Why I’ve Gone Back to Seed – or ‘Why I Blog More Happily Now’

pic of Dobbs & Thiebaud's
With this post, and with pleasure, I bring the blog formerly known as Smooth Pebbles — now Neuron Culture (mark your RSS readers!) — back to Scienceblogs.

Seventeen months ago I said farewell to this Scienceblogs home, at least for a time, because I had not found blogging a comfortable fit. Since then, however, as I blogged off in the hinterland, I’ve come to better see how this slippery but flexible form can hold a valuable place in both my own writing and in the changing world of journalism.

I’ve been particularly swayed by the work of bloggers innovatively exploiting the immediacy, constancy, and scalability of this weird form, both in science writing and elsewhere — among them Carl Zmmer, Jonah Lehrer, Vaughn Bell, Tyler Cohen, Cory Doctorow, Philip Dawdy, the people at Wall Street Journal Health Blog, and Alex Ross, to name a few.

Of all, however, the Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan, through both his example and his treatises on blogging, has been foremost in helping me see how I might blog more happily and productively,. There’s an irony in Sullivan’s influence: The biggest page hit I ever got while at Scienceblogs before was when Sullivan blogged my farewell post. It was his post that got me reading him more regularly and closely and thinking about just what he’s really doing at the Daily Dish: not just reporting, explaining, and opining — the reach of most blogs — but both stimulating and (co-)curating a set of discussions.

Sullivan’s blog and others have also shown me that blogging (for which, truly, I wish there were a prettier word) lets you track changing issues in a way that longer-form and more traditional journalism does not. As someone fond of the long form — of immersing myself in a story and then working it till it’s just so before sending it out — I had (and still have) some trouble getting comfortable with the idea of writing more quickly on subjects I care about. Yet the blog form — more quickly launched, more scaleable — lets you examine issues more steadily, repeatedly, and collaboratively than traditional journalism does, and these advantages hold an increasing attraction to me.. Some my key subjects seem especially ripe for this approach.

Consider, for instance, the almost operatic crisis growing within psychiatry right now, as scandals embarrass the discipline and the drug-dominated monoamine hypothesis of depression is transformed from a badge of empiricism to a contradiction of it. I could write a book on the convolutions psychiatry is undergoing right now, and may yet do so. Yet the blogosphere is already shaping public discussion of this issue as much as more traditional newspaper and magazine stories do — partly because blogs can visit the issue(s) more steadily and (over time) more thoroughly, and partly because the blogosphere can mix both the first-rate, invaluable mainstream reporting of people like Gardiner Harris and the digging, personal perspectives, and inside dish from people like Daniel Carlat, Philip Dawdy, Liz Spikol, and the folks at Pharmalot.

Same thing can be said for the growing momemtum for school reform, health care reform, and universal health care; the conflict in medicine between empiricism and research driven by commercial interests; and the revision of psychiatry’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual.

I hope to use this space to track and contribute to all those discussions and also to track the less complicated and laden puzzles pleasures of science and medicine, like how the brain works — not to mention music, sports, literature, and odd bits of culture.

Enough treatise. You actually came here for links? Okay: Below the fold, a few things I might have blogged on this past week had I not been enjoying the holidays, doing the drudge techy work of transferring this blog over from Typepad, and writing this:

Continue reading →

E.J. Dionne on the Arne Duncan choice

E.J. Dionne makes an interesting observation about Obama’s pick of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education.

Because Duncan gets along with teachers unions but is also seen as a reformer, his selection was interpreted as a politically shrewd, split-the-difference choice. But that is not the whole story. Lurking behind Obama’s talk about getting beyond ideology and stale disputes is an effort to undercut the success that conservatives have enjoyed in framing arguments that leave Democrats and liberals at an automatic disadvantage.

To declare that the only test of a politician’s commitment to reform is a willingness to break with unions creates a no-win choice for Democrats. They must either betray long- standing allies or face condemnation as the captives of special interests.

Obama, said Diane Ravitch, an assistant secretary of education in the administration of George H.W. Bush, is trying to “break out” of a definition of reform drawn almost entirely from “the Republican agenda.” That agenda focuses on “being tough on the unions, offering more choices, and pushing for more accountability.” While reformers of all stripes support accountability, this list actually constrains the options for those who would improve the public schools.

Duncan has already made clear that he refuses to abide by the conventions of the current education debate. When the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal and pro-labor think tank, circulated an education manifesto that focused on expanding the services for poor children available at public schools, Duncan signed on.

This seems to me a sharp-eyed take. Obama’s effort to be post-partisan, as it were, is not merely an attempt to split differences or accommodate both sides of an argument. He seeks to change the terms of the argument, just as he did in both the primary and general elections.

A highly interesting review of Gladwell’s “Outliers”

Micheal Nielsen gets swiftly to a problem many scientists (and not a few writers) have with Gladwell’s books — and highlights their redeeming factors as well:

All three of Malcolm Gladwell’s books pose a conundrum for the would-be reviewer. The conundrum is this: while the books have many virtues, none of the books make a watertight argument for their central claims. Many scientists, trained to respect standards of proof above all else, don’t like this style. A colleague I greatly respect told me he thought Gladwell’s previous book, Blink , was “terrible”; it didn’t meet his standards of proof. Judge Richard Posner wrote a scathing review criticizing Blink on the same grounds.

Gladwell’s gift as a writer is not for justification and proof of his claims. What Gladwell does have is an extraordinary gift to use stories to explain abstract ideas in a way that is vivid and memorable, a way that brings those abstract ideas quickly to mind at later need. This shamanic gift is dangerous, for if you read his books credulously, it leaves you open to believing ideas that may be false. It%u2019s also incredibly valuable, for what you learn you internalize deeply. In my opinion, this more than makes up for whatever Gladwell’s books lack in rigorous justification.

Hat tip: Neuronarrative

Technorati Tags:
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

Rumblings and worries about Obama’s FDA options

As Obama solidifies his teams on science, education, and environment, attention — and not a little worry from the drug industry — is turning toward his hunt for a new FDA commissioner. The WSJ Health Blog reports that the FDA Commissioner Coalition, which is heavy with groups financed by the drug industry, appears increasingly concerned that Obama will appoint outspoken critics of drugmakers and the FDA, such as Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Steven Nissen or Baltimore health commissioner Joshua Sharfstein, who is heading Obama’s FDA assessment team.

While the coalition prominently talks about the need for an FDA chief who can withstand some kinds of outside pressure, there’s no mention of an ability to withstand pressure from industry. Yet undue industry influence is at the heart of concerns from both parties in both houses of Congress, from FDA officials, from doctors and many medical researchers.

A copy of the Coalition’s letter (to Secretary of Health Designate Tom Daschle) can be found at Pharmalot.

6 medical myths debunked – just in time for the holidays

Scientificblogging, drawing on apparently credible medical expertise, deflates six common med myths.

My wife will love this. I’ve cited #4 to her a million times.

6 Medical Myths Debunked For Christmas:

1. Sugar makes kids hyperactive.

2. Suicides increase over the holidays.

3. Poinsettias are toxic.

4. You lose most of your body heat through your head.

5. Eating at night makes you fat.

6. You can cure a hangover with%u2026

Great fodder for Christmas parties.

Encouraging sign that government may be going all empirical on us

Atop other Obama appointments, this is one I suspect America’s scientists will welcome. From the Washington Post:

Report: Holdren to Lead White House Science Policy

By Joel Achenbach

President-elect Obama will announce this weekend that he has selected physicist John Holdren, who has devoted much of his career to energy and environmental research, as his White House science adviser, according to a published report today.

The Obama transition office would not confirm Holdren’s selection. Last night, asked by The Post to comment on the science adviser search, Holdren responded by e-mail that he would be unable to comment because of his work with the Obama transition team.

The report today appeared online at ScienceInsider, a news blog published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Holdren served as president of AAAS in 2006.

More at Politico.com, Science, and Discover, and Dot Earth.

Free-range chimp research, Christmas tree clusters, gastrectomies, et alia

Other deadlines bar elaboration, but I wanted to draw attention to some worthwhile reading:

A good Wired Science story explores how “Free Range Research Could Save Chimps, the notion that Oil is Not the Climage Change Culprit — It’s All About Coal, and the Christmas Tree Cluster (of stars).

The Sterile Eye posts a video of a total gastrectomy.

World of Psychology has a particularly good “Mental Health Year in Review” article that reviews research highlights, the flaps over conflicts of interest and disclosure, the controversy over the legitimacy of the pediatric bipolar disorder diagnosis, and a few other tidbits. The Wall Street Journal and several other places note that the FDA is putting suicide warnings on the epilepsy drugs often used to treat bipolar disorder. And Neuronarrative calls attention to a mouse agility website. A St. Petersburg Times story — it’s wonderful to see ambitious reporting like this from a “smaller” newspaper — runs an unsettling story on drug trials being outsourced to India.

And a McKinsey report (that’s McKinsey, not Kinsey) explores why the U.S. spends $650 million a year more on health care than one would expect for a country with our population and GDP. “This picture suggests a clear opportunity for improvement,” the authors note. Let’s hope. (Hat tip: Wall Street Journal Health Blog)

And oh yes, that photo at the top is from Seed’s portfolio of images taken from the spreads it runs in its print edtion. Seriously gorgeous.

And oh yes yes yes: Overgrown Path riffs off the fact that Hendrix lived next to Handel. Foxy.


Study: Internet addiction a bunch of bunk

Is there such a thing as internet addiction? Mind Hacks says the debate should be over:

A study just published in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior has reviewed all of the available scientific studies on internet addiction and found them to be mostly crap. And not just slightly lacking, really pretty awful.

To quote from the research summary:

The analysis showed that previous studies have utilized inconsistent criteria to define Internet addicts, applied recruiting methods that may cause serious sampling bias, and examined data using primarily exploratory rather than confirmatory data analysis techniques to investigate the degree of association rather than causal relationships among variables.

Rather disappointingly though, the authors just suggest that better research is needed when it’s quite obvious that the whole concept is fundamentally flawed.


Whole (not very long) post is worth a read, as is most everything at MH.

Other commentary (also via Hacks) resides at Dr. Shock and PsychCentral. The study is here.

Oops — make that “garters!” Media errors corrected

Via Kottke

Regret the Error has released their annual roundup of media errors and corrections for 2008. The absurd corrections are always the best:

We have been asked to point out that Stuart Kennedy, of Flat E, 38 Don Street, Aberdeen, who appeared at Peterhead Sheriff Court on Monday, had 316 pink, frilly garters confiscated not 316 pink, frilly knickers.

And this:

A film review on Sept. 5 about “Save Me” confused some characters and actors. It is Mark, not Chad, who is sent to the Genesis House retreat for converting gay men to heterosexuality. (Mark is played by Chad Allen; there is no character named Chad). The hunky fellow resident is Scott (played by Robert Gant), not Ted (Stephen Lang). And it is Mark and Scott — not “Chad and Ted” — who partake of cigarettes and “furtive man-on-man action.”