North Carolina Science Blogging Conference 2008 (NCSBC 2008)

I attended NCSBC 2008 this last weekend, and I’ve got much to write about on it. Just like last year’s event I’m left will a great deal to mull over, new intellectual avenues to pursue, and issues to work out.

Bora Zivkovic has the best roundup of coverage from the conference, including several videos of the sessions. There’s a lot of great stuff there, so take a moment to check it out if you’re curious. There are some good lectures listed.

It’s sooooo cool to hang out with minds publishing on the frontier of this ever-evolving medium.

Some Miscellaneous Notes from the Conference:

NCSBC08 Schwag Bag

Look at all that stuff!
NCSBC08 Schwag Bag

  • The “Shwag Bag” this year was freakin’ stuffed!!! Magazines like National Geographic, Discover, Scientific American, The Scientist, Science News, and Wired, and CD’s of Nature Podcats, News Hour, and Software, and free books on Science in SF movies (right up my alley), public speaking, and the Edge’s What are You Optimistic About? and, of course, the PLoS t-shirt, which I will wear to the gym all the time (still have last year’s) …aaaaand, like last year, there was an excess amount of magazines, so I grabbed a few stacks to give away at the Port Discover Children’s Science Center.
  • I got Chris Mooney to autograph my copy of The Republican War on Science, the book I was very excited to see come out when it did because it gave a public voice to all the anger and frustration I’d been feeling (and will continue to feel for another 365 days). Mooney’s signature included the statement, “…thanks for defending science, reason, and the Enlightenment.” All scientists should be defending Enlightenment values.
  • Dr. Reed Cartwright, Professor Steve Steve, and Chtulu

    Dr. Reed Cartwright
    and Prof Steve Steve

    of Panda’s Thumb
    With Cthulu

  • I experienced a great deal of the Familiar Stranger phenomenon, seeing all these bloggers in real-life who I’d previously become acquainted with through online pictures, a one-sided acquaintance, as they don’t know me. The Science Bloggers are celebrities, and I imagine it must take some acclimating to have so many strangers looking at you as if they know you.
  • One of my favorite things about hanging out with Scientists and other Academics is their inclusiveness. These are people who all share an interest in education, and Enlightenment ideals. They make for a very sensitive, friendly, and engaging group.
  • There wasn’t a single smoker in the crowd. How awesome and how unique. It speaks highly of the demographic.

  • Friday Night Dinner

    NCSBC 2008 Dinner

    NCSBC 2008 Dinner
    photo by John Dupuis

    Being the social-phobic dweeby-guy that I am, I decided to sign up for the the NCSBC Friday-night dinner early on as an exercise in social skills. You know, maintaining a conversation with other people and getting outside of my head for a bit. Practice for that day I get elected President, so I will be able to listen to my advisors and not just clear brush on my ranch in the comfort of my own unchallenged ideas all day.

    At first, my worst fears were realized as I was sitting by myself uncomfortably; however, one of the waiters, noticing my discomfort, assured me more people were coming, to chill out and have a beer. The beer helped, and so did having more bloggers show up to share the table. And a very cool selection of intellectuals they were!

    Eric Roston of CarbonNation (two N’s), was first to sit down. He’s author of the upcoming book The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat, which sounded like a very fascinating overview of, not just the Earth’s current rising carbon levels, but also the complete life of carbon atoms, from conception in the centers of stars, to sequestration in the shells of forminifera and eventually limestone rock. This is Roston’s first book, and his blog will cover the years of information on his subject that he couldn’t include in print.

    Thomas Levenson, author of many books, first winner of the Foundation for the Future’s Science Documentary Film Award, and who has recently started the Inverse Square Blog, also joined us. His blog has been up and running for two months now, and I found much to agree with in his posts, as well as many wonderful old paintings on display. He’s working on a book about Isaac Newton, and the blog is at the request of his publishers. Although Levenson downplayed the frequency of his posting, I found a great deal of content for only being online two months.

    Head of the Steacie Science & Engineering Library, York University, Toronto, John Dupuis of Confessions of a Science Librarian was also in attendance, and I enjoyed his strong personality. When North Carolina’s Senate Candidate, Jim Neal, stopped by the dinner to speak with the bloggers, Dupuis challenged the Democrat to name the Prime Minister of Canada, where Dupuis heralds from. He’s also a Creative Commons supporter, like me, and tried to convince Roston to put his book online for free in addition to in print, like Cory Doctrow. Dupuis also has some pictures of the dinner online as well.

    Christina Pikas of Christina’s Library Rant, and who helpfully posted her notes from conference online, which I am now using to learn about some of the points I missed during the “Adventures in Science Blogging” talk was also at our table. She was very pleasant, down to Earth, and sociable.

    Out of my earshot, but also at our table was Gabrielle Lyon, Executive Director of Project Exploration, which works to make science accessible to the public through “Youth Development Initiatives; Services for Schools and Teachers; and Public Exhibitions and Online Initiatives.” Lyon was very outspoken, in a good way, at the Framing Science Session. It’s good that there are passionate activists like her in the world in general.

    Someone else beyond my conversational zone was Kate Skegg, who I got the opportunity to speak with in between sessions at the conference itself. Skegg is just getting into blogging with katesboard, after achieving her Master’s degree online. Kate believes everyone should be blogging, just as “everyone should sing” she told me.

    Although he couldn’t name the Prime Minister of Canada, I thought Jim Neal’s appearance at the dinner was a remarkable act. Scientists are fed up with the Bush Administration’s abuse, they’re blogging about it, and their Science Debate 2008 movement shows they are becoming politically savvy.

    The dinner was at the Town Hall Grill, and the Mahi-Mahi I had, served on polenta was tasty, and the atmosphere was nice. : )

    Blog Accreditation and the Ethics of Science Blogging

    This was my most highly-anticipated session, a discussion led by Janet Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics and Science blog, which wrestled with the issues of factual accuracy, comment moderation, and other responsibilities bloggers have to their readership.

    One contributor brought up the “Science News Parabola,” where, as a scientific paper is approaching publication, the scientific accuracy increases, peaking at publication, and then becomes communicated with less and less accuracy in press releases and the media. It should be noted that this blog is part of the downward curve in scientific accuracy, a natural result of my lack of a scientific background.

    I was glad to see the issue brought up that readers need to become more savvy. It isn’t enough that we maintain factual accuracy, if readers can’t tell the difference between a blogger communicating his or her best approximation of truth and an intellectually dishonest scientist like David Deming, then any measure of accuracy achieved is worthless.

    There was a huge learning curve that came with e-mail, where urban legends swept like wildfire across the web. Now people know to fact check the e-mails they receive against sites like snopes. I think learning that they could not trust everything they read online led to questioning everything else, from running to FactCheck to verify Political rhetoric, to catching Ted Koppel’s embarrassing presentation of forged documents.

    It was noted that blogs have the power of instantaneous peer-review, and I know I love it when real scientists post corrections to my comments. I love it even more, when I post something under debate, and commenters engage the disputation, usually without resolution, but at least with everyone coming away from the argument more educated. I’ve found that nothing inspires me to hit the books like when someone challenges my position on an issue.

    At the same time, another commenter brought up the issue of blogs having the power to spread disinformation as well, citing the Grand Canyon-Creationist Book Controversy, where bloggers incorrectly spread the news that the Grand Canyon bookstore was selling a creationist text. Once true, but no longer. The blogosphere corrected the mistake, but, as with print media, the correction got less attention than the original story, albeit more attention than print media gives their corrections.

    So what about a Blog Accreditation Standard for Scientific Accuracy?

    My first reaction is that this is an unfeasible idea. Maybe if bloggers only wrote about science in their own field of expertise, but bloggers write about a wide range of topics from their research, to movies, to politics, books, music, and accounts of their personal lives. No system can accredit such diversity of content.

    So how about just accrediting specific posts? The posts would need to go out first and get Certification later; otherwise, bloggers would suffer delays in getting their content out. Once certified, the blogger could put a certification icon on the post, but by that point the blog has moved on and readers won’t notice unless the blog claims their bragging rights with another post.

    However, such a system of after-the-fact certification of blog posts could be used to establish a directory of factually-accurate articles that people may reference. This way, blogs could become official citations in places like Wikipedia, thus dramatically improving their respect when compared to traditional media.

    Who’s going to run the certification process? Perhaps it would be like Peer-Review journals, where the organization keeps a directory of experts on hand who review submitted blog posts and advises the board of which to include in the directory of peer-reviewed posts. Because blogs really aren’t profitable, the Certification Board and peer-reviewers’ efforts would be voluntary (although there could be a marketable product here that submitters might pay for).

    Of course, my own blog wouldn’t have anything to do with the process, being neither an expert or a scientist blogger; however, I would appreciate having such a resource online to reference, since including citations from it would greatly improve the legitimacy of my own posts.

    Framing Science, Science Debate 2008

    Jennifer Jaquet of Shifting Baselines, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum of the Intersection gave an important talk on why scientific issues don’t get press coverage and provided a brief overview of the Science Debate 2008 initiative.

    Jennifer Ouellette has the best write-up of the session, and Bora has the video posted (see “Changing Minds through Science Communication” in the list of video feeds), so I’ll just publish my own thoughts on the matter. Which you should skip reading all together, and check out the above links instead. : )

    Larry Moran of Sandwalk blog has posted a dissenting opinion to the movement, and has previously suggested that science should stay out of politics. There were also several people in the audience who lamented the unfairness of today’s media, arguing that, even if the Candidates debate Science, they will only distort it for their own ends.

    If scientists are not very fond of politics, that is more than understandable. Political disputations are a quagmire of irrationality. The defenses and detractions of political positions are overwhelmingly subjective.

    One need only look to Senator Inhofe’s and David Demming’s blatantly dishonest attacks on Global Warming Theory to understand why scientists would want to avoid engaging political debate. The effort tends to be incredibly time-consuming, and people’s minds are very stubbornly adhered to their ideology, no matter what facts contradict their positions.

    But look at what happens when scientists, and those who hold science dear, don’t confront the political arena. The Republican congress dismantled the Office of Technology Assessment, President Bush II downgraded the Science Advisor’s position, moving the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) off the premises, and denied H. Marburger III the title “assistant to the president.” These actions were just a prelude to the now chronic abuse of science occurring in the Bush Administration.

    If scientists don’t want to engage politics, then they then have no business complaining when all their research funding goes bye bye. Scientists need to sign the petition, join an organization that represents their interests, obediently pay their dues, and donate the few minutes it takes to cut-and-paste e-mails to their representatives when told to do so.

    Non-Scientists need to get behind this idea, and others like it, because, although science isn’t “Truth” with a capital “T,” it is the closest approximation we humans, with our muddled and narrow perception of reality, have to it. We should be suspicious of a congress that dissolves the office responsible for reporting the truth to them, and we should be wary of a President who moves the truth off the premises, but most of all, we should make them suffer the political consequences of ignoring the Science and Enlightenment base.

    If you haven’t all ready, please sign-up for Science Debate 2008.





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