, as Amy Gahran does a good job summarizing what blogs are all about, and I will refer to it again below. The point is, a blog can be used for doing all kinds of things, such as organizing news, writing stories, discussing issues, posting pictures, audio and video, you name it.

There are several different programs available if you are interested in setting up a blog, such as Blogger (good for beginners and the not-so-tech-savvy) and Moveable Type, but I chose WordPress because of the scores of plugins that are going to let me do all kinds of fun things here, and the system is very customizable. It took me about a month or so, but I learned from scratch how much of the .php code behind WordPress works so that I could make this site look and operate the way that I want it to. I hope you like it, and if there are any bugs, do let me know.

I have been reading science-related blogs for a while now, and there are some that I have found out there in the “Blogosphere” that are very good and I would like to highlight what I feel makes them good examples of blogging. There are also some that are very poor and bear more resemblance to the kinds of things that blog stereotypes are based off of. Using these examples, many of which you will find in my blogroll on the right, I will describe how I intend to blog, and how I intend not to blog.

Pharyngula

Let me begin my discussion of blogging with an excellent example. A couple years ago, a scientist by the name of Paul Zachary Myers started a website called Pharyngula. It is named after the last stage of development where vertebrate embryos all look nearly identical. PZ Myers (that’s what he goes by) gives daily insights into biology, explaining new and interesting papers and discoveries, and opines about evolution and why some people still keep trying to undermine it without doing any research. PZ has been featured in numerous places, most recently in City Pages, and mentioned as an excellent resource all over the place. His website traffic is over ten thousand per day, more on days that he talks about particularly interesting stuff, and he is also actively involved in a weblog “carnival” called The Tangled Bank, in reference to a passage in On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.

A few things that are great about Pharyngula: First, PZ explains many complicated issues and papers in-depth, taking them to a level that the news media never does. He also frequently faults the news media for its poor science coverage, something that chimes with me particularly. He also gives a window to what it is like being a research scientist and teacher. He has fun pointing out the poor reasoning of anti-evolutionists, where they contradict themselves, and where they are just plain wrong if not silly. He has a keen interest in disseminating science, a good sense of humor, and a clear devotion to his readers. This last point, however, may be the only problem I find with Pharyngula.

PZ posts like a madman. Seriously, there are three, or four, or more posts per day. Whenever I hear Pharyngula mentioned amongst scientists, they wonder where he gets the time, or whether there’s a disulfide bridge keeping him bonded to his computer. As far as the style and depth of coverage is concerned, I consider Pharyngula to be a great model, however, I’m not ready to put that much time into the Mindlog. Besides my own time being eaten up, so too would be the time of my readers, who would feel compelled to visit my site every day just as I am compelled to visit Pharyngula every day. For those that don’t have tons of time to read, they would miss good posts amongst a sea of ‘blah’ posts. Plus, there’s a bit more that I want to do with the website other than just blogging.

PZ Myers is also a major contributor to a website called The Panda’s Thumb. It concerns itself with news relating to the theory of evolution, recently providing in-depth coverage of Kitzmiller vs Dover in Pennsylvania, and the Kansas State Board of Education devolving again. What makes Panda a good weblog is that there are many individuals contributing posts rather than just one, so there is a diversity of viewpoints expressed, and readers can follow links to the personal weblogs that each poster possesses.

Recently, PZ moved his blog to Science Blogs, a community of bloggers organized by Seed magazine. Someday I may become a part of a community such as Panda’s Thumb or Science Blogs, or perhaps start one of my own. Vee shall see.

The Intersection

Also recently joining Science Blogs is Chris Mooney’s weblog, The Intersection. He is the author of The Republican War on Science, an excellent book that delves into the political struggles waged in the past decade and a half over how science is used in public policymaking. As the title suggests, the Republican politicians turn out to be the ones that showed the lowest regard for the way science is done. His book has catapulted him into the national spotlight, and his blog allows his readers to connect with him and discuss his book and the issues contained therein.

Chris Mooney is a journalist who became particularly interested in the intersection of science and politics, from which he got the name for his blog. On his old blog, before he joined the Science Blogs team, he used the discussion that blogs allow to hammer out the details of the politico-scientific disputes and their participants, eventually leading to the creation of his book. This is a great use for a weblog, and I intend to use the discussion capability to work on developing a few ideas, and who knows what may come out of it. Maybe even a book?

Real Climate

Finding reliable information on global warming and climate change is difficult considering how political contrarians parade supposedly contradicting science as proof that climate change is not happening, but it would be good for us if it was. I’ve had some experience with budding political pundits in college newspapers, and their claims about global warming are usually easily debunked, the larger organizations are trickier.

Real Climate is perhaps the best answer to not only understanding the current state of research, but also finding out if there is any merit to claims about global warming and climate change, positive or negative. It is run by a group of experts in the field, and they are very approachable in discussions on their blog. They focus strictly on discussing issues of science, and stay away from issues of policy. This is good because it keeps them a neutral party to the highly political nature of global warming, and keeps them from being the subject of ad hominem attacks.

I will often discuss ideas with no particular marriage to it, presenting information and lines of thought but not stating a position, which is sometimes a wise course of action. But I feel that in many areas I will have some suggestions about what is the right, or better thing to do in many situations. As I said in my previous post, I will be opining. But I will also be talking about the raw state of the science as clearly as I can.

The Loom

Carl Zimmer is a science journalist that has written several books, and actively writes for many magazines, from scientific American to Science itself. He is well known, and runs an interesting blog called The Loom that accomplishes a few noteworthy things. As he writes article after article in his excellent and very readable style, many of them make it to being published in magazines and newspapers, but some are deemed as not interesting enough for publication. (HIS articles… uninteresting? I would like to point out that I think the interests of print media need adjustment. Can we say horoscopes?) Anyhow, he uses his blog to post his un-sold articles, which is an awesome and original way for print media writers to let everyone see the rest of their stuff. Carl also expresses a clever bit of humor when he points out interesting contradictions made by politicians or critics.

There is one notable statement that Carl Zimmer made about blogging that circulated around the blogosphere and got him some kudos and a little criticism. It was made at a panel discussion about using blogs to write about science. He said that bloggers who do not allow comments are cowards, that they are hiding behind the format to avoid criticism.

Now, not everyone shared his sentiments, but having some experience with print media at The Aggie, I can see what he means. When you write an article for a newspaper, letters, emails, and phone calls can be made to the editor who may print the response in the next edition for everyone to read. With the blog format, you are the writer and the editor, and so within your own blog you answer to no one and it seems that there would be no way for people reading your blog to find the criticisms of your work. In this respect, comments can be the equivalent of letters to the editor in a newspaper, but even more so as there are no space limitations and comment discussions can occur far more rapidly in blogs than via newspapers.

There are a couple flaws in the cowardice argument, however. The first is that weblogs can have “trackbacks.” When someone reads a post on another blog that is critical of your own, and they click on the link to your post, it will instruct your blog to add a trackback link to their post. That way, readers can see criticisms, and compliments, of your work. The primary objection to Zimmer’s declaration was that some people do not have the time to also monitor and moderate their blogs on a daily basis. If you are not interested in spending time approving and moderating comments, you can allow trackbacks on your blog, which are created whenever someone links to your blog. In the Contentious blog post that I said I would refer to again, Amy Gahran described very well how even comment-less blogs will be eventually recognized:

“Even if a blog does not allow public comments, people can link to and comment on weblog items in myriad ways: articles, discussion forum postings, other blog items, etc. Because of this, the best bloggers strive to be highly accountable and responsive – often more so than many mainstream media organizations. So even though anyone can say anything online, bloggers who are deceptive, malicious, or misinformed are nearly always “outed” in a very public fashion.”

The other flaw is in the reverse. It is not enough, in my opinion, to just allow comments on your blog to avoid being seen as timid, you have to also allow critical comments and respond to your critics. This doesn’t give commenters carte blanc to say whatever they want and troll on your blog — they still have to be polite. Let’s say you were to allow comments, but deleted every critical comment made on your site. This gives your readers the illusion that no one disagrees with your position, and keeps them from seeing the other side of it. Even worse is when blog moderators edit out the trackbacks that lead to critical posts, limiting the ability of their readers to find criticisms even further.

Now, it’s time to talk about the bad examples. Get a drink of water.

Junk Science

Junk Science is a website that is run by Stephen Milloy, who refers to himself as “The Junkman.” He writes columns for foxnews.com about science, and for a very long time has been the only remotely science-related thing on their website. I will resist the temptation to describe in detail the issues that I have with his logic, highly selective references, and puerile attitude towards people who disagree with him. I will, however, point out that up until I read about his past involvements in reducing the influence of science in political decision making and his refusal to be interviewed by Chris Mooney for the book that detailed all of these involvements, I thought he was just a mindless political pundit who thinks himself scientifically knowledgeable. Now I understand a little more about why all of his positions on major political issues are party-line, and an inkling as to why he was the only person talking about science at foxnews.com.

Anyhow, Milloy’s journalism aside, I have read nowhere on his site or elsewhere any response to Chris Mooney’s book, except “Chris Mooney prefers unsound science?” made in response to Mooney highlighting the political meaning behind “sound science” in an article. So there has been a major book out, criticizing Milloy and his involvement with diluting the influence of science in policymaking, and Milloy says nothing for half a year? You’d better believe that if someone did the same to me I would say something in my defense, rather than ignore it. And then taunt my critic with a single one-liner on a primitive blog that does not allow comments? Someone’s hiding.

Uncommon Descent

Finally, there’s Uncommon Descent, The Intelligent Design Weblog of William A. Dembski Bill Dembski & Friends. William Dembski is a proponent of Intelligent Design, the pseudoscience you may also know as neo-creationism, creationism lite, or “the logos of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory,” in the exact words of Dembski himself. Anyhow, he started his blog back in April 2005, declaring that he didn’t plan on editing or deleting comments, except those that were “boring” or “unproductive.” He also said that he would make up the rules as he went along, and that he did.

William Dembski has been notorious for ignoring criticisms of his work, posting anonymous reviews about his own work and those of others on amazon.com and then striking out harshly against critics with ad hominem attacks (like calling them internet stalkers), and declaring victory. He started his blog as a way to bring news about intelligent design (ID) to supporters and comment on its development. But blogging proved to be too much for him.

As with all blogs, Uncommon Descent started slowly, making statements and providing links that any ID supporter would want to read, but then it slowly became apparent to me what was going on when the Kitzmiller vs Dover court case started to develop. Dembski dropped out of the case as an expert witness, along with other ID proponents, leaving Michael Behe and Scott Minnich as the only major ID proponents left to defend teaching ID in a classroom. I signed up to his weblog to ask him why he wasn’t in the case anymore. My account (and comment) was immediately deleted.

It turns out that Dembski has been giving confusing reasons for dropping out of KvD. First he declared that it was because of a disagreement over procedure between the Discovery Institute and the Thomas More Law Center which was handling the Dover defense case. No, wait, then he says it was a disagreement between the TMLC and the publisher of the Creation Biology Of Pandas & People book, the FTE, over having separate legal counsel for Dembski because he was listed as an editor for the book, and FTE wanted to protect their interests. (Note: Michael Behe was also listed as an editor by FTE, yet he appeared in court.) The situation was made clear to me by Ed Brayton, whose blog is called Dispatches from the Culture Wars, as he noticed a pattern: that the ID proponents that had already been deposed (sworn testimony recorded before the trial) at the time appeared in court, and those that had not been deposed such as Dembski, did not appear. This suggested that the Discovery Institute, ID’s think tank, decided all of a sudden to pull out of the case because they didn’t want KvD to be their test-case of constitutionality. But they could only pull out the experts who hadn’t been deposed, namely Campbell, Dembski, and Meyer in that order.

Dembski did, however, still submit his expert brief, still charging (threatening to sue) the charity-supported TMLC $20,000 for his work, but the court threw it out. (none of the experts on the evolution side of the case charged for their services, BTW) By submitting the brief and not showing up, it looks like one is trying to duck cross-examination. I now understand why such an innocent question as I asked about why William Dembski did not show up to court was so swiftly deleted. It is a sensitive subject when someone is suspected of being intellectually dishonest and tries to pretend it didn’t happen. It gets better.

So while he was disconnected from the whole official affair, Dembski starts declaring that the testimony of Jeffrey Shallit, which was taken to rebut Dembski’s testimony, was so horrible that it was being tucked away. He demanded that the ACLU release it so we could see how much of a libelous, slanderous, ad hominem testimony it really was. Turns out, it was the TMLC who requested that Shallit’s testimony not be used in court, and it had been available on the web for him to download all that time. So he posted a correction, right? Wrong. Instead, he deleted all his loud, declarative posts (complete with the head-nodding yes-Bill comments from his regulars) and said, um, that was a bit of… “Street theater.”

It is common in the blogging community that when you make a mistake, you admit it, change the mistake, and move on. This is the same for other forms of media, and especially scientific affairs. Instead, he deleted comment after comment from people saying that Shallit’s testimony was not what he described, only to erase the whole topic and never outline what about Shallit’s testimony was an embarrassment. So no dirt on one of his “internet stalkers” after all?

Uncommon Descent continued on like this, erasures and deletions one after another, the quality of the posts getting worse and worse, and just like Amy Gahran said in the quote above, the farce that was Uncommon Descent was quickly acknowledged on major blogs such as The Panda’s Thumb and Pharyngula. There were just as many joke names such as “Uncommon Dissent” as there are about “Unintelligent Design.”

The science blogging community immediately recognized that Dembski’s weblog was moderated to the point that politely disagreeing comments were not allowed. Remember the terms “boring” and “unproductive” that I mentioned: it seems that they instead meant “insightful” and “fact-correcting,” respectively. (Also see here) All the “Duhhh, evolutionists are stoopid” comments approved by him were of course, very interesting and highly productive for thought-provoking, reasoned discussion. Oh, but there’s more!

This is where Dembski and blogging really didn’t work out for each other. He would respond to statements that Intelligent Design posits a supernatural designer by saying, no, it could be a natural designer, contradicting his own writings where he has argued that it had to be supernatural. Other bloggers such as Ed Brayton revealed his cognitive dissonance. Then Dembski started saying that the designer could have worked through the laws of nature to produce design.

This, as other bloggers pointed out, opposed the very thesis of intelligent design, which is that the laws of nature cannot produce the complexities we see in life. But despite all the links leading to UD, they were not showing up as trackbacks. How odd, no trackbacks that lead to critical posts? Solution: Dembski was preventing his bloggers from seeing criticism of his statements all along. This is beyond merely avoiding criticism by erasing his statements and deleting the comments of dissenters, by deleting trackbacks it borders on paranoia.

Six days after the KvD court case verdict was released, William Dembski decides to quit weblogging. He said that it was taking too much of his time, and I don’t doubt it. While PZ Myers and a host of Panda’s Thumb writers were writing post after post of original content explaining new scientific research and commenting on varied fields day and night, Dembski devoted his time to excessive editing, deleting, and dodging the criticisms of others, while at the same time claiming that Darwinism practices dodgeball: Dodge, duck, dip, dive, and deny. So the “Isaac Newton of information theory,” as his supporters endearingly call him, couldn’t cut it with one of the latest means of disseminating information.

A week later, Uncommon Descent became open for business again (with the new subtitle of Dembski & Friends), this time he enlisted the help of his regular commenters to manage the blog. He put a fellow who goes by the name of DaveScot in charge, which is laughable because DaveScot has been kicked off of almost every blog he’s been on for trolling, flaming, attacking and insulting people. It got so bad with him at The Panda’s Thumb, that they threatened legal action if he didn’t stop harassing them! Currently, UD is becoming a joke, as some of the other regulars have been admitting, while DaveScot kicks out people at will, and recently invented a “server glitch” as the reason why people’s comments are disappearing. And the science blogs are having a field day. That’s Dembski & Friends for you.

Granted, I disagree with William Dembski’s positions on a number of instances, and in future posts I may expound on that. But to conclude on Uncommon Descent, it is a very poor use of the blogging medium, for the many reasons I have listed above. There’s almost no content, little real discussion, a lot of griping and name-calling, and a series of attempts to cover up the words that they attach their names to and prevent the responses that other people take the time to make from ever being heard. Frankly, I am shocked that the Intelligent Design movement, which relies heavily on PR, has done so poorly on utilizing the power of blogging. If Dembski & Friends wanted to have a “safe haven” where they can say what they want, delete what they want, avoid criticisms and discuss design amongst themselves, then they could always uncheck the box in the wordpress control panel that says “anyone can register.” End the farce.

Although I did not give Ed Brayton’s blog, Dispatches from the Culture Wars its own section, I’d like to give him a special recognition for cutting through the thick fog of pseudo-logic and half-truths that he has come across.

A Mindlog with a Mission.

There are good and bad ways to blog, and this lengthy post should serve as both a good summary of the science blogging world that I now enter, and a manifesto that I plan to abide by when managing this blog, until I write a more concise mission statement to use as a profile. As I’ve stated before, my goal here is to create a place where I can write about science, tell people what fascinates me so much about it, and make them feel like going to find out more information for themselves. And I want to make it a place where people can share ideas, discuss them rationally, and cultivate a healthy bit of humor when it comes to some of the laughable things people still claim these days. I’m out to inoculate some minds with science, and perhaps together we can change the world. Well, one idea at a time.

And now, here is your treat for making it all the way through this post, I’ll reveal to you a picture of myself. It turns out you’ve been looking at it all along. The blue-tinted brain in the background of my weblog is indeed my brain, which houses all my mental faculties. In many senses, it is what may be properly considered to be the real “me.” Imagine if people had no eyes and recognized each other by the unique signatures of their minds? This weblog, which I nickname the Mindlog, will be logging the signals rolling out of my mind and down to you. If only I had an Ethernet implant…

Enough about what I plan to do, let’s do it. Next: Does anyone know what’s so special about what is going down at NASA right now?

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4 Responses to The Mindlog Part II, Entering the Blogosphere.

  1. agahran says:

    Great post, Karl. A very thoughtful introduction.

    You wrote: “There are a couple flaws in the cowardice argument, however. The first is that weblogs can have “trackbacks.” When someone reads a post on another blog that is critical of your own, and they click on the link to your post, it will instruct your blog to add a trackback link to their post. That way, readers can see criticisms, and compliments, of your work.”

    One thing to keep in mind with trackbacks is that it’s a highly flawed and unreliable system. First of all, trackback spam has grown to pandemic proportions, causing many blogs to turn off incoming trackbacks entirely. Secondly, even without spam, many trackbacks simply don’t get through. The communication system doesn’t work well.

    So it’s entirely possible that you could mention someone else’s post, link to it using the correct trackback URL, and they’d never get the ping.

    Yeah, we need a better system for that.

    - Amy Gahran
    Contentious.com
    RightConversation.com

    Thanks for commenting, Amy. I guess, then, trackbacks may not be a very good way to ensure that people would be able to see comments that other bloggers have made. I noticed that Contentious closes comments after a while to prevent spam. Any advice for a startup blogger? -KJM

  2. keiths says:

    Karl,

    Great job documenting the long history of ‘breathtaking inanity’ (to borrow Judge Jones’ memorable phrase) at Bill Dembski’s Uncommon Descent weblog.

    The mystery is why Dembski, who so eagerly seeks scientific respectability, would turn his weblog over to DaveScot, the laughingstock of the science blogosphere.

    Here’s DaveScot threatening the folks at Panda’s Thumb in April of last year, demanding that they apologize to John Davison (comment disemvoweled by the administrators at PT):

    Date: 2005-04-02 21:30:20
    Author: DaveScot
    H fckng sshls. plgz t Dvsn NW bfr gt pssd ff nd strt fckng wth . dn’t wnt t mk m md. Trst m n ths. r scrt scks bg tm.

    Dembski can’t possibly be unaware of DaveScot’s sordid history. Perhaps the reason for their continued association is that Dembski sees DaveScot as his attack dog (a la T.H. Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog”), not realizing that an effective attack dog needs intelligence and self-control, not just mere pugnacity.

    Anyway, I can heartily recommend Uncommon Descent to your readers as a source of twisted entertainment.

  3. Keith S.
    Thanks for stopping by and reading, it took me a while to write the whole thing, and check the references. I’m all about providing information, so I’ll probably be adding a few more links to statements and bits of evidence.

    In less than a day since I published Part II, two trackbacks showed up at Uncommon Descent and were promptly edited by DaveScot. He sent me an email boasting about how he had removed the vowels and the links in the trackbacks, so that no one could come back here:

    I modified it a bit so it strips your URL but leaves your name. That way the embarrassment factor is maximized while at the same time you don’t get to plug your blog on mine.”

    It would have been better had he deleted the trackbacks, as now any reader here can follow the links to the blog and see it for themselves. All he did was prove my point about blocking trackbacks. Notice how he calls William Dembski’s blog “mine.”

    And the only one who’s embarrassed is the one that can’t seem to keep from making a fool of himself in the same paragraph that he uses to show how smart he thinks he is.
    I think he learned how to remove vowels from how PT booted him.

  4. Further update on Uncommon Descent. Apparently, they have now also altered the settings on the website (http://www.uncommondescent.com/robots.txt) so that when robots such as Google crawlers detect pages, they will not create “caches” of the page. For those who don’t know what this means, when you do Google search, there will be links beneath search item to a “cache”, which is a saved copy of the page. Should you be unable to access the page, due to a server being down, or the page being deleted as so frequently happens at UD, you can click on the cache link to access a copy of the page.
    So therefore, by altering some of these settings to order crawlers not to generate caches, the administrators of UD are admitedly trying to prevent people from reading embarrasing posts or comments made on the site whenever they try to cover them up.

    Like it was said before, people who do this crazy stuff get outed in a very public fashion.