Interview with Gene Expression

Razib Khan runs the weblog “Gene Expression,” for SEED MAGAZINE in the Science Blog consortium. Additionally, he also cofounded the stand alone weblog “Gene Expression“, which has been commenting on genetics and related fields for the past 4 years. Razib has a background in biochemistry, but has been working in the IT industry of late, though he plans to return to science in the near future and pursue work at the convergence of evolution and genomics.

Simon Owens: As you seem the hint at in your posts concerning the controversies over Darwinian Evolution, many people like to take objective arguments and spin them into quasi-objective-mostly-subjective spin arguments. Since creating a blog that tackles a lot of these controversies, has your concept of Truth (and I leave that with a capital T on purpose) changed at all?

Razib Khan: Yes. I appreciate the problems with subjective bias which have spurned the growth of Post Modernism, but I am angry at the laziness that those who concede the game exhibit. Truth exists, it is simply hard work. It is a process and there is a lot of noise which is a necessary byproduct of working through issues. Ultimately tactical truth, or winning each battle, is far less important than the big picture strategy of ultimately batting above random expectation (which pre-modern storytelling tends not to do). Good faith is important. Ego is not.

Simon Owens: Many science bloggers (I’ve noticed) have almost a guilty pleasure in debunking psuedo-science claims, especially ones that try to disprove evolution. Do you sometimes feel that anti-evolutionists are engaging in intellectual dishonesty, or that they truly believe the shaky logic that they subscribe to?

Razib Khan: It isn’t a pleasure of mine insofar as it takes away from real scientific discourse. In any case, there are two categories of anti-evolutionists

1) Casual man-on-the-street types. These are sincere, but their beliefs are shallow, superficial and unreflective. Often they are guided by vague intuitions supplemented by a few talking points they don’t understand (e.g., “Second Law of Thermodynamics means evolution can’t occur”). They don’t really care about the issue as such aside from the cultural totemic significance it imparts.

2) Professional anti-evolutionists. I believe these do believe in their big picture, but in the details they are often insincere in that they use the mass support drawn from #1 to bolster their case, and often make appeals to “common sense” which I believe are disingenious, or, promote quasi-scientific perceptions in the “interests of the cause.” There is a lot of diversity in this group which they elide over because contradictions, conflicts and lack of paradigmitic coherency would make their “case” less compelling to group #1, who want a simple appealing argument against scientific sophisticates. Though on a deep level these anti-evolutionists have a genuine belief, I believe in their tactical behavior they tend to exhibit a lot of dishonesty and double-dealing (though I suspect they justify this by “ends” based reasoning).

Simon Owens: Have you ever read any of the famous anti-evolution books out there? Like Darwin’s Black Box? Do the authors ever point out things in these books that you (and other science bloggers) have trouble explaining or refuting?

Razib Khan: Yes. I read “Darwin’s Black Box.” The arguments in this book are not particularly technical or difficult to refute with either analysis, historical context or a cursory examination of the literature, but some of William Dembski’s work on “Information Theory” is (for me) a bit obscure and so I don’t have immediate “refutations,” but it seems that acquaintances and online resources are always available to provide explanations why his arguments are fallacious. The rule-of-thumb is that in regards to in-the-trenches science anti-evolutionists never really put up, but, they are on more solid ground when it comes to meta-scientific, that is, philosophical, objections. That being said, the latter are generally not in the category of first-order scientific objections because they are strongly contingent on axioms held a priori. See Alvin Platinga’s ideas in regards to Presuppositionalism for objections which I find to be coherent but besides the point. On point objections tend to always be false, incoherent or weak.

Simon Owens: How do you relate to the other science blogs around you? Does there seem to be a real dialog between science bloggers on new and developing issues?

Razib Khan: I check in on blogs where I don’t know the details of an issue, like Real Climate, now and then, or drop by bloggers who focus on topics I have a deep interest in, like Evolgen. Myself, at Science Blogs, I think I am somewhat to the Right of most of the other bloggers so I’d probably have a more “conservative” take on most issues, but I’m not too concerned with or focused on public policy. In terms of the science I think there is a lot of cross-fertilization between affinal fields, so that I might get into the nitty-gritty in terms of evolutionary and population genetics with a blogger whose main focus is more in marine ecology or microbiology, and vice versa, and there is enough difference for their to be illumination but enough common lexicon for their to be understanding.

Simon Owens: What are some of the coolest discoveries in genetics that you’ve come across in the last few years?

Razib Khan: Some of the work on the HapMap in regards to possibility of recent human selection. Further elucidation of the reality of parental specific genomic imprinting come to mind as well. Also some of the recent extractions of ancient DNA. Finally, some of the work which focuses on genes which have paleoanthroplogical significance, like FOXP2.

Simon Owens: What are the five blogs you’d recommend to supplement the reading of your own?

Razib Khan: John Hawks
Robert Skipper
Carl Zimmer