Friday Fluff – January 21st, 2011

By Razib Khan | January 21, 2011 2:54 pm


1) First, a post from the past: Neandertal & H. sapiens sapiens interbreeding.

2) Weird search query of the week: “nicole kidman androgen insensitivity”. I thought she had a baby a few years ago? Say it ain’t so!

3) Comment of the week, in response to The Assyrians and Jews: 3,000 years of common history:

Dear Discover Magazine Editor,

I am writing to you to inform you that Razib Khan, the author of your Gene Expression Blog, has used ideas from my linearpopulation blog without citing my work.

His January 17th article “Assyrians and Jews: 3000 years of common history” is only one of the latest examples. In it, he and David Wesolowski, whom he cites, have used material from my articles, including:

Ashkenazi and Syrian Jews:

Eurogenes K10 Middle East Admixture Results:

Syria to Assyria: 3500 years of Demic Diffusion

In addition to lacking a citation for these articles, he has used material from numerous other articles on my blog without citation.

I trust that you will help Razib tighten up his attention to citation.
Should he fail to do this, I have sufficient evidence to proceed with this matter further.

Marnie Dunsmore
Author: linear population model blog

The more I’ve looked into this (thanks to some pointers from Paul) the more it seems likely that there’s something off with this person (who rambles on about “copyright law” in a forum about DNA and ancestry?). Not only are many of her ideas already in Peter Bellwood’s First Farmers (published 5 years ago) and in the source materials Paul provided me (again, written before Marnie’s posts), but she seems to have utilized results which David, Paul, Justin Loe, etc., generously provided. I deem it incredibly ungrateful to turn around and claim improper appropriation by someone (David) whose work you so directly relied upon in the first place.

4) My posts on “baby bloggers” elicited some negative reaction on twitter as being a) condescending (because of the title) b) elitist and unwelcoming. I guess some people found the term off-putting because of the term “babies.” That’s fine. But I do need to mention something, Bora indicated that sensitivity is about calling people what they want to be called. I think this is bullshit. Sensitivity operates with a particular normative framework. As a self-identified conservative and right-winger I run into plenty of insensitive name-calling in the science blogosphere of groups and people who are not on the same wavelength culturally and politically. For example, look at the way Mike the Mad Biologist sometimes speaks. I don’t really care personally. Politics isn’t too important to me, and I generally am more interested in science (I also think it is totally acceptable and cool for Mike to be insensitive to get his points across; I think a uniform demand for sensitivity is overrated). Being within the American science culture means having to accept Left-liberal presuppositions as normative. Most of your peers are going to be liberal, with entailed concerns and preoccupations. But, when you’re within that culture as an insider you can sometimes confuse disputable norms as simply the objective facts of the universe. As an outsider I observe that all the time, and I don’t really care. If it bothered me perhaps I could turn my intellectual energies to Austrian economics, and embed myself in a social & political culture more in keeping with my normative preferences. But I find Austrian economics boring, and natural science not boring (also, I suspect most enthusiasts for Austrian economics are 40 year old virgins). So the calculation is a no-brainer for me. All that being said, since on a deep level I don’t share the same norms and outlooks as many of the people in the science blogging community a lot of the “policing” of boundaries which would make sense for someone who shares common presuppositions is wasted on me. The disagreement runs way, way, up the decision tree. It would be a waste of time to rehash it all the time. My very mind is insensitive. So unless the kommissars have a reprogramming pill generally silence is the most prudent strategy for me. Alas, I’m not always silent, ergo, these sorts of confusions and blow ups.

This brings me to Joe Hanson’s comments. He perceived my post as “elitist” and having “caste-system implications.” SM pointed out that the latter comment was hilariously and inadvertently kind of insensitive. After all, my family is from the upper stratum of South Asian society! (though “upper stratum” of South Asian society doesn’t mean much in my opinion) But that wasn’t Joe’s intention, so I’d be an asshole to pretend as if I was offended. I wasn’t. The bigger issue is the idea that I am “elitist,” focusing on “good” blogs. This is where my normative differences from much of the science blogosphere pops up: I am an elitist, and I think it’s fine. There are good blog writers, and mediocre blog writers, and crappy ones. Depending on how you transform the scale it’s probably normally distributed, with very few good blog writers. Since Joe is a doctoral student in biology at UT Austin I think it’s kind of rich of him to talk about elitism as if it’s a terrible thing. Most Americans by the nature of their lives are embedded in institutions predicated on hierarchy, elites and masses, and ascension up a ladder of attainment through merit. If you’re writing a blog on the internet you’re part of the elite on an international scale. You’ve got an internet connection, and probably aren’t starving. So you draw the line somewhere.

More pointedly, how do you distinguish “good” vs. “bad” weblogs? Well, to some extent it’s subjective. But not always. Here’s my own personal perspective:

1) Stuff that is written intelligibly, that I’m interested in, and can comprehend at a non-superficial level (i.e., I can follow the contingency of the arguments easily)

2) Stuff that is written intelligibly, that I’m interested in

3) Stuff that is written intelligibly, that I’m not interested in

4) Stuff that isn’t written intelligibly

A blog I would promote would fall into #1, by and large. In the case of #2 there are plenty of blogs which I dabble in and am interested in, but whose subject matter I can’t evaluate with any real depth. Since the amount of traffic and attention I command is finite, and frankly modest, my optimal strategy for promoting “good content” is to link the hell out of blogs who I know produce good content, because it is within my powers to evaluate good content. Many blogs which I can evaluate are written without much energy and effort, and sporadically. My threshold for stylistic elegance is probably lower than the norm though (glass houses and all). And then there are topics I’m just not interested in.

But even taking into account subjectivity of preference and taste, there’s an element of determinism in who bubbles to the top of the blog hierarchies. Some people who are great scientists do not make great expositors of science. If that were not true I think we’d read much more compelling scientific prose. In contrast, there are scientists who are not exceptional as scientists who can produce great prose. Tim Ferris was apparently not a great physics student, but turned out to be a great writer of physics. People have different strengths. Human inequality is a fact of the universe. Being short or tall, stupid or smart, a bad writer or a good writer, doesn’t mean that you’re worth any less or more as a human being. It’s just an evaluation of your talents. And talent varies.

To me this is so self-evidently true that I don’t even argue about. If you disagree, it’s like disagreeing about the existence of God to me. We’ll agree to disagree. That being said, there is an element of chance and contingency. I started blogging in 2002, and aside from Derek Lowe, I may be the longest continuously active science blogger around. That’s a huge reason why I’m moderately prominent at this point. Which is why I am on the look out for “baby bloggers” whom I can promote. I think that if a good blogger keeps plugging away, generating content for free years on end, they will be noticed. But you can accelerate the time until recognition, and I try to do that when I can.

Finally, someone on twitter was taken aback that I stated that “science communication” wasn’t my thing, since I am a blogger at Discover Magazine blogs. My response is simple: I do what I do. I have my own reasons and am not deeply reflective about it. I’m always way behind on reading papers, doing statistical analysis, etc. My TODO list continuously grows. I don’t have a great interest in sparing marginal units of mental energy on thinking systematically about communicating science, I just rush forth and produce content as well and fast as I can. I do pay some attention to what people like Bora and Ed Yong have to say; they have more of a scientific grasp of what I have only an artistic sense of.

Contrary to what some of my readers who I happen to have met in real life have thought, I have a life outside of the internet. I chill with my boys, and other people who are important in my life. I don’t read as much fiction or watch as many films as I probably should, but I do that on occasion. I like to have a good meal at a fancy restaurant now and then. A long time reader was shocked a few years ago when I disclosed that I was a fan of the Whit Stillman film The Metropolitan (it’s freely available on the IMDB website, and I linked it up). But that’s because I consciously leave a lot of my personal life off the internet. I don’t see that it’s your business. But when it comes to the blog I tend to view it more as intellectual blood-sport. In the comments my goal is to extract the maximal amount of analytic and factual juice I can from readers. In the proper contexts in “real life” I engage in the same behavior, though in this case it takes the form of a barrage of facts and concepts and a demand from my interlocutors to elaborate in as much detail as possible their own viewpoints. This isn’t to show that I’m “smarter,” I’m a modestly endowed human when it comes to CPU (compared to most of my readers as the reference, not the general human population, which is alas depressingly 486). I don’t care if I “win” or “lose” the argument, that’s not the point, and when I see a commenter engage in that sort of lawyerly behavior they’re on my permanent shit list (I have a long memory and I hold grudges; I’m not proud of that, but those are aspects of my personality which have been invariant over my life). I have the lowest regard for intelligent people who are clearly using their intelligence to forward weak arguments through clever and adroit use of rhetoric. In my book that’s immoral, at least if you don’t have a professional interest in the obfuscation. I want to get as informed and as smart as I can before I expire. Good  faith is required for that. Now honestly, what the hell kind of strategy is this for “science communication”? I’m depicting myself as a cognitive parasite, attempting to suck my readers dry as much as possible. But it seems to work for some readers. I’m totally OK with some mutualism, and even commensalism.

So that’s my philosophy and stuff. My original post was inspired by Jason Goldman’s. I thought I was doing a mitzvah. Well, that blew up in my face. Live & learn. Back to your regularly scheduled programming. I’m always way behind on papers as I said, so I’m giving no thought to science communication until ScienceOnline2012 (Josh Roseneau is already talking about a panel on data visualization and blogging. I’ll be needing a speech-code pamphlet to make sure I don’t transgress).

5) And finally, your weekly fluff fix:


Comments (6)

  1. just an afterthought, a friend who happens to read my blog had the same reaction as some of my readers at the idea that i’m a conservative: total incredulity. that being said, the few people who know me very well generally accept that i’m a conservative. take that how you want.

  2. Rich

    “I have the lowest regard for intelligent people who are clearly using their intelligence to forward weak arguments through clever and adroit use of rhetoric.”

    Can I print this out in trillion-point font and paste it across public buildings worldwide?

  3. rich, it’s not just rhetoric. smart people know stuff, and know concepts, and they can play shell games and out argue the less intelligent even when the less intelligent have the right side of the argument. i generally blow a gasket when i see this happening. it’s an obscene utilization of intelligence. also, if u are “google punditing” i’m also not too exciting, when i suspect ppl are doing this i replicate some queries and quickly figure out how you fish out a fact to support your preconceptions.

  4. Illegitimi non carborundum. (Don’t let the bastards grind you down.)

  5. Åse

    >I’m depicting myself as a cognitive parasite, attempting to suck my readers dry as much as possible.

    Well, considering how much cool intellectual juice (and book recommendations – for some reason the two War books stick out), I’d consider it good old reciprocity. (Hey, I’m sitting here slurping up lots of cognitively good stuff, and providing very little back).

    I liked the baby blog stuff.

  6. I like to think of myself as a very sensitive person. My feelings are hurt.

    Seriously, most of the people I whack I’m not interested in ‘converting’: I’ve given up on them, so drawing clear distinctions serves my nefarious purposes far better.

    And it’s a lot more fun.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar