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Post by Ruthanna Gordon

On-line and interactive is an interesting way to learn about science. But it can also be a useful—if uncomfortable—way to do science.

When most people think about science, they think about lab work: setting up equipment, running experiments, and gathering data. But science is also what happens afterward. Once data is collected and written up, the research usually undergoes peer review. This is not a complicated process. Journal editors send an article out to other researchers (usually 3), and ask them to comment on its merits. Reviewers can ask for further explanation, or additional studies to rule out competing explanations for the findings. Sometimes they decide that the study wasn’t sufficiently well-done to share with the wider public at all; more often they demand changes that make for stronger, if somewhat delayed, published work.

The Peer Review Process

Many researchers have questioned the peer review process. Reviewers may be biased, positively or negatively. They may miss problems because they are caught up in the excitement of an interesting finding, because they are distracted by their own studies, or because they are fitting the review into 37 free minutes at 2 AM. As Winston Churchill said of democratic government, it’s the worst possible system, except for all the others we’ve tried. But the collaborative hothouse of the internet opens up new possibilities.

These possibilities were highlighted late last year, when NASA-funded scientist Felisa Wolfe-Simon announced her discovery of arsenic-based life in a California lake. This work had undergone peer review and been published in one of the world’s most prestigious journals, then brought to public attention amid intense hype. Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues were somewhat startled to find their work subjected to an informal, and often snide, supplement to the original review—but with dozens of well-informed reviewers rather than a handful.

Arsenic-Rich Mono Lake, Source of the Controversial Bacteria

There is an excellent overview here, but in brief: several scientists criticized Wolfe-Simon’s methods and measurements, questioning her conclusions. She, and NASA, responded by suggesting that the peer review process was not only important, but the only legitimate venue for scientific critique. They dismissed the input from blogs and Twitter—on the basis that it occurred on blogs and Twitter. And they used the journal’s prestige as a defense against the very real questions of fact raised by their critics.

There’s always some tension between science and scientists. Science works by constantly seeking evidence against claims, accepting only those which are supported by the observed state of the world. Technically speaking, every experiment should be a whole-hearted attempt to prove that one is wrong—because one can only be sure of being right when that disproof fails. Scientists, however, depend on rightness for their livelihood and reputation. If you successfully disprove all your hypotheses for several years, universities and grant-givers consider you a failure. Furthermore, scientists are human, and we like to be right.

The peer review process is intended as a counter to these human tendencies. It is not the only one possible: any expansion of informed debate and criticism is good for science. That the criticism is informed—that it comes from people who understand and are involved with the field in question—is important. That it come from a traditional venue is not. Online forums provide a rich environment for discussion, facilitating a more collaborative and extended critique than was previously possible.

Some scientists take deliberate advantage of 2.0 review. A few journals print any paper that appears to have valid methods, with review as an ongoing and public process. Other sites are devoted to “post-publication peer review.” Although these methods have their weak points, they have the potential to fill some of the gaps in the more traditional system. And as these innovations become more familiar, one hopes that more researchers will welcome them—and that their research will become stronger as a result.

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Post by Henderson

It’s hard to find a better example of science in storytelling than Radiolab.

Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich are always funny and contemporary.  After listening to any of their stories, you almost feel like you played a part in the show.

You already know that they bring you great science stories, surrounding your ears with a virtual cornucopia of audio delight.

What you may not know is that they are bringing this 3D audio experience to your eyes via the Hyper Audio Experiment.

It still has the same great audio, but it includes photos and scrolling transcripts.

Radiolabs Hyper Audio Experiment

Check out the ‘lab’s experiment with their latest episode on the topic of symmetry. They describe it as a work in progress, and are looking for feedback.

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With the recent unrest in the Middle East, it’s important to recognize the role of social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Still in their relative infancy, these two networks allow you to catch up with old friends and create new ones.  They also allow people the world over a way to communicate in ways previously unimaginable.  Individuals and governments realize the importance of staying connected through these networks.  Having these networks open is tantamount to an open and free society.

Facebook and Twitter feeds, constantly updated, were the reason that so many were able to quickly organize and demonstrate in Tarir Square.

And this is just the beginning.  As we learn more about the media that connects us, we will be able to use them in ever more meaningful ways.

What are the most effective or impressive ways that you’ve seen social media used in recent years?  What have we done, politically, scientifically, or creatively, that we could not have done without these new technologies?

On the other hand, as many of you will be checking your facebook messages  and tweeting almost every 10 minutes, do you think that the social media websites are using up a lot of your precious time? How do they affect your daily routine and worklife?

– Justin H.S. Breaux

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