Research Blogging / BPR3 is in open Beta


This could be some­thing major for blog­ging. BPR3 has opened up its aggreg­ator on a trial basis to blog­gers at ResearchBlogging​.org. It’s a site with a handy icon to identify when someone is blog­ging about peer-reviewed research. It’s also an aggreg­ator for these posts. This gets inter­est­ing because you can browse by cat­egory, like Anthropology. Historians have to make do with the Other cat­egory for now, but if it takes off amongst his­tor­i­ans and clas­si­cists then it seems a new cat­egory would be feasible.

What I par­tic­u­larly like about is is the cita­tion gen­er­ator. This puts all cita­tions in the same format and when you visit the homepage you can see the open­ing of the blog post, and the paper it cites. I sus­pect the gen­er­ator works eas­ily with a DOI, but that’s rare in archae­ology and ancient his­tory at the moment. Thankfully the manual entry isn’t painful.

To work with it, I’ve cre­ated a new cat­egory here Research Blogging. The first entry will be com­ments Peter Heslin’s new paper in JRS on the Horologium Augusti which goes live 23rd of January. I’m already get­ting searches for that. Hopefully there’ll be a weekly or fort­nightly addi­tion of other papers. I may also see about ret­ro­act­ively tag­ging some of the older papers.

I’m very pleased because I wanted to think of a way to deal with dif­fer­ence between research you can check and research you can only read about in a press-release. The first draft of that poem’s fin­ished and will go live Thursday.

Strange sights in Stephenville


Paved Bricks of Stephenville
I don’t know what this thing in Stephenville, TX, is. Ergo it’s a Mystery. Photo (cc) Broken Piggy Bank.

If you haven’t been fol­low­ing the press reports, there’s been a UFO flap in Stephenville. The best write-up of it I’ve seen is by Astroprof, who’s put up a couple of entries on it. He’s of the opin­ion that first it’s uniden­ti­fied. He also argues that the wit­ness state­ments don’t add up. For instance can any­one see the prob­lem of a UFO one mile long, half a mile wide, fly­ing just a few hun­dred yards above a town of 17,000 people and only 30 people noti­cing? I think there’s a few dif­fi­culties in say­ing that people saw a UFO like that. At the same time that doesn’t mean that the people who did see some­thing were delu­sional or lying.

Newsweek opens its art­icle on the flap by pla­cing the event in the con­text of evol­u­tion­ary his­tory. Humans are social anim­als and for most of the past we’ve also been hunted anim­als. We’ve needed to learn to spot intent. The psy­cho­logy behind that doesn’t have to be per­fect. There’s a com­prom­ise between speed and qual­ity of judge­ment. Spotting intent where there isn’t may have a pen­alty, but fail­ing to spot intent where it is could be fatal. There can also be pen­al­ties if you take time for reflec­tion. Our brains may still hold the soft­ware that knows hanging around to watch a sabre-tooth tiger does before it attacks is a Bad Idea. That would be triggered again if you think you’re being observed by intel­li­gent and power­ful beings of unknown intent. The people who have seen UFOs, of vari­ous types, around Stephenville are not idi­ots or con­men, they’re simply being human.

Astroprof’s follow-up post is inter­est­ing because it tackles the intel­lec­tual bank­ruptcy of simply throw­ing up your hands and exclaim­ing “It’s a mys­tery!” One of the UFOs is pho­to­graphed and the pho­to­grapher did a great job. It’s good enough to be able to see that it’s a sun­dog. The misid­en­ti­fic­a­tion is not the fault of pho­to­grapher. We’re grow­ing more detached from the nat­ural world. It explains the irony that Pliny the Elder knew more about sun­dogs than many mod­ern journ­al­ists do today, des­pite the bene­fit of 2000 years of research. What Texan journ­al­ists have which the Romans didn’t have (nor the Peruvians in the puna) is access to sci­ent­ists who have spent years study­ing phe­nom­ena. You’d think that the local paper in Texas could do bet­ter, but for some reason it doesn’t.

The Fort Worth Star-Tribune report that went with the report is poor. Laughably poor if you don’t live near Fort Worth. What hap­pens if you want to report an appar­i­tion of spir­its for a news­pa­per? Obviously you inter­view the wit­ness, and the Star-Tribune does this. You can also inter­view the local witch-doctors. The Star-Tribune inter­views MUFON, a UFO net­work which knows Our Universe is TEEMING with LIFE, but hasn’t got round to claim­ing the Randi mil­lion yet. It doesn’t mean they’re not inter­est­ing people. It doesn’t mean they should not be inter­viewed. It’s simply that some­thing is missing.

You could also inter­view a sci­ent­ist. Even an under­gradu­ate in met­eor­o­logy could be a help. There’s no com­ment from a sci­ent­ist in the Star-Tribune. Why? It could be that sci­ent­ists aren’t access­ible in Fort Worth, which might be Texas’ con­tri­bu­tion to the Third World. It could be that a large pro­por­tion of the edit­or­ial staff are sci­en­tific­ally illit­er­ate. If they didn’t know that the pic­ture was sci­en­tific­ally explic­able then it wouldn’t occur to them to talk to a sci­ent­ist. If that’s the case the paper needs to send report­ers for train­ing as soon as pos­sible. The final option paints the Star-Tribune in a worse light. The paper could think that its read­ers don’t need or can’t cope with basic sci­entific inform­a­tion. That would be tre­mend­ous sig­nal of con­tempt for the reader.

The cyn­ical response is there is money to be made. The longer people are ignor­ant the longer it’s a story and the longer the period money can be made. Deliberately ignor­ing or with­hold­ing simple inform­a­tion also shows con­tempt for the people of Stephenville. If there is money being made, very few of the cit­izen of the town will see it. The papers will sell adverts, if it catches on tele­vi­sion com­pan­ies will sell pro­grammes. None of this is about find­ing answers. It’s about plant­ing fear some­where else to make a quick buck.

It’s also about going “Oooh mys­tery!” without ever con­tem­plat­ing what mys­tery means. It’s not a mys­tery that some­thing is unex­plained if you choose to be ignor­ant. True mys­ter­ies are things which have defied explan­a­tions so far. Despite efforts dat­ing back to Plato, at least, people have been try­ing to work out if life could exist bey­ond the earth. So far the answer has remained unknown des­pite every intel­lec­tual assault any­one could through at it. In con­trast simply declar­ing a mys­tery unknow­able and giv­ing up research can only gen­er­ate a very limp enigma.

Finally it’s about a nar­row and paro­chial view of the uni­verse. The exist­ence of alien life is a mys­tery. It may exist, it may not. Either way if we find the answer it will be one of the great dis­cov­er­ies of all time. But if you actu­ally look for answers you can find more mys­tery. Wouldn’t you like to know what con­di­tions make vis­ions of phantom suns? Aren’t you curi­ous to know if your rational self is still haunted by its Palaeolithic ori­gins? What’s hap­pen­ing in Stephenville is inter­est­ing. It would be a shame if they only ever got a one-dimensional par­ody of an answer.