ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Michael Barton

Continuing with the tradition from last three years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2011 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January 2011. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today I talk to Michael D. Barton of The Dispersal of Darwin blog.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?

I am originally from southern California – a variety of cities. I found myself slowly moving farther south, and was taking biology courses at a school in San Diego when I realized that I would soon end up in Mexico. So I moved nearer another border: Montana. An interest in dinosaurs brought me to Montana State University in Bozeman, which had (at the time at least) the only undergraduate degree in dinosaur paleontology, and has the world-famous Museum of the Rockies and big time paleontologist Jack Horner.

I imagined turning my growing fascination with terrible lizards – which began in 1993 as a sophomore in high school with some rather small Spielberg film – into a career path. Was California the place for that? Of course not, so Montana it was, and it was a big deal: not only moving away from home, but from the Sunshine state to what was to me Siberia. I thought I would take classes in the geology department and work on digs in the summer, excavating fossils and possibly working at the Museum of the Rockies. Before I started classes, however, I learned of another discipline and switched my major.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

Before I even started taking courses in the geology department, I met a history professor who told me about something called “history of science.” He said I seemed to be more interested in the people and places behind science and everything that goes along with – science as a human endeavor – rather than doing science itself. He pointed me to some online resources about the history of science, and I quickly switched to the history department. I was thus thrown into learning about the history of science.

While an undergraduate in 2007, I started my blog The Dispersal of Darwin when I began searching for information on Darwin online. There were plenty of evolution blogs, but nothing specifically from a history of science perspective. So, along with writing class papers about Darwin or other topics in history of science, I explored blogging, and explored utilizing the internet for paper research. The most important paper I wrote as an undergraduate was about Darwin’s experiments with seeds in saltwater, and concerned “where” he conducted them. My first conference experiences were with this paper, one in North Carolina (where I first met another science blogger) and the other in Cambridge, England (where I met Darwin bloggers Richard Carter and Karen James). Interestingly, another one of the conference attendees in Cambridge recognized me through having read my blog. I got interested in not just my own history of science blogging, but that of others, and presented on blogging at a meeting of the History of Science Society.

When the opportunity came to be able to attend my first Science Online conference, I helped organize a session about the history of science (video). My research as a graduate student, also at Montana State, went along with my participation in a project to transcribe the correspondence of the nineteenth-century physicist and science popularizer, John Tyndall. I wrote my masters paper about how Tyndall indirectly supported Darwin during an American lecture tour in 1872-3 (I blog periodically about Tyndall here, and, although I am not with the project officially anymore, I continue to tweet for it). If you’re interested in history of science blogging, which has exploded in the last year, check out my list of history of science blogs and Twitter accounts (and of course you should know about The Giant’s Shoulders). And I have a forthcoming review of history of science blogs in the British journal Endeavour.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

To be honest, most of my time these days are taken up by fatherhood and working a part-time restaurant job. I moved to Portland, OR in May 2010 after completing my masters in history at Montana State. I am seeking interest-related work (museums, history, science education, environmental education, etc.), and I sustain my interests by continuing to blog and tweet. In the last few years I have become increasingly interested in the creationist tactic of quote-mining (my part at the Science Online session, a short article in Reports of the National Center for Science Education about John Tyndall being quote-mined in the nineteenth century, a presentation for a humanist group in Portland, and I recently recorded a bit for the podcast Skeptically Speaking, whose host Desiree Schell saw my presentation at Science Online and recruited me as a guest).

As for goals, I would like to get a job of course. But what I would really like to do is be in a position to do some deeper research on Darwin, but I am not sure what topic. I really should work on my masters paper and try to get it published, but I might wait until after I can present it at a Tyndall conference at Montana State in the fall of 2012. Another topic which I have entertained in my head is a project to look in detail at how Darwin’s own children were crucial to his work. That, of course, would require some archive trips to England, which I am not able to do at the present. So, things are open for me right now. I am not sure where I’ll end up career wise. Presently, I’m focusing on remaining engaged online and exploring nature with my son, which I blog about at Exploring Portland’s Natural Areas.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

I like how science communication online is immediate. In the particular case of how I view the utility of history of science online, and that of many other history of science bloggers, too, being online allows for the communication of correction. Much of history of science can be rather outdated, simplified (especially in popular writing rather than academic), or downright false (either unintentionally, like the innocent perpetuation of myths of how things happened in science, or intentionally, like how anti-evolutionists distort the historical record concerning Darwin). Online engagement allows for historians of science and their students to respond to these sorts of things quickly, and in an arena where more interested people are likely to see it than in an academic journal.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and others? How do you integrate all of your online activity into a coherent whole? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

While my various history research projects could have been done without blogging, immersing myself into the online history of science community has surely been a net positive to me as a young historian. Some of my conference presentations have been directly related to blogging, as well as some publications. I’ll continue with my interest in Darwin and creationist quote-mining, and perhaps that will yield a longer article, surely thanks to online activities. And Twitter (@darwinsbulldog) and Facebook serve as, to relate back to my blog, “dispersing” mechanisms for posts and resources I find valuable.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

I first discovered science blogs in early 2007, when searching online for information about Darwin and evolution for history papers. Some longtime favorites are Laelaps, The Red Notebook, Thoughts in a Haystack, and the then usual variety coming out of ScienceBlogs. Unsurprisingly, I enjoy the long list of history of science blogs I mentioned earlier. Some of the bloggers I started following just before or following the conference include David Dobbs, Hannah Waters, Alice Bell, David Orr, Jeremy Yoder, Danielle Lee, Kate Clancy, Brian Malow, and Emily Willingham.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2011 for you? Any suggestions for next year?

There was a moment while at Science Online that was simply the best, and reinforced for me that spending time with my Darwin blog is worthwhile. I was approached by someone in the hotel and asked, “You’re Michael Barton, right? Darwinsbulldog?” Yes, I replied. She introduced herself as Stacy Baker, and I immediately said, “Miss Baker. Oh, you blog along with your high school biology students.” She told me how she uses my blog in her classes. While I may think of myself as a history of science blogger, I find that much of the traffic that comes to my blog is from educators, not other historians of science. That, I believe, is a great thing. Overall, being my first Science Online conference, it was meeting fellow science communicators that I enjoyed the most. And the lemurs.

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, or to your science reading and writing?

Some sessions I particularly found useful were “Keepers of the Bullshit Factor” (about telling people when they’re wrong, publicly), and Technology and the Wilderness (I enjoy exploring in nature with my son, and yet I don’t yet own a smartphone and am missing out on some neat tools to assist in that exploring). Presentations in my own session, however, were enlightening. When writing about science, it is all too easy to think of past science in terms of what we know in the present. Holly Tucker (Scientia CuriosaWonders and Marvels@history_geek) and Randi Hutter Epstein (website@rhutterepstein) both discussed, essentially, the idea of presentism in history of medicine as it related to each of their books, Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution (which all attendees received in their swagbag!) and Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank, respectively. As was tweeted by several folks during the session, taking from things Holly Tucker and Eric Johnson said, we should look at history of science “on its own terms.” Judging a scientific idea from the eighteenth century based on what is known today is poor scholarship. One should judge it by what was known at that time. Away with Whiggish interpretations of science!

Thank you so much! I hope to see you again in January.

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