On science blogs this week: Networking

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN'S NEW BLOG NETWORK IS UP AND RUNNING. For some time, Scientific American has been home to a collection of blogs that I thought of as the SciAm Network, although it was not labeled so. Now there really is a formal SciAm Blog Network. It was just announced, and it has added many bloggers. The present total is 55.

To my delight, 33 of the 55 are women. I'm pretty sure that makes the SciAm network the first science magazine blog network with a majority of bloggers who are women, and one of a very few science blog networks period. (In fact, the only other I can think of offhand is the splendid group blog Last Word on Nothing, and I'm not even sure if a group blog counts as a network. If there are others I will doubtless hear about them before the day is gone.)

I think Bora Zivkovic, the SciAm network czar, must have been listening hard at the ScienceOnline2011 session last January where we examined the fact that most science bloggers are male — and the consequences of same.

This is a very big deal, a blogging milestone most noteworthy. In celebration of which I am pointing you to a couple of exceptional past posts from blogs that are now part of the new SciAm network, plus a couple of brand-new ones.

SciCurious is a well-known long-time blogging scientist. Here's a link to her March post on a Nature paper about the relationship between the neurotransmitter serotonin and sexual preference. I loved the post at the time in part because it was a fine example of the sort of post-publication peer review that is proving so valuable — not least to helping science writers evaluate a paper more knowledgeably. Zivkovic notes that others were also enthusiastic; the post won the 3 Quarks Daily Prize. While the Nature paper was reported in the media as showing that serotonin levels regulate sexual preference, SciCurious interpreted the paper in light of the history of serotonin research on sexual behavior and laid out different possibilities.

Many blogs now on the network are not new, having been parked elsewhere previously, sometimes for several years. Melody Dye Krystal D'Costa has brought Anthropology in Practice over; it's a blog that examines our ordinary behavior (meaning mostly the ordinary behavior of urban, educated, middle-class professionals), sometimes lightheartedly, sometimes linking it to Larger Themes. Here is a post from last July, Dye D'Costa on coffee:

Coffees offer us a way to look at our relationship to the larger world and see that sometimes our choices are not really our own, to think about how brands and larger market forces can help create what appear to be stable icons in our lives. The 'me' that we have come to emphasize may be less personal than we realize.
Darwin Took Steps, by Glendon Mellow

Darwin Took Steps, by Glendon Mellow

The blog network will, of course, be home to multimedia extravaganzas, and some of the blogs will concentrate on things graphic. One of them is Symbiartic, put together by artists Kalliopi Monoyios and Glendon Mellow. Another is PsiVid, run by scientists Joanne Manaster and Carin Bondin Bondar, now well-known for their amusing and energetic videos about acience. Here's Manaster's take on John Boswell, who makes musical videos from the spoken word of famous scientists like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking.

Bora Zivkovic, who pulled the network together for SciAm over the past several months, is, of course, an uber-blogger himself at (A Blog Around the Clock.) He introduces the network — and its individual bloggers — here. And explains one reason this network is different:

Though not absolutely unique in this, Scientific American is very rare in completely incorporating the blogs and bloggers into its website and daily workflow. A blog is just a piece of software. We are trying to eliminate the artificial line between “blogging” and “journalism” and focus on good, accurate writing, no matter what form it comes in or what software is used to produce it. Our bloggers are a part of our team, as ‘continuous correspondents’ or ‘full-time freelancers’. Thus, I made careful choices keeping this in mind – I invited bloggers whose expertise, quality of writing, and professionalism fit well with the mission and general tenor of our organization.

The combined RSS feed for the entire #sciamblogs network is http://rss.sciam.com/all-blogs/feed The complete Twitter list of all #sciamblogs bloggers @sciamblogs/sciambloggers

Rats. 55 new blogs, and all of them worthwhile. How are the rest of us ever to get any work done? To say nothing of blogging ourselves.

WHICH MATTERS MOST FOR AUTISM, GENES OR ENVIRONMENT? OR DOES IT MATTER AT ALL? A new twin study of autism — the largest to date, but at fewer than 200 twin pairs still not all that large — is generating ferment. It seems to show that genes are not as influential in development of autism as environmental factors. This is something of a reversal of the current party line, which has been that genes are paramount.

But maybe the paper doesn't show that, quite; there's the rub. The paper appeared online in the Archives of General Psychiatry on Monday, the Independence Day holiday here in the States. (Full text is free.)

At The Age of Autism blog, the timing of the NIH press release about the paper, also July 4, was viewed with suspicion, although exactly what it is the writer suspects is not made clear. Given the blog's POV, this paper should have been greeted with shouts of joy.. (The Age of Autism identifies itself as "the nation's first daily Web newspaper for the environmental-biomedical community – those who believe autism is an environmentally induced illness, that it is treatable, and that children can recover.")

The timing of the press release was presumably linked to the paper's timing, and holiday publication is a bit odd. If indeed there was a plan to soft-pedal the study, the plan failed. Major newspapers followed up. The LA Times, for example, ran a piece quoting several skeptics.

The blog post with the most extensive analysis was Neuroskeptic's, arguing that the data may be explained in part by diagnostic practices. One example: the higher concordance rate for non-identical twins in the new study compared with previous twin research could stem from the fact that diagnosis today would likely include some kids who would not have been judged autistic in the past.

A post by Hannah Waters at Spoonful of Medicine explains the findings and quotes the paper's authors as stressing their data shows that autism arises from an interaction between genes and environment.

I'm finding it very hard to resist responding, "Duh." This unstartling insight just means that autism is probably not a single entity, but likely a collection of conditions that may manifest similar symptoms but are due to the interplay between different genetic and environmental factors — nearly all of which have yet to be identified.

Which makes autism pretty much like any other complex disorder. Some genes, some environment. But which genes, and what do they do? And which environmental factors, and what do they do? And does the proportion of genes to environmental factors really matter much at this stage of our ignorance?

Something of the same point is made by Chris Woolston at the LA Times health blog, Booster Shots. He's a father well acquainted with autism:

But we also know that autism is complicated, just like our son. Whether the true balance between genetics and environment is 60/40 or 40/60 or something else entirely, there is no single thing that made him who he is.