What do you want to see?

I need peoples’ considered opinion on how to make this blog maximally worthwhile.

As most of us are aware, there’s an enormous and growing body of things to read on the internet. Because time is always at a premium, you really have to be careful in choosing what to read. [This point is magnified when it comes to deciding what to write, because writing takes longer than reading does.] Aside from the desire to be entertained, I think it’s fair to say that most of us want to read things that inform us about some topic we are interested in, which are short and clear, which are trustworthy, and preferably on which we also have something to contribute to the conversation, however small, even if only questions.

What I need feedback on is the question of what kind of article/information is most helpful to you, or conversely, the kind of thing that is not, for whatever reason. This can include things like the topics covered, the way they’re covered (depth vs breadth, quantitative vs verbal, etc), sites you already favor/disfavor for whatever reason, the types of things that typically confuse or throw you–anything at all really. My personal view on this is that posts that help people to understand scientific concepts/practices/methods for themselves are the most useful, because people trust conclusions only when they first understand how they were reached, and there is often a tremendous amount of murk and confusion in scientific discourse that prevents this. Lecturing on things as some kind of authority is unlikely to be helpful in promoting real understanding–what we need is helpful contributions/perspectives from as many people as possible.

Please fire away; write as much as you want. This is quite important and I’m going to be reading the responses carefully.


21 thoughts on “What do you want to see?

  1. Hi Jim,

    I follow your blog because I enjoy your scathing criticisms of published papers and/or the publication process. I like being reminded that not everything we read is true.

    Of course, it’s not easy writing posts in this abrasive style; especially considering that many readers might mistake criticism for jealousy. If you want to keep taking the sceptical stance, maybe you should be willing lecture as an authority (Although you explicitly mentioned that you didn’t want to do this: “Lecturing on things as some kind of authority is unlikely to be helpful in promoting real understanding”).

    Unless you can show that you opinion is important (whatever that means), most readers will dismiss you as an angry man off on another tirade.

    Hope it helps…

    • Thanks Falco, that does indeed help and I know you think about things before speaking.

      My view on (true) authority in science (or any aspect of life for that matter) is that it is based on what you actually demonstrate that you know (or can do), not on your degree, your position, number of pubs, etc. Sometimes those things all go together, sometimes not. Most people don’t view it that way however–they look at the latter and infer the former from it. This is a very big mistake IMO, even if somewhat understandable. But then I am a “small d” democrat and iconoclast by nature that has seen too many times the abuse of power by people who hide behind various structural edifices of the system, because they know they usually can.

      The stuff I write is aimed at a varying combination of the general public and scientists. In both cases, I want people to understand the underlying logic and methods of whatever it is I’m discussing–I think people only trust something when they understand it, and in internet climate change discussions in particular, there are many declarations (on both sides) of “the way it really is” instead of careful explanations of the underlying logic and methods so people can really understand the issues and have a genuine discussion. A lot of serious problems have resulted from certain scientists basically saying “trust me/us” before it’s clear that their claims are really well supported by the evidence. These people don’t realize that they create huge problems for everyone, including other scientists.

      If the stuff’s coming across as too angry I’ll try to explain the source of the anger better, or get rid of it if it’s unjustified.

  2. I read blogs mostly to find out about research that I don’t have the time to/ am too lazy to do the literature grinding myself (e.g. grass carp spreading). I also like pictures that remind me why biological diversity is so rewarding to study. I prefer sceptical presentations, even iconoclasm, but ad hominem attacks, nastiness and egotistical wankers turn me off. I’ve stopped reading many alleged science blogs because those behaviours are all too common. Mixing politics/religion with science sucks. Do-gooders are one of the great evils in the world.

    That said, I write my own blogs first and foremost for myself. I have tailored them over time towards the audience that seems to be interested in them (students for my disciplinary blog; backyard nature lovers for my urban insect conservation blog). But, I only post about the subject that I’m interested in at the moment and only when I have the time. I’ve never rubbished anyone or any idea on my blogs (well, noisy neighbours, House Sparrows, and bad weather get a dose). Thus, my audiences are very moderate in size; but then, so is my discipline.

  3. Hi Jim,
    The previous comments cover the same points, but I visit to read about scientific papers that interest you and your perspective on how well the conclusions are supported by the results. I am fascinated by the hierarchical structure of knowledge, and for me a good paper is one where the reader can discern the entire logic structure (even if it might involve reading some of the references at the end)….[comment form starting to glitch again…]

    • “I am fascinated by the hierarchical structure of knowledge”

      Interesting Matt; you’re the first person I’ve heard mention the importance of that. I think about that a lot, and in fact think that it’s one of the most important, and yet least discussed, aspects about just how we form our scientific judgements. Thinking I should make that a theme here.

      Not sure what’s going on with the comment form, others will hopefully make comments if having similar problems.

    • Well, the form problem keeps me concise I suppose. I would be interested in your views on the work of Andrew Blaustein. He seems like a good guy, but his papers drive me crazy because they all seem like shots at the moon. He starts with a simple causal factor and ends up with some gross generalization, with most of the steps in between missing.

    • I wasn’t aware of him Matt and have only just looked briefly at his web page. He does look like a good guy, hope to get some time to read his work.

  4. Jim:
    Perhaps you could occasionally post a short list of papers you’ve taken an interest in. These might be papers you have queued up to spend some serious time with, or just a sampling of topics you feel you could fairly discuss on the blog. I can point you to a couple of other blogs that do this from time to time if you like. You might list a sentence or two of your own to justify your choice, or to tempt others to have a look.

    So with this list as a sort of ‘bait’ you might find a passer-by who will take an interest in a title and a conversation can take off.

    Where possible I would suggest the papers are either open access or available to most (past an embargo, or available from the corresponding author’s own web presence). In other venues where I’ve seen this done the papers are usually very current. But I personally wouldn’t object to seeing titles from the last few years if the subject is fairly compelling.

    I haven’t followed this blog in the past – saw a couple of your comments somewhere else and followed the link. I really like the concept of laying out the logic of a piece when it isn’t explicitly done by the authors. I’m not impressed by too much snark or gratuitous condemnation. Sometimes the best way to offer critique is establish the positive aspects of the piece, and then gently move to where you have a different perspective. If what I’ve seen elsewhere from you is any indication, I’m sure you are up to it.

    • Sorry for the slow reply Clem and thank you for the compliment. That’s a great suggestion re a list of titles, and probably everyone would benefit from whatever links to example sites you can provide. Current papers are useful to discuss because they often gain the most attention, but from the standpoint of the logical basis of a field, the older papers are often the most important to examine carefully.

      I much agree on the point about snark and gratuitous condemnation, both of which I pretty much hate and try to avoid. And excellent point about how to critique something without offending, or being overly zealous or negative (which I probably have been at times).

    • Ford Denison at ‘This Week in Evolution’ will usually put up a list about once a week. The link: http://blog.lib.umn.edu/denis036/thisweekinevolution/

      The Carnival of Evolution is another source of papers in the evolution field – but with a twist. The Carnival pulls together and highlights blog posts on research papers with links to the blog that has covered the piece. The Carnival is a monthly effort, hosted by different folks. The December Carnival appears to be John Wilkins’ responsibility. John blogs at ‘Evolving Thoughts’ (link: http://evolvingthoughts.net/blog/ ). And BTW, if you haven’t checked out Evolving Thoughts, you may want to have a look. I’m looking forward to John’s Carnival effort. He writes well, and if you get past his sometime crotchetiness you’ll usually find your time there well spent.

      If you post a piece here discussing a paper with a strong evolutionary element you could nominate it to one of the upcoming Carnival hosts (indeed – if you have one ready to go now you might get it in front of John in time for consideration). Having a piece included in the Carnival could attract some attention back to your blog.

    • Great suggestions Clem, thanks. I’ve looked at The Carnival in times past, alerted by links from Jeremy Fox, (who himself does a great job linking to other pieces in his Friday Links postings), but never read anything there in depth (a mistake, since I have a strong interest in evolution, just not enough time).

      I’m thinking a “Carnival of Climate Change Science” might be an appropriate theme name.
      Oops, I think that maybe that qualifies as snark 🙂

      edit: To clarify, that last statement was not my intended meaning; change it to “Carnival of Online Climate Change Discussions” instead. I have no desire to indict the field of climate science in its entirety, a theme which has unwarranted/unsupported and overblown popularity amongst certain groups/individuals. The online discussions are where the real problems are. Need to make that clear.

  5. Hi Jim, If you ever feel comfortable vetting the thoughts of an environmentalist-skpetic I’d gladly submit my thoughts to your blog as I know you to be thoughtful and evenhanded. I posted my latest peeve Contrasting Good and Bad Science: Disease, Climate Change and the Case of the Golden Toad to Watts Up With That and my website

    But I do not want to preach to a choir of skeptics and would rather engage in respectful debate with others who are not as skeptical but concerned with the quality of science that guides good environmental stewardship.

    • Hi Jim,

      I’d started looking at your essays a while back but didn’t have time to continue. I definitely value your biological/ecological perspective and experience. As long as we stick to a careful discussion of scientific validity, regardless of topic and regardless of whose supposed “agenda” that may or may not support, I’m game. I’m hoping to have discussions of ecological issues in which various potential ecosystem change drivers are discussed in relation to their likely importance, without an unwarranted emphasis on any such.

      The circus-based, self-absorbed, and entirely hypocritical approach that Watts takes I have no use or time for. Whatsoever.

    • I post to WUWT simply because they allow skeptics to post. As you know RealClimate and other sites were never kind to any skeptical thoughts and usually suppress any skepticism. Did you think my essay on
      Contrasting Good and Bad Science: Disease, Climate Change and the Case of the Golden Toad was circus-base or hypocritical? Or based on a real concern for making the correct diagnosis? Or neither?

    • You don’t need WUWT Jim. You’re a much better thinker with far more of importance to say than Watts will ever hope to be. If you have valid scientific arguments to present–and I think you do–I will support their presentation. Here.

      I do not think your essay was circus-based or hypocritical, but rather based on a legitimate desire to get at the truth, based on what I’ve read (not yet finished, just skimmed). I’m quite interested in it, and in the other essays as well. I’m pretty sure we can have some good discussions on a whole bunch of things.

      I’m adamant about a strict focus on getting at the truth as far as we can, given the available evidence. I make a lot of enemies that way, because the climate change discussions are so polarized and group oriented, but I’m not going to change it for the world.

    • Jim I know you are “adamant about a strict focus on getting at the truth as far as we can”. I have seen nothing other than great integrity and a sincere desire to make us better stewards of the environment.

      I know I don’t need WUWT. Right or wrong, I believe Anthony Watts is a man of integrity too, and his site has been indispensable for keeping a debate alive and giving voice to those who reside outside the prevailing bias. Some skeptics are good and some are not. I want to encourage both the left and right to be better environmental stewards, and that requires getting at the truth so that all sides can come together and trust the science.

      Following the debate about the Golden Toad was one of two issues that made me more skeptical about how climate change was being presented and why it was polarizing the public. Bad science blaming Co2 on the Golden Toad extinction does not have any bearing on how sensitive the earth is to CO2 but it does reveal how easily bad science can get published for simply promoting climate catastrophe. And that is polarizing the public and causing unneeded backlash against conservation science.

      If you think my essay Contrasting Good and Bad Science: Disease, Climate Change and the Case of the Golden Toad is true to the spirit of getting the truth out, I would like to repost it here and get feedback from your readers.

    • For now I’m going to just let those interested go to your collection of essays and read them there–and I hope people do. I myself need to do it in fact.

      This is primarily because I’m trying to figure how I’m going to approach the general issue of discussing climate, climate change and ecosystem impacts as a theme here; what tack to take, how to structure it, what to discuss, etc. Until I make those decisions, and get some other things off my plate, I’m keeping things as they are, including having times where I don’t discuss science issues at all, which is necessary for me.

    • A related point on this. It’s because of my personal interaction with you at the SFSU field campus that I know you’re worth listening to. If I instead had to make a judgement, knowing only that you’d presented an essay at WUWT, like the average person has to, I wouldn’t be interested at all, because I know the kind of stuff he puts up. Such is the reputation he carries.

      [To explain a little, Jim is the former director of San Francisco State University’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus, which is how I know him, through courses there and fieldwork in the area some years back.]

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