Archives For blogging

newspaper face

If you were to listen to today’s newspapers, blogs provide nothing but sensationalism, rehashes of other blogs, and are just generally ran by rather untrustworthy people sitting at their kitchen tables in their underpants, looking for whatever brings in the big hits. Yes, all major newspapers now feature blogs on their sites but don’t tell their editors that because all to many of them seem completely unaware of this fact as they boast about the need for newspapers to do the longform investigative work that seldom gets done anywhere else, and use this to justify keeping a quickly failing business model afloat through paywalls and lawsuits. And this is why it was very odd for a case against a news clipping service to basically say that readers don’t need any more than the clipping provides, arguing that giving away the lead of the article renders the whole thing totally irrelevant to the public which is why the clipping service should have to pay the papers.

Now it’s true that only newspapers sometimes have the resources to send reporters on complex assignments and work on stories that will take months to result in a huge article that shines new light on something we thought we knew, or exposes a case we want to know more about. Since newspaper ownership is now more of a prestige symbol than a viable business, profits could be sacrificed for the PR value of the resulting story. But PR doesn’t pay the bills and the barriers to investigating big stories keep getting lower and lower. If you’re a professional blogger, you can get a really good chunk of your research done with Skype, Google, Twitter, and Facebook, and when you do need to go out and track someone down for some answers physically, airfare can certainly be justified since you could work from your laptop anywhere with a wi-fi hotspot. You’ll also get a well-researched story and it will cost you less and make you money in ad revenue.

But instead of learning from bloggers how to work more efficiently, newspapers are sticking to a dead tree with ink model and trying to mount paywall after paywall to protect what they’re saying people don’t even need to read past the first paragraph or two. And that makes me wonder why even read them until a huge story comes along. Why print all that paper? Why bother with good, old-fashioned column inches and not simply go all digital with an on-demand print option? The big papers are already doing that with e-readers so why not kill the trees, cut the prices and get bloggers in on the act, learning form them how to attract hits and make the best use of their time and resources? Of course not Nick Denton style mind you, but more of an Ars or Wired who are in the tech game and absolutely get it despite being owned by the dinosaur Conde Nast, which just so happens also made a winning choice on buying Reddit. If there’s so much stuff that’s not worth reading past a few paragraphs, why waste time and money trying to get paid for it?

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broken emo

Oh how I miss the good old days of skeptical blogging, when PZ Myers was unloading on inane creationists and New Agers with the delicate touch of a tactical nuke, the Skepchicks didn’t lock down the comments under heavy moderation and traded links and the occasional friendly e-mail with me, so many skeptical big shots returned my tweets and e-mails, and many of us knew that our focus should be on science, education, and fact checking popular media for the benefit of a reader who didn’t see what was wrong with creationism in science class, or why so many people claimed to see UFOs if there’s almost no chance they’re really out there. That’s what we did. We educated, entertained, and started debates. But post-Elevatorgate, all that went to shit. Popular skeptical blogs now overflow with gossip and infighting, and the results are sad to behold. Sides have to be taken, lines have to be drawn, and the actual science and education stuff they used to be all about has taken a backseat, showing up between angsty s/he-said-what? posts.

PZ and the Freethought Blogs contingent has decided to turn their atheism and skepticism into some sort of a political campaign based on the logic that if you’re an atheist and a skeptic and know that creationism isn’t science, you also know why Paul Ryan’s budgets are crap and then proceed to take proscribed positions on key social issues. And as for the Skepchicks, well, the Elevatorgate horse hasn’t just been beaten to death, it’s bleached bones have been desecrated many times over by now, but of course Watson won’t quit because it brings her hits and lets her offer herself as a martyr to the hordes of sexist pigs in the skeptical community — who are really mostly rabid internet trolls who spew nothing but hatred anyway — to fawning fans. Her dubious behavior as a moderator at JREF can now be safely buried under her martyr cloak and skeptics who don’t agree have to tip-toe around her lest they displease her, explaining their behavior in great detail only to get a dismissive, passive-aggressive reply over a year after the fact.

I’m not sure what was the moment I first facepalmed while reading what has become of some of the big profile skeptics nowadays. Was it PZ Myers’ brief manifesto filled with disgust that some libertarians have the gall to call themselves atheists? Was it Greta Christina’s breathless praise of a cafe that put a diaper change station in the men’s room because it didn’t have space for a second one in the women’s restroom as if it was some sort of revolutionary anti-sexist message to its patrons despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of men’s rooms do have changing stations anyway? The whole Atheism+ affair that ultimately went nowhere fast? Perhaps it’s true that nostalgia is a seductive liar, as George Ball once opined, and maybe I am glossing over a periodic rift or two, but the last year has been one of the skeptical movement taking three steps back to quibble over semantics, late night bar gossip, and internal politics instead of promoting the united message of science and education needing to triumph over ignorance and stubborn fundamentalism, rendering once flourishing blogs less and less relevant.

Perhaps the real bright spots have been Phil Plait, whose passion for space overruled his meta analysis of skeptical niceness and who keeps cranking out fantastic skeptical and pop sci work on a daily basis, and the former top dogs of the Discover Network who never changed their big picture focus on the science and the narrative of discovery and education. They’re on to a new home but they’re still going strong. And here’s the important thing. If they paid any attention to the drama at TAM and the gossipy blog fights, they moved on. Maybe that’s what FTB and the other squabbling self-proclaimed skeptical leaders need to do? Maybe they could find a hobby that doesn’t involve writing passionate treatises about their feelings and how those around them are failing to nurture their personal existential crises? Last year I found a hobby that has zilch to do with computers, blogging, or Singularity skepticism and find it amazing how much that clears your mind. Maybe a little less focus on their drama will get the back into being the strong voices for science, education, and skepticism they were before they let politics overtake them?

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end of the world

Well ladies and germs, it’s now Saturday, December 22nd and we’re all still here just as science told us we would be. This means three things. First, New Age devotees cannot follow the Mayan calendar since they would’ve known that this winter solstice was supposed to be a big New Year type event, not a bringer world-ending cataclysm. Second, it means that Weird Things and all of its readers have now successfully lived through their second projected apocalypse. And third, it means I’m now married. Yes, you read that right, there’s now a Mrs. Fish. Let’s just get married when the world ends she said, you’ll be married for like what, 15 hours? We can figure out what to do if the world is still there the next day when that happens, she said. That’s how they get you guys. They cozy up to you about the end of the world.

But in all seriousness, I’ll be taking some time off from posting on the semi-regular basis I just so happened to sink into and will return closer to the end of the year. And just in case you started wondering, we’re both skeptics but we sure had fun playing with the doomsday theme, watching enough Doomsday Preppers episodes to start wondering if we should prep to escape from the preppers should a real disaster strike, and jotting down a myriad of ideas for decor and subtle touches referring to the end of the world as we know it. And zombies. Hey, you can’t have a real apocalypse without some zombies nowadays, now can you? So I’ll catch you all towards the end of next week. Have fun and stay safe this holiday season. Should be easy without a doomsday looming over your heads, right?

[ illustration by Damien Malinvaud ]

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As you may have noticed if you tried to leave a comment, Weird Things is moving to Disqus for comment management. In keeping with my previous policies on commenting, it will allow for you to post anonymously if you so choose so there’s no need to sign up for an account. However, since so many of us now have social media accounts, I thought it would make perfect sense to allow them to be used here to extend the conversations here into related blogs and collect what other social networks are saying about Weird Things’ posts and what better way to do that than to use a massive platform already utilized by major sites? Of course as with any integration, the system needs time to process the existing 6,200+ comments and assign them to their posts. But rest assured that just because you don’t see a comment you made, it’s doesn’t mean it’s gone, it’s just being plugged into Disqus and I have backups of it just in case…

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fighting a troll

Please excuse the lack of posts ladies and germs, it wasn’t exactly planned that way. In fact, the new posts for the weekend were supposed to have been scheduled but with some recent travel and moving, the posts never got queued up for publication. Again, sorry about that, my bad. But before we get back into a more normal post schedule, I wanted to address an odd news bit that appeared on my radar today. It seems that one of the founding mothers of Atheism+ and one of the targets of my post on the Great Atheism Schism, decided to stop blogging altogether. Citing abuse from social media and depression, Jen McCreight says that she’ll be pulling the plug on her blog, effectively saying that internet misogynists ran her offline. Being one of the people who disagreed with her, I have mixed reactions about how her decision will play out. One could say that if you start something, finish it and that virtual abuse is the price all bloggers pay for stating their opinions. However, there is a point where enough is just enough.

You can block troll after troll after troll, sure. But with enough trolls, it’s like trying to stop a tidal wave with an umbrella. Blanket bans on social media platforms are in the hands of admins, not users, and when enough enraged critics mark you as a common target, your screen will quickly fill up with hate. We could use McCreight’s decisions as a point to stop, state that skeptics firmly believe that no matter how much we disagree with someone, no one should have to be shouted off his or her soapbox unless the person in question is doing something unquestionably harmful, like say, selling snake oil, and naturally filter out skeptics with strong opinions but respectful of others from those who surf skeptical blogs with nothing but venom to inject into a conversation. Unfortunately, we’re more than likely going to see a wave of posts saying that the feminism wars are now out of control as one of its generals has fallen, and that this only emphasizes the need for Atheism+ to spread, fanning the flames even further and making more and more skeptics on the web disengage from mass coordination and back into smaller groups.

All this is just starting to feel like too much damn drama for a movement. We could attribute a lot of it to growing pains as people with very different opinions collide and use their blogs as their primary weapons in any confrontation, dragging matters we probably would’ve never even tried to hear about into the public square. But at this point, reading FTB is starting to seem more and more like reading TMZ: Geek Edition; "Found out what he said about her and what she said in a big blog post about it, and you’re not going to believe the fight between one of our top bloggers and a commenter about what happened at the last skeptic meetup in a bar they attended!" Ugh, no thanks. A little drama here and there is fun and like any human, I do find a public track wreck in slow motion oddly fascinating and do a bit of rubbernecking. But when a network of blogs what were supposed to highlight the struggles of science and secularism against political religiosity and willful public ignorance is mostly busy unloading gossip, they’re primarily going to get their hits from those emotionally invested in the soap operas more than anything else. This is one of the big reasons I like doing my tech skepticism bit. Few gossipy dramas happen in tech.

So many skeptics that I know are taking another way. They’re still staying skeptics and they’re not shying away about outing their atheism or agnosticism, but they’re not joining any local and national skeptical and atheist groups. Instead, they’re doing science and communicating about what they do and big news in their area of expertise, applying all their skeptical news dissection skills when the news they’re covering calls for it. They research, they write, they educate, and their primary goal is to make people think and question. Maybe that’s what’s really important? In skepticism, you have to train yourself to perform a balancing act between trusting testimonials or anecdotes from people around you, and overcompensating for human nature by reflexively and viciously rejecting anything new or speculative. The name of the game is to question and make conclusions based on empirical data. But what I’m seeing from people who decided to take the skeptical movement by the reins is less and less questioning, and more and more big and really passionate declarations of How Things Should Be™, using anecdotes and backroom gossip to guide how they want to shape the skeptics coming into the fold.

But that’s all right. Skepticism is just an approach to claims on which no group has a monopoly, and having grown up without religion along with many other atheists, I can assure you that with or without FTB or any other atheist blogging network, atheism will survive and thrive. I’m not worried about what will happen to either whether the current dramas implode on all those involved or if it all just blows over when people get sick and tired of it. And I’m not going to fret that I’ve been on the receiving end of blocks and bans on Facebook because I dare mention that I’m not a big fan of Rebecca Watson and some of her antics, or something similar. Like I said, the current leaders of the skeptical movement have shown they can’t lead. But luckily for all of us, they don’t have to since they don’t have an exclusive right to the ideas they say they want to help us espouse. And just like I concluded last time I talked about this, I’m just going to stick to my area of competence while they fight it out amongst themselves. McCreight shouldn’t worry about what will happen to Atheism+ if she’s no longer blogging either. No one can live with the media klaxon turned to 11.5 all day, every day, and despite the duress under which she made her choice, maybe it will give her time to find a new way to reach out and teach skepticism and science on her own terms.

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riot

After posting my review of how the current leaders of the skeptical movement are failing to lead and unite, I’ve been alerted to a new idea percolating around the Free Thought Blogs collective. It’s a brainchild of several bloggers notable in the feminist “civil war” being called Atheism+ and while it does pay some lip service to the need for scientific education and promoting skeptical inquiry, it’s primarily a social activism platform which isn’t too dissimilar from the agenda of many liberal political groups with the exception of equating atheism with good scientific education. Now, there’s much to be said for the positive aspects of non-belief, but in the agendas being outlined by Atheism+ the secular, non-theistic worldview is simply a vehicle to address social inequalities, particularly the kind we see in the typical post-modernist monologues; white male privilege.

Granted, the rants aren’t nearly as awful as the notion of complex physics equations expressing male nerds’ fear of women seen in the most egregious example of post-modernism tackled on this blog, but the concept seems to have some rather uncanny similarities. Basically, they posit, the atheist movement is now overburdened with holier-than-thou white men who condescend to women and minorities, pay too much attention to other white men whose books they read, and ignore the concerns of the women and minorities in their quest to lead the movement to the One True Atheism. Therefore, they continue, the only sensible course of action is to create the One Logical Atheism to counter it and demand equal rights for all women and minorities as part of the platform, call the whole thing Atheism+, and rhetorically marginalize critics by loudly wondering why they oppose equal rights and safe space for women and minorities when they question the wisdom of this splintering, regardless of whether the critics are women or minorities themselves. All right, I’m satirizing, true, but this is how the rhetoric has been shaped. Criticize them and you’re a monster and an apologist for rape, harassment, and white male privilege.

There is some truth in the fact that skeptical and atheist movements do have a disproportionate representation of white males between 18 and 50 and as all large homogenous groups tend to do, they don’t concern themselves with making others feel more welcome. Of course this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re just self-absorbed know-it-alls who only want to dictate the rules of atheism and skepticism to the unwashed masses with different skin color, genitalia, and sexual preferences. It just means they haven’t considered how to make sure they appear welcoming of others. The proper course of action is to highlight this issue and ask whether there’s something they’re doing that drives women and minorities away. And yes, that’s been tried. However, what followed all these attempts were litanies of complaints about all those white guys taking over the movement, harassing the womenfolk, and ignoring all the minorities around them by the virtue of being predominantly white and male.

How does this help? It only makes the problem worse! There were “privileged white males” like PZ Myers asking why the movement failed to attract a more diverse audience and the responses from self-promoted leaders of the atheist movement from the Skepchick/Atheist Feminist camp was to describe the whole group as a bunch of homogenous leering perverts. Gee, what woman, or ethnic or sexual minority would like to join what sounds like a country club for secularists? And what’s even worse is that when a legitimate, reasonable point was made, i.e. Rebecca Watson’s initial handling of Elevatorgate ending up as a simple suggestion that propositioning someone in an elevator is kind of creepy and probably shouldn’t be done, she and her friends would double down on the “ZOMG! Rape in potentia!” sensationalism put forth by PZ and Phil Plait. Who, by the way, were the while privileged men who supposedly care nothing about their plight. Suddenly, an aside about creepy behavior after last call at a skeptical conference turned into a cautionary story of a rape narrowly avoided and brought out all the worst insecurities in the movement.

Not only is this terrible leadership — if starting a huge fight over hook up protocol after 3 AM and triggering fights among your movement’s followers is not a leadership failure, I really don’t know what is — but it makes the very movement they’re trying to expand and diversify seem even less welcoming in the basest way possible. Instead a follow up such as “but despite this incident, the conference was great and we had a great crowd,” they allowed Elevatorgate to define skeptical conferences in general and the only criticism to which they chose to respond came from random vicious trolls spewing misogynistic obscenities. The impression was that the only people who had disagreements with their handling of the incident were women-hating throwbacks to the 1940s. Well shit, I can pull tricks like that too if I respond to creationists or fundamentalists commenting on this blog only when they declare that I’m an atheist solely because I’m a sexually compulsive drug addict neglected by his parents, rather than when they try to argue a point that raises some questions that have scientific answers.

And now, they not only want to control the discussion by removing what they say are threatening and abusive threads, and ridiculing their critics into submission, they’re hiding behind lofty social goals and declaring that you should either be with them or you’re an apologist for inequality and crass discrimination. It doesn’t matter if you agree that the atheist and skeptical movement does need to be more diverse, that women need be treated better in the STEM field, and that minority viewpoints should also have a platform, but see their handling of these issues as promoting a lot more division than unity. You become a persona non grata to be verbally drawn and quartered on the web, you will not be invited to conferences, and you will be marked with an e-scarlet letter that will make it difficult to become a professional activist in the very groups which seek to help women and minorities. You must become a yes-man or a yes-woman. You’re either on board or part of the problem. You’re with them or against them. It’s an attitude much better fit for a hyper-partisan PAC or a fundamentalist group than for scientific skeptics.

Of course the victim here is the scientific education. The goal now is not to teach good critical thinking skills. It’s to teach how to balance out the social inequalities, oh and with a little science on the side because as we’re being told, once you become an atheist, all other reasons to treat a person of a different gender or ethnicity would vanish with religion, as if bigotry and hate ever needed a concrete, metaphysical reason for existence. Certainly, the Deicide Doctrine played a large part in the persecution of Jews in Europe, but so did half-baked conspiracy theories about greedy Jewish bankers buying up Europe for their New World Order. True, the story of Eve was used to justify treating women like property but so many men also treated women as their sexual possessions because they could. And yes, the Bible was used to justify slavery and racism, but so was Galton’s pseudoscience which cast all non-well-to-do-WASPs as less evolved.

The point is that religion is the easiest justification for hatred to which a bigot can point and yes, it can be the sole reason for his or her hate. But to think that there’s no bigotry or discrimination in any mostly atheist society is folly. Just look at the Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in Denmark, a country where a majority of the population proudly declares itself as non-theists. Not all of it is driven by religious elements. Let’s face it, there are atheist bigots, sexists, and homophobes out there and they’re not going to be swayed by Atheism+ or its doctrine that religion lies at the root of discrimination. The root of discrimination is social isolation and constant encouragements to hold all those different as untrustworthy and malicious if given any rights or voices. The talking points are up to the bigots in question and they can range from conspiracies to divine invocation with a lot of other options in between. Let’s not pretend that atheism will show hate-mongers the way and the light by the power of rational skeptical inquiry.

With all that said, we circle back to the question of how teaching science will be the panacea for all these social concerns. In my little corner of the skeptical blogosphere, I’m writing mostly about futurism, technology, and bleeding edge physics that fascinate me. I write about this because it’s what I know, these are the areas where most of my education and professional experience lies, and my goal isn’t to advance a social agenda but to tell my readers something that makes them go “gee whiz, that’s cool” or “oh, so that’s how it would really work?” and come back for another dose of that. If Weird Things grew big enough to start and host its own meetups, I would expect the attendees to come wanting to talk about the science and skeptically parse futuristic bombast they recently heard. My goal is not to create a legion of atheists to go forth and shape the world to my liking, but to help teach the need for proper STEM education and to make more informed decisions and conclusions when it comes to this area of knowledge and exploration. Even more fundamentally, to make people think, especially if they disagree with me or start a debate.

Whatever happened to all that? Where has the skeptical blogosphere I wanted to join so much gone? The blogosphere in which we the skeptics doled out posts on topics we understood to get people interested and excited about science and appreciate the threats posed by ignorance and religious fanaticism to the key engines of our progress as a civilization, science and technology? Whatever happened to letting people get there themselves rather than blast them with invective or clog the newsfeeds with TMZ-worthy gossip of what goes on after hours in hotel bars between skeptics and who was mean to whom or who made whom cry?

I’m a skeptic because I had a lifetime fascination with science and built my toys out of Legos, hoping to grow up to work on something amazing. I’m an atheist because I never saw a need for religion in my life and my parents never dragged me to synagogues. I’m a blogger because I like writing and wanted to see what happened if I wrote for an audience. If you need me, I’ll be right here writing about quantum mechanics, AI, ANNs, and squaring off with the Less Wrongians and Singularitarians. I’m not going become an Atheist+ by being shamed into it by a small clique of people who take themselves way too seriously and who want to turn their dramas and personal agendas into my battles.

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dog in headphones

A few years ago, when faced with a balancing act between blogging as a skeptic and trying to get into a new career, I wondered which one should be my top priority. I did what I could to show up at virtual meetups, commented on all the blogs, got in touch with big name skeptics, and overall, tried to get and stay as involved with the movement as possible. Ultimately, I made the choice to focus on my career as much as I could and looking back at it now, I’m happy I made that choice, especially in light of all the drama emanating from the top blogs. It’s like an angsty high school scene but with a lot more nerds and geeks present and the histrionics a lot more eloquent since it’s professional writers composing them, not emo teens still working on the basics of persuasive composition. Yes, several major meetups like TAM are flourishing, which is great, but too many of the smaller ones seem to have become epicenters for the next great debacle to be covered extensively across the skeptical blogging world. It started with Elevatorgate and it very quickly went downhill from there.

When the movement that’s supposed to help promote education, skeptical inquiry, and combat laziness and disinformation in pop sci media is wracked by battles between those who don’t seem to understand that “show us your tits!” is a monumentally dumb thing to say to women on the web and that maybe they should not be proving the point of women who decided to tackle the topic of sexism in typically male realms by harassing them to the point of warranting coverage in major news outlets, and those who respond to this by positing that “you are male, you have a penis, therefore you are likely to rape me” is a good basis for a sexual harassment policy at a meetup, I’m left wondering when we’re going to get to the actual promotion of skepticism and education part. It’s not that such problems should be swept under the rug, no, not at all. In fact it’s the exact opposite of that. If those who want to engage with the skeptical movement and those who want to lead it are fighting over how to treat each other like decent human beings, how the hell can we move on to anything abstract or lofty?

And what’s even worse is the way these issues are being handled in the skeptical blogosphere. Rather than being calmly discussed and debated, like many other topics, these basic issues are spun into maelstroms of rage and fury by posts pleading and demanding that they’re addressed exactly the way the poster wants them to be addressed and angry verbal fist-shaking about the dire state of all things skepticism or atheism when the mood either fails to change right away or another fit of drama ripples across the interwebs. Well, when those who took it on themselves to lead just further the divide and call their fans into their camps, how do they expect these issues to get resolved? Are they looking for a solution or tallying the votes in their favor, because it increasingly looks like they’re a lot more interested in the latter. Skepticism is not a magical cure to all the world’s ills and its pretty unreasonable to think that socio-economic and gender issues wouldn’t rear their ugly heads when a whole lot of people get together and have free reign to comment at will on skeptical blogs.

Somewhere along the line, the exchanges went from “what can we do to educate people about science and the validity of secularism?” to “how can this movement become a social panacea for my needs?” while those who emerged as the movement’s leaders decided to fight each other until the echoing message is “to hell with skepticism and atheism the way they are, I’m leaving the movement to turn it into [blank], who’s with me!” It’s really selfish, immature, and shows that the supposed leaders simply can’t lead. Is it bad that women say they feel harassed at a number of skeptical meetups? Yes it is. Can every single jerk who gets a little too cocky after his fifth beer be purged? No. Should there be some sort of an official policy for how to deal with unpleasant incidents at meetups? Absolutely. Should this policy be based on anticipating a standoff between those who are assumed to be rapists in waiting and those who believe they’re future victims? Not at all because Stranger Danger never leads to good decisions about safety, and makes no one feel welcome or at ease during the entire event. If you don’t like the way the TSA does things, you’re not going to like any other Stranger Danger-based security because they’re going to be fundamentally the same in their implementation.

But instead of coming together and saying that whatever harassers can be stopped will be, and that a few basic policies are in order just so everyone knows what should be done if things go wrong, we’re told that the movement is either failing or being plagued by extremists and must be purged of these offenders post haste. How exactly does this help to build and maintain a major movement? The points are valid but the management is atrocious. It simply takes the broad goal of promoting better science, education, and the need for secularism, and turns them into selfish pissing matches, fragmenting the visible top of the movement along personal loyalties so one of these “thought leaders” can crown him/herself as King or Queen of the Nerds. This is not what skeptics need. They need leaders who will give them a group on which they can count, a group that can make use of their activism and take it to the next level so we can fight the good fight for sound science and leave social issues to politicians and the public who we’ll strive to inform with facts. They don’t need infighting cliques with their own agenda trying to boldly and with great fanfare take charge of a movement they seem to think they own.

[ photo illustration by Arturas Kerdokas]

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power equation

When you’re writing about science, two things tend to happen. One: you’ll attract self-appointed experts in the comments section who’ll tell you that the world will soon know that all modern science is wrong if people only read their brilliant new theories. Two: you’ll have to wade through a lot of jargon from your sources and distill it for readers who might have absolutely no idea what the research you’re covering or trying to review means. But it can be really, really difficult to accurately explain everything involved and more often than not, a lot of writers will just gloss over the terminology and stick to the very basics. And that doesn’t seem to sit well with some science writers, one of whom took to Nature to tell his colleagues not to fear jargon in their articles and encourage them to boldly use it. Unfortunately, his advice fails on two very important levels and if followed, would make for some very dry and difficult to follow articles.

Jargon has its uses. Experts don’t want to spend a few minutes or a few pages to identify every concept they use so they encapsulate it in a specialized term to save time and effort which would be unnecessarily wasted otherwise. However, those who aren’t experts won’t understand the full implications of what’s meant under the jargon, and without a thorough explanation, crucial parts of a story can get lost. By using jargon, you’re in effect propagating misunderstandings between the scientists and the public, or worse, glossing over your own inability to explain what’s going on in a particular experiment or paper. In fact, cranks and frauds often rely on a preponderance of jargon to dazzle their audiences into attentive submission because we all too often equate big words and complicated terminology with expertise.

There’s as good reason why physics legend Richard Feynman once supposedly said “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t really understand it.” The more you have to explain, the deeper you have to go, and the more group you have to cover in your explanations, the more likely you are to find weaknesses in your ideas and raise questions about their validity, and considering that science thrives with criticism, that’s a great thing. None of this means that a popular science article should turn into a textbook on whatever topic is being reviewed of course, otherwise, a report about a new gene sequencing technique would have to cover at least a year of undergraduate biology and stretch for hundreds of pages. But there should be a way to sufficiently explain what gene sequencing is and how it works in practice using everyday terms that would interest enough readers to keep reading, and perhaps a few of them to do their own research and start learning the jargon.

By throwing jargon at your readers you’re losing their attention because they don’t understand what you mean and either lose interest or get frustrated that it took them an hour to figure out that you were using a very technical term for a very specific type of neuron found only in one place of the eye, for example. And of course there’s also quite a bit of potential for abuse should flinging a lot of jargon become commonplace in popular science writing. Authors who need to turn in something by a deadline but unsure of what it is they’re actually trying to report or why it matters can just liberally sprinkle a lot of technobabble onto a page and call it done. Their story is in on time, but the net benefit to the readers is pretty much nil. So perhaps it’s a good idea that science writers try to avoid using a lot of jargon. It keeps everyone a little more honest about what they do and don’t know, and gives readers the opportunity to follow a story without talking over their heads or drowning them in a stream of technobabble.

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As you’ve probably noticed, Weird Things has been looking a little different since last evening, especially if you tried to read it on your smartphone or tablet where you more than likely found it a lot more readable. After a few weeks of research and careful consideration, this theme was the closest match to what I thought would work best for this blog, was the easiest to customize with a little css, and saved me the trouble of hacking up some PHP or building a blog platform from scratch and moving this blog to a new host. It also provides excellent support and layout options for mobile devices, which is a big deal as more and more readers are accessing Weird Things that way on a regular basis, and incorporates most of the things you said you wanted to see.

There won’t be any social comments or sign-ups to leave a reply on a post, the font is bigger and the right edge is left ragged to make the site more readable and easier to format, and the widgets now show recent comments so you can see what’s going on in comment threads across the blog. I’ll also try to get into the swing of Twitter again and should that go well, I’ll be adding the appropriate widget as well. All in all, I’m actually pretty excited about this update. It will make it easier for me to create more new posts, write new types of content such as how-tos, in-depth posts with more images, maybe even with some code examples in my AI posts, and you’ll get more posts and better usability out of Weird Things on your computers and mobile devices. So stay tuned for new stuff, now in a new and better format…

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As said in an older post, the current formatting of this blog has locked me into a certain posting style that can be very difficult to maintain at times, and doesn’t give me the flexibility to do some of the posts I’d like because frankly, they’ll look bad. Sure, I could start scattering graphs, charts, and screenshots with little to no regard to the overall layout, but that will only make it look messy. No, I don’t have design OCD, just a little touch of CDO so the letters are in the right order. But I digress. The long and short of it is that it’s about time for a big layout change and are were two options on the table. The first is to redesign the blog myself from scratch and create either a new WordPress theme using PHP, a thought that makes me shudder, or a the much more appealing but back-end intensive process of creating a custom blog platform. The second is to buy a customizable new theme and adjust it to fit my needs. Considering that my day job and the two big projects related to Hivemind are taking a big chunck of my time, I opted for the second option which turns out to be faster and cheaper.

Now, don’t worry, I listened to your input and the currently two top choices will keep this blog linear rather than switch it over to the popular new magazine style, there won’t be any integration with social media commenting so anyone can leave comments without signing in or creating new profiles, and there will be a widget to show new comments so you can join interesting discussions on old threads. Really, at this point, the choice comes down to two factors: price and compatibility with mobile browsers. A small but growing number of readers are viewing this blog on their smartphones so how well they’ll be able to read this blog on their mobile devices is becoming a major concern, though I don’t think I’m going to give up my affection for higher resolution graphics to preserve bandwidth. If anything, as you can probably see, I’ll be using more of them. Look for the change to happen in the next few weeks, along with a couple of new Hivemind/sci-fi book related announcements…

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