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Last updated on 22 Jun 2018

Lots of links today.

First, let’s deal with the NYT post by Virginia Heffernan attacking science blogging. There are some fair comments there – I have objected to the religion bashing in many science blogs for a long time, and I do find the moral outrage about Pepsi a little incongruous when Seed has taken advertising from corporate sponsors for a while, although I think Heffernan’s dismissal of this as a professional hazard for journalists is a bit disingenuous too. Her own profession makes quite a stink when corporate advertising is passed off as journalism, and if it doesn’t, if it’s become blasé about it, then something is deeply wrong with journalism. But that is not, if you’ll permit me, news. However, is the attitude of science bloggers to fattening foods a class issue? I think it isn’t. Moreover, is scienceblogging not about the science? Only if you cherrypick:

For instance, Deep Sea News discusses a new species concept for asexuals. The paper is open access and DSN’s Kevin Zelnio asks whether it is different from the phylogenetic species concept (which one?). I wonder if it is different from the phenetic species concept/OTU. It uses an arbitrary metric for inclusion.

Jonah Lehrer has a lovely article on Robert Sapolsky’s work on stress in primates (including us), and a blog entry on it too.

Rich Meisel at Panda’s Thumb links to an open access article on teaching tree thinking. Nick Matzke also at Panda’s Thumb shows how a few hundred years of dog breeding has led to a massive amount of morphological variation, such that we’d identify it in the fossil record as macroevolution.

Carl Zimmer discusses whether sexual selection is arbitrary signalling rather than indicating genetic “quality” (a term that almost always is meaningless).

So, what has Heffernan done for us lately? Granted, Jonah and Carl are journalists, but they do blog on science. However, scientists leave other blogging networks too, for other reasons. Alyssa Gilbert of Way Oort West has left Nature Networks due to frustration at technical problems – MT4 strikes again. She is the third recent departure there.

On to philosophy, for I am a philosophy of science blogger and not a science blogger per se.

More from u n d e r v e r s e regarding the free will debate. Is that an argument from consequences I see before me?

Some PhilPapers riches: Ken Waters has a critique of Samir Okasha’s Pricean evolutionary account. Charles Wolfe, friend and star historian, discusses the idea of “organism” in history. Daniel Dennett responds to Alistair McGrath’s comment that atheism is a meme too. And you have to read this one: Richard Joyce has an excellent and insightful discussion of evolutionary ethics and moral naturalism.

By the way, if you use Papers and Safari on the Mac, I recommend the new plugin that opens pages and PDFs in Papers directly. Very useful. Access it directly at the Safari Extensions Gallery.

Some miscellany: Darwin wrote the Origin according to the rules of rhetoric.

Australians also don’t know science. But we have a great new science blogger!

That brings us full circle, I think.


  1. Tim Tim

    I once saw a very easy to digest doco called “Stress: The Human Killer” which included lots of footage about Robert Sapolsky. Made a lot of sense to me although I was rather hoping the knowledge would enable me to use rational thought to ignore my lowly social status and avoid feeling stressed about it.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Afraid not. You need to get higher status. Go challenge a jock.

  2. Perplexed in Peoria Perplexed in Peoria

    Heffernan had me nodding in agreement with her argument that there really ain’t much science in the blogging on ScienceBlogs. (Not if you weight the postings by readership, I think to myself). But then Heffernan blindsides me with this paragraph
    For science that’s accessible but credible, steer clear of polarizing hatefests like atheist or eco-apocalypse blogs. Instead, check out, and Anthony Watts’s blog, Watts Up With That?
    Wow! I suppose I could blow that off by pigeon-holing her as an idiot, but that would just be lying to myself. She is simply a typical American intellectual without much of a science background reporting honestly on her impressions. She finds Watts to be accessible and credible. “Based on what?”, you might ask.
    I suspect that it has to be based on the internal evidence accessible to someone with her background. Things like an appearance of fairness; objectivity; and most importantly, intellectual maturity. I’ll bet she doesn’t care for Rush at all, so of course she wouldn’t like PZ.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      She backed down when Watts’ denialism was pointed out. See her comments at Neuron Culture.

      • P P

        Heffernan backpeddles: “One regret: the Watts blog. Virtually everyone who emailed me pointed out that it’s as axe-grinding as anything out there. I linked to it because has a lively voice; it’s detail-oriented and seemingly not snide; and, above all, it has some beautiful images I’d never seen before. I’m a stranger to the debates on science blogs, so I frankly didn’t recognize the weatherspeak on the blog as “denialist”; I didn’t even know about denialism.”

        Ok, that rings true, or at least it rings sincere. We forgive you, Virginia. Now STFU.

        But I still think the science blogosphere has something to learn from Anthony Watts. I mean, just compare the Watts Up reader comments with those of Pharyngula. Ideological partisanship? Check, both places. Crowd psychology and sense of community? Check, both places. Average IQ above the mean, but not much above? Check, both places. Commenters argue about the interpretations and relevance of equations? Errrh! Well, certainly not at Pharyngula, but believe it or not, those right-wing anti-science yahoos who read Watts seem to be honestly attempting to learn and use the science and the models.

        Why can’t we do that?

      • bob koepp bob koepp

        No question but that Watts goes way overboard in his condemnations of the climatological received view — to the point that he actually deserves the ‘denialist’ label. He has nonetheless done a service in drawing attention to how little care has been taken to ensure the integrity of surface temperature data. This is similar, though not as sophisticated, as the game played by McIntyre. In any case, if scientists get sloppy in their work, they should expect to be called on it. And it’s not much of a defense to say that despite errors of execution, we arrived at the correct answer. That didn’t work in high school math, and it shouldn’t be accepted now.

  3. Jeb Jeb

    Yes I think thats the case it has to be based on internal evidence. Always nice to have a familiar context in which to place information.

    In my case that is history, I don’t like the way P.Z or R. Dawkins use the subject but their background is in science and my insight into biology is certainly just as bad if not worse. I am sure they are both very nice people, personal dislike should not come into such matters.

    As science moves into asking questions about culture it starts to become an interesting subject for me where I had no interest in it before. It starts to become relevant and i can start to evaluate it with far greater clarity as the context is at times very familiar.

    If science blogs engaged in some sort of call for disciplinary purity that interest is lost.

    • Jeb Jeb

      Link above to the Dark Ages is an example.

      Should also add for future ref. the term dark ages has not been used for some time in history. First changed as early med. historians got annoyed as much light has been shed on the subject and the term is somewhat misleading; but some later historians also consider the change was due to it’s being racist (don’t see it myself as you have to take the use of dark somewhat out of context but some historians do get very upset about it’s usage on this point)

  4. Mark Mark

    Very interesting discussion from Zimmer. Has any philosopher of biology done work on that kind of intentionality in sexual selection; the ‘meaning’ of the displays?

  5. Perplexed in Peoria Perplexed in Peoria

    Your Ken Waters PhilPapers link sent me off on a binge of downloading, reading, and link-following in the field of Philosophy of Science. Teller, Cartwright, Wimsatt, and more Waters. I’m done now, and still digesting. Not sure whether to thank you or barf all over you.

    The theme of all these papers is something that might be called “explanatory pluralism”. Some of the authors express approval of “fictional models”, which they believe are often more useful than the best non-fictional models in some particular field. This paper by Paul Teller seems to be something of a type specimen. The abstract mentions “ontological pluralism”.

    John, I’m wondering whether you have ever weighed in with an endorsement or critique of this viewpoint. Or whether you think I am making a mistake in collecting these philosophers together under the same banner.

    One reason why I was intrigued by this stuff is that the recent spate of talk about “Moral Responsibility and Free Will” in the neighboring blogosphere left me muttering to myself “Why can’t we all just pretend to be Cartesian dualists?”

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      The pluralism versus monism debate rages unabated for the last fifty or more years. Since Nancy Cartwright pointed out that laws of nature are not universal, but that we live in a “dappled” world where models have at best partial application (a PoV that I read much earlier in Brian Ellis’ work), the problem has been: do we have reason to think that an idealised physics would cover all phenomena; i.e., can science be unified? If we are forced into methodological pluralism, and I think we are, are our models simply useful fictions?

      I think this pessimism is unwarranted. We can presume that there is an indefinitely large number of ways of empirically adequately representing complex phenomena, and that at any time we may have a model that is adequate but not true. However, this is a problem in insufficient information and computational capacity rather than a postmodern view that there is no underlying ontology.

      The problem arises from thinking that the only ontology worth the name is one derived from a theory; a view that began with Pierre Duhem and was taken up by Quine. If ontology is just what is derived from bound variables in a theory then so long as there are many theories, there are many ontologies, and they may not be mappable from one model to another. But if you presume that ontology is something models attempt to represent, rather than the other way around, then the issue evaporates, IMO.

  6. Thanks for this–you inspired me to consider the opposite: that epiphenomalist arguments like Strawson’s are a kind of pre-emptive argument from consequences, given the oppressive nature of believing oneself to have moral responsibility, and only limited power to use it well. (The human condition).

  7. Joyce’s paper is interesting, but the argument seems to me to be very weak at crucial points. The hammer argument, that evolutionary data cannot provide the right sort of functionality for morals, for instance, shows that function alone is not morality, but who thinks it is? On the views he’s considering, morality arises not out of bare functionality but out of how that affects our solutions to practical problems. And his reading of the criticisms of Darwin’s critics seems to me to be false: Cobbe and Mivart attack Darwin not for moral nativism but for utilitarianism, which in the period is the exactly opposite position. He’s not a utilitarian, properly speaking; but they attack him as one because the real locus of the dispute is between those who locate our native moral capacities in sentiment (as Darwin does) and those who locate it in reason (as Cobbe and Mivart do); the latter take the former to be conceding the whole game to the utilitarians. They criticize him, in other words, for pulling the ground out from under our native moral capacities, not for accepting the claim that we have such capacities. Joyce’s characterization of moral nativism is not sufficient to distinguish the two positions, and thus we have the oddity of two moral nativists being cited as examples of criticism of moral nativism.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      That’s an interesting reply. Perhaps you should contact Joyce about it? He asks for responses.

  8. Australians are more evowise than Finns.
    In Australia 71% accept evolution (only 67% in Finland). Only 10% don’t “believe” at all in evolution.

    AiG does bad work there 😉

  9. Bill Birky Bill Birky

    Concerning your entry “For instance, Deep Sea News discusses a new species concept for asexuals. The paper is open access and DSN’s Kevin Zelnio asks whether it is different from the phylogenetic species concept (which one?). I wonder if it is different from the phenetic species concept/OTU. It uses an arbitrary metric for inclusion.”

    If you read our paper, you will see that our 4x rule, or more appropriately our K/theta method, is not even remotely an arbitrary metric. Instead it is based on population genetic theory. It uses that theory to distinguish between two kinds of clusters of organisms that have similar sequences: temporary clusters formed within species by stochastic processes, and those that represent different species under the evolutionary species concept.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Bill, thanks for the comment, but I fear that this doesn’t resolve the matter. Is it your claim that in all species of organism, the 4x rule must apply, or is it the case that under certain assumptions of population structure, recombination, panmixis, and so on, the 4x rule applies? If the latter, then your criterion is at best applicable only to those taxa that satisfy these conditions. At worst it is a matter of arbitrary choice.

      However, I ask this in all seriousness: is it true of all taxa, because if it is, then you really do have a test of taxa? If it is only for particular kinds of asexuals, then I have problems with it as a universal criterion. I really do not know the answer to this.

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