Tuesday, January 16, 2007

In Recent Science Blogging

Coturnix of "A Blog Around the Clock" has unveiled the new science blogging anthology he has been working on. You can buy it online for $8.69 (download) or $19.95 (paperback). It looks very good. It puts some of the great scientific popularization going on in the blogosphere in solid format, which is an excellent thing, given that high-quality scientific popularization is one of the features of the blogosphere that most has the chance of doing general good. If I were ever to teach a philosophy of science course, I would consider whether I could integrate a book like this into the syllabus. Someone should certainly do something similar for other fields.

One of the things science bloggers have recently been doing is posting on basic concepts in their fields. So far the posts that have been put up are:

Clade at "Evolving Thoughts"
Evolution at "Sandwalk"
Mean, Median, and Mode at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Normal Distributions at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Force at "Uncertain Principles"
Gene at "Pharyngula"
Standard Deviation at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Fitness at "Evolving Thoughts"
Fields at "Uncertain Principles"
The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology at "Sandwalk"
Margin of Error at "Good Math, Bad Math"
How do you sequence a genome? at "Discovering Biology in a Digital World"
The Three Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Natural Selection at "Greg Laden"
The Modes of Natural Selection at "Greg Laden"
Natural Numbers and Integers at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Recursion and Induction at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Numbers at "Evolutionblog"
Infinity and Infinite Sums at "Evolutionblog"
Species at "Evolving Thoughts"

I'll put up others as I'm aware of them. This sort of thing is very tricky to do -- on the one hand, since you are dealing with basics, you have to go back and build up the concept from scratch, so to speak, appealing to common experiences to help make clear what the concept is. On the other hand (and this is where a vast amount of scientific popularization in general fails miserably) you can't dumb it down too much -- you have to keep as strictly accurate as possible, and, where you can't do so without getting too advanced, you have to make clear the reader understands that you are speaking more loosely. (This is the reason why I'm inclined to think that scientific popularization, of all the many features of science almost completely neglected in contemporary philosophy of science, is one of the most important for philosophers of science to clarify and evaluate. It's the key source of the public's understanding of scientific issues, but it is immensely difficult to do, and there needs to be some good work done on how best to go about it. What is perhaps noteworthy is that philosophers of science keep picking up the subject here and there -- Herschel, Whewell, Duhem, and Neurath, for instance, are examples I can think of off the top of my head who consider the issue to some extent -- but almost all the work has been done in isolation, which means it does very little good in the long run.) But, as Chesterton said, if a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly -- i.e., if it's really worth doing, it's worth doing even if it's not done well. And what's been done so far certainly looks very promising.

Chris at "Mixing Memory" is hosting Encephalon 14, the most recent edition of the neuroscience carnival.

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