A Blog Around The Clock

Janet Stemwedel a.k.a. Dr.Free-Ride is the blogmistress of Adventures in Ethics and Science and the Science Blogging Conference last month was her second appearance here – last year she was the Keynote Blogger-Speaker and this year she led a session on Science Blogging Ethics.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your scientific background? What is your Real Life job?

Hi Bora, thanks for having me!

I’m a middle-aged, almost mid-career academic who came from the East Coast to the San Francisco Bay Area for grad school and ended up staying. I’ve been teaching for more than half my life, parenting for going on nine years, and constantly renegotiating my relationship with the tribe of science without being able to quit it entirely.

I used to think I was going to be a chemist when I grew up — and went so far as to finish a Ph.D. in chemistry (focused on the dynamics of far-from-equilibrium chemical systems that display interesting behaviors like oscillations). But on the verge of packing up and starting a postdoc, it became clear to me that the questions that really captivated me weren’t so much questions in chemistry as questions about chemistry, and about science more generally.

Luckily, since I had double majored in chemistry and philosophy as an undergraduate, I knew that the kind of question keeping me up at night actually had a field of its own: the philosophy of science. The hard part was realizing that if I wanted to be a philosopher of science, I had to go back and do another Ph.D. There is nothing quite as surreal as defending your dissertation and then, two weeks later, sitting for the GREs.

Currently, my real life job title is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at San Jose State University. See Mom, I didn’t end up living on your couch!

What do you want to do/be when you grow up?

I’d like to be tenured. (Ask about that again at the end of May and I should know whether that aspiration was successful.)

Beyond that, I’d like to be a sort of “cool aunt” to the scientific community, especially to the people training to be scientists and trying to imagine themselves as grown-up scientists.

What do I mean by that? I’d like to give the advice and encouragement that people need to navigate the community, but that they feel awkward talking directly to their scientific “parents” about. (Don’t forget, sometimes it’s your relationship with the cool aunt that makes it possible for you to communicate better with your parents.) And I’d like to get that community of scientists talking to each other more than they seem to now about all sorts of things — like ethics, and different ways the scientific enterprise could be set up that might make life better for everyone.

Once I have that under control, I’d like to learn how to play drums.

When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favorites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while following the Conference?

I first came to science blogs by way of philosophy blogs — I found Panda’s Thumb through the dear departed Philosophy of Biology blog, and Pharyngula through Brian Leiter’s blog. I think Bitch Ph.D. was probably where I started coming across the more personal blogs by scientists about the patterns of academic life.

There are so many great science blogs that I’d be hard pressed to come up with a list of favorites shorter than my blogroll. Some that I started reading in earnest after SBC ’08 are I Love Science, Really, The Inverse Square Blog, and Pondering Pikaia.

i-b73155f19b5cff481078045a80721cd3-JanetPic.jpgHow are science bloggers different from all the other bloggers in regards to ethical behavior online (and offline).

My sense is that the science-y neighborhoods of the blogosphere show a tendency to want to back up claims with evidence, and to want to “show the work” on the inferences drawn from the evidence. This isn’t to say that only the folks blogging about science do this, mind you, but it feels like this is part of our identity as scientists or friends of science. Reality is where we live, and we think it’s a pretty nice place most of the time.

I’m not sure I could say anything sensible about offline behavior without a much larger network of informants than I have in place at present.

A couple of years ago, there were attempts to write a Bloggers Code of Ethics, which were overwhelmingly rejected by bloggers of all kinds. More recently, some suggested writing a Science-Bloggers Code of Ethics. Why is this a bad idea?

I’m deeply suspicious of the power of codes per se to influence behavior. Most professions have professional organizations whose websites proclaim a list of principles to which members of those professions are officially committed. I’m willing to bet most people who belong to those organizations couldn’t tell you what’s in their code.

More than that, I don’t know that a particular set of rules can make people ethical. It may coax some letter-of-the-law compliance, and it will encourage folks to find loopholes, but robust ethical behavior comes from people who are in touch with their own values and in an ongoing conversation with the other people in their community about the shared interests, goals, and values that define them as a community. A code may sometimes capture the shared commitments that come out of such an ongoing dialogue, but I doubt that a code can force individual buy-in to the values or to the community.

What is the goal of the Science Blogging Ethics wiki?

The hope is to have a place for a continuing dialogue about our values as community of people blogging about science (in lots of different ways).

I think we can gain a lot by being in an ongoing discussion about what practices are better ones for our various aims, which seem to range from explaining scientific theory or research results to non-experts, to talking about methodology, or career development, or teaching, or what science has to do with everyday life, or what the everyday life of a scientist looks like. We can learn from each other’s experiences, including the mistakes. And one good outcome of such a discussion might be for people blogging about science to start seeing themselves as a community.

I noticed something interesting. Whenever there is a blog-war between sciblings, once it gets really red-hot and nasty, we all start checking out your blog, waiting for you to post about it. Then, when you do, and you tell one scibling to sit in the corner for 30 minutes and the other scibling to write “I will be nice to my sciblings” a hundred times on a piece of paper, everything calms down. Where does that authority of yours come from? The Friday Sprog Blogging? We are all very hot-headed and independent folks, yet we always agree that Janet has the last word. How come?

I don’t know that I have any special “authority” — certainly, the sprogs would dispute the assertion that I do — and I’m pretty sure I never literally sent anyone to the corner or to the chalkboard.

But, I do have this thing I do where I try to understand the source of disagreements, and to figure out where the different sides in the argument are coming from. At least in spats within the community of science bloggers, it’s hardly ever the case that one side is wrong about everything — the bloggers involved are too smart, and too committed to some kind of intellectual honesty. So I generally go in trying to work out what each side is trying to get across, and why the other side isn’t getting it.

This probably comes from my philosophical training to come up with the least crazy thing your opponent could be claiming before you offer a good argument against it. Maybe there’s also a little bit of parental patience in there, too. But I’d guess that what really motivates me to try to be the voice of reason heading off blogwars in the science district of blogtopia is that I feel like I *know* a lot of the people involved well before the shouting starts. I start from the assumption that these people I know and like and respect can find some common ground, and that they’re more interested in working out how things actually are than in just winning the argument.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean there aren’t disagreements that persist. But I think we can find ways to engage each other and explore these disagreements that aren’t just shouting matches.

Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

The student blogging panel — especially, the discussion on that panel of advisors who take a dim view of blogging graduate students — made me think hard about what part we professorial types should play in changing the academic culture. If any time away from work is seen as an indication of insufficient commitment, that’s either going to convince budding scientists (or academics of other stripes) that they’re not allowed to have other facets of their lives, or that they have to hide them. We can do better. I hope that openly having a life beyond my research and teaching, and arguing in my tenure dossier that my blogging is a kind of engagement with the larger world that enhances my professional activities rather than undercutting them, will start to shift the expectations in a more humane direction.

It was so nice to see you and thank you for the interview.

It’s always fun to see you, Bora! I hope that one of the next times we see each other we can celebrate your defending your dissertation.



Check out all the interviews in this series.


  1. #1 PhysioProf
    February 24, 2008

    Beyond that, I’d like to be a sort of “cool aunt” to the scientific community, especially to the people training to be scientists and trying to imagine themselves as grown-up scientists.

    This means you have to let them smoke their first joint in your basement.

    I’m deeply suspicious of the power of codes per se to influence behavior. Most professions have professional organizations whose websites proclaim a list of principles to which members of those professions are officially committed. I’m willing to bet most people who belong to those organizations couldn’t tell you what’s in their code.

    Codes of professional responsibility for attorneys are an exception. All JD programs have a complete required course in professional responsibility, law students must pass a standardized test on professional responsibility to be admitted to the bar, and professional responsibility is a respectable topic for original research by law professors.

  2. #2 Dr. Free-Ride
    February 24, 2008

    Unfortunately, I don’t have a basement. Will the shed in the back yard suffice?

  3. #3 PhysioProf
    February 24, 2008

    Not that I would know, but I have heard that backyard sheds can be used as weed-smoking havens.

    BTW, that is fucking nuts that you have two Ph.D.s! Do you sign your correspondence, “Janet Stemwedel, Ph.D, Ph.D.”?

  4. #4 Coturnix
    February 24, 2008


  5. #5 Dr. Free-Ride
    February 24, 2008

    “Potting sheds,” eh?

    Usually a single instance of “Ph.D.” after one’s name is enough to either inspire respect or terror in one’s correspondent. Thus, I usually keep the redundancy on a need-to-know basis.

    (Looking right now at my sig on my official work email, I don’t even include one Ph.D. in it. Hmm…)

  6. #6 DrugMonkey
    February 24, 2008

    “middle-aged”….???!! MIDDLE FARKIN’ AGED!?!?!!?!!?!?

    ‘k, ‘k, technically, demographically, yeah, yeah.

    but damn, girl, do you have to come right out and say it?

  7. #7 Dr. Free-Ride
    February 24, 2008

    I’m not afraid to be middle-aged. The middle’s a good place to be. And I don’t especially miss young-and-stupid (at least, as I partook of it).

  8. #8 PhysioProf
    February 24, 2008

    And I don’t especially miss young-and-stupid (at least, as I partook of it).

    Me neither. Nope. Not at all. Not one bit.

  9. #9 Abel Pharmboy
    February 24, 2008

    Hey, I thought that the pride of Bergen County wasn’t going to be middle-aged until Wednesday?

  10. #10 Dr. Free-Ride
    February 24, 2008

    I’m easing into it. I’m pretty sure the lines defining middle age are not so sharp. (Of course, I’m not wearing my glasses right now …)

  11. #11 DrugMonkey
    February 24, 2008

    as I partook of it

    is there any reference to youth that uses the word “partook” that does not refer to schmokinsamwee…?

    And PP, everyone knows the shed is for smoking out. The mildewed basement of favored aunt is traditionally the location for gettin’ bizzy on that ancient mouldering cat-favored couch…

  12. #12 Super Sally
    February 26, 2008

    See Mom, I didn’t end up living on your couch!

    Good thing, because at times during that period we did not have a couch to sleep on, and at other times we couldn’t find it for all the stuff on it (like now).

    Re: middle aged, at least from tomorrow on

    I don’t want to discuss what that makes me. But I’m still trying to grown up.

    Drums could be in your future, as long as we live in a different state, or until my hearing is radically more impaired than currently. And what does your better half think about this goal of yours? Probably ought to wait to acquire them until at least 2 of the books on the docket are actually written and submitted.

  13. #13 Super Sally
    February 27, 2008

    So now you have reached your self-defined “middle” age. Happy 40th Birthday!

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