Respectful Insolence rebooted

The day has finally arrived.

The big changes hinted at and then announced have finally come to pass.

Orac has finally rebooted and plugged his (its?) essence into ScienceBlogs.com.

It almost didn’t come to pass, thanks to a certain overreaction by my medical school. It also didn’t help that, after an unbelievably mild January in the New York area, the one time that winter would finally reassert itself would, by sheer bad luck, fall on the very day that I was scheduled to fly home from a surgical meeting in San Diego. One plane cancellation and dire speculation about the weather did produce a momentary fear that I might be stuck stranded somewhere without Internet access and unable to post my first piece for ScienceBlogs by the time that I had promised Christopher Mims that I would, thus presenting the possibility that the throngs eagerly awaiting Orac’s arrival would encounter nothing but an “under construction” placeholder post.

That would have been very bad.

Fortunately, such a disaster did not come to pass, and here I am, back on the East Coast, with muscles aching from spending yesterday digging out.

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So, to quote James Stockdale in his Vice Presidential debate from 1992, “Who am I? Why am I here?” Obviously these are not questions for my regular readership, who were informed of my impending move a couple of weeks ago and of the exact date last week. However, one reason I was eager to move to ScienceBlogs was the potential opportunity to gain a wider audience (not to mention to gain some respectability by mere association with the great bloggers already gathered under the ScienceBlogs name). Some of them, such as PZ Myers, GrrlScientist, Ed Brayton, Tim Lambert, Tara Smith, I had been familiar with in their pre-ScienceBlogs incarnations. Others I became familiar with only on ScienceBlogs. Over the last month since the ScienceBlogs launched, they’ve built up a readership, and I’m hoping that a few of their readers who may not have encountered the wonder that is Orac will note this new interloper and decide to check this blog out.

To begin to answer the first question, Orac is the nom de blog of an academic surgeon who, because of either lack of a life or sheer insanity (not to mention an incredibly understanding wife) somehow finds time to blog fairly prolifically, despite his frequently working 60-hour weeks (more if at home writing is counted). This blogging usually involves sitting with my laptop and an iced tea in front of the TV from around 10 PM to midnight, trying to put brilliance to keyboard before sleep overtakes me. I’m nowhere near as prolific as, say, PZ Myers, but, with occasional exceptions, I do usually manage to finish at least one decent post a day and sometimes several rather lengthy and (I hope) substantive posts in a week. In regards to the second question, what I’m doing here (again, I hope) is filling a rather unique niche. As a practicing surgeon and an NIH-funded basic and translational researcher, I have a unique perspective that, as far as I can tell, no other blogger has, either here at ScienceBlogs, or even the blogosphere in general. (At least, I’ve yet to find another academic surgeon who blogs.) I try to put this unique perspective to good use, as I hope that you will see over the next days, weeks, and months–and maybe even years. Also, as I hope you’ll see, I’ve gotten very good at this.. I’ve been at this for 14 months now, and before that I had honed my online discussion forum combat skills over at least a decade on Usenet and other forums. I happen to like blogging a lot better than Usenet, because so much of discussions on Usenet and other online forums is reactive. Blogging is proactive. I decide what the topics will be and what I want to write about. Also, I almost certainly have more readers of my blog than I ever had for my Usenet posts.

As with any other major change, the move to ScienceBlogs has given me a chance to think a bit about how I would like to continue, to “reboot” this blog, so to speak. Before contemplating what that rebooting entails, though, I think that it would be helpful to look at what has gone before, how I got to where I am today. When, basically on a whim after having read a Time Magazine article about blogs, I first dipped my toe into the blogosphere on a dreary Saturday afternoon in December 2004, I had no idea what I had started or where it would lead. I certainly had no idea whether anyone would bother to read what I wrote and viewed the new blog mainly as an experiment, an outlet to hone my writing, which until then had become deadened by the constant demands of technical writing for grants and scientific papers. I had been posting to Usenet under the pseudonym of Orac for a few years before that; so I decided to keep the name. The beautiful thing about this pseudonym is that few know what it is or where it came from. (Indeed, I suspect that there are more than a few of my regular readers who don’t know where Orac came from.) Basically, Orac was a computer from a very low budget, low-tech British science fiction television show from the early 1980’s known as Blake’s 7. Running for four seasons, Blakes’ 7 was one of the greatest SF shows ever to appear on TV in any country, although its cheesy old Doctor Who-style low budget special effects did sometimes detract from the story. The series concerned a group of rebels, led by a man named Roj Blake, against an oppressive galactic regime known as the Federation. Orac was a supercomputer that Blake’s crew acquired that happened to look like a Plexiglass box full of multicolored blinking lights, but could communicate with any computer in the galaxy and thus acquire information that would give the crew an edge in its battle against the tyrannical and corrupt Federation. There was just one problem. Orac had a personality very much like his creator Ensor, cranky and more than a bit arrogant. He considered the crew’s requests beneath him and was easily distracted, much preferring to study nearby celestial phenomenon (especially black holes) rather than devoting his computing power to the task at hand. Orac had zero tolerance for illogic and muddled thinking, and, indeed, one of his famous sayings was, “A statement of fact cannot be insolent.”

Thus was born the my original blog Respectful Insolence.

But why “respectful” insolence, as opposed to the real Orac’s most unrespectful insolence? Simple. I had decided that the overarching theme of this blog, which encompasses a wide variety of seemingly disparate topics, would be skepticism and critical thinking, and that my goal would be to answer quackery and pseudoscience with data and reason. I’m a big advocate of evidence-based medicine, and it bothers me when I see treatments advocated that are biologically and chemically highly implausible (such as homeopathy) or without scientifically sound evidence to support them, and I really hate it when I see quacks, even with good intentions, wasting the time and money of desperate patients, sometimes even doing them harm.

But why “respectful” insolence, as opposed to the real Orac’s most unrespectful insolence? Simple. I had decided that the overarching theme of this blog, which encompasses a wide variety of seemingly disparate topics, would be skepticism and critical thinking, and that my goal would be to answer quackery and pseudoscience with data and reason. I’m a big advocate of evidence-based medicine, and it bothers me when I see treatments advocated that are biologically and chemically highly implausible (such as homeopathy) or without scientifically sound evidence to support them, and I really hate it when I see quacks, even with good intentions, wasting the time and money of desperate patients, sometimes even doing them harm. In that, I agree with the late great Isaac Asimov when he said, “I stand foursquare for reason, and object to what seems to me to be irrationality, whatever the source. If you are on my side in this, I must warn you that the army of the night has the advantage of overwhelming numbers, and, by its very nature, is immune to reason, so that it is entirely unlikely that you and I can win out.” Asimov may have been right to be pessimistic, but I wanted to try to fight the good fight anyway, and I wanted to do so civilly whenever possible.

And so it began. Playing to what I perceived to be my strengths, I began initially by concentrating on quackery and dubious alternative medicine, resulting in several posts that got attention , links, and readers. I also did not shy away from discussing the hijinks of “conventional practitioners” who pushed dubious uses of “‘conventional” medical technologies, as well. But quackery was too confining a topic to be restricted to, particularly when there were (and are) always “intelligent design” creationists to be rebutted. In any case, it wasn’t long before I jumped into the fray regarding the pseudoscientific and scientifically unsupported contention that mercury in vaccines causes autism and started challenging the paranoid conspiracy-mongering and frightening of parents that this pseudoscience engenders. This actually led me to some notoriety (as ScienceBlog contributor Tara’s recent excellent piece debunking HIV denialism has brought her to the attention of HIV/AIDS denialist Harvey Bialy), so much so that one of the leaders of the thimerosal/mercury/autism movement, the truly odious J. B. Handley of Generation Rescue, actually used cybersquatting to get revenge, registering the domain oracknows.com and redirecting its traffic to his misinformation-ridden antivaccination website. Responding to antivaccination lunacy was soon joined as a topic by rebutting HIV/AIDS denialism, that particularly pernicious form of pseudoscience that argues that HIV does not cause AIDS, resulting in a series of posts that drew the wrath of a fairly high profile blogger who is also an HIV/AIDS denialist. Finally, one major theme of this blog that might not seem to fit but actually does is the rebuttal of Holocaust denial. Few cranks abuse evidence, reason, and science as badly as Holocaust deniers, and, worse, they are motivated by anti-Semitism or admiration for the Nazi regime–and frequently both. I had had a long history of rebutting this pseudohistory on Usenet, and I saw no reason not to continue this on my blog. Through all this, while I have tried to keep my insolence more or less respectful, it’s obvious that I don’t always succeed. I have little or no tolerance for personal attacks on me, really awful abuses of logic and reason, sheer stupidity, and bigotry. Such behavior does not deserve respect, just insolence, and my tendency has been to respond to such provocations either by ignoring them completely or by returning fire with a thorough fisking.

Through it all have been interspersed topics that either “fit in” only peripherally or not at all, such as writing about patient encounters and the human aspect of practicing medicine, biomedical science, the history of medicine, and practical problems related to being a clinician and a scientist (something I’m likely to write about tomorrow or Wednesday, given that it was a major topic of discussion–and angst–at the surgery meeting I just attended). Over the time this blog has been in existence, the balance has shifted away from straight medblogging to more about skepticism, science, and reason, but I do still write about straight medical topics and patient encounters from time to time. In order to give new readers a taste of Respectful Insolence, over the next few days, I plan on posting a series of lists of links to past posts related to various topics from my previous blog that I consider quintessential Orac. This will also allow me to categorize key posts from my old blog easily by putting a list of links to these upcoming posts in my sidebar. Over this first month or two, I may also repost articles from a year ago that I consider to be quintessential Orac. The old blog will remain as an archive site and perhaps the place to put the occasional post that I consider inappropriate for ScienceBlogs.

So, now that I have a spiffy new platform and the chance to be associated with some really great science bloggers, what’s in store, insolently speaking, for the future?

I don’t plan on making any wholesale changes in the topics I usually write about. Applying Orac’s brand of Respectful Insolence to quackery, dubious alternative medicine (not to mention alternative medicine that might actually work), antivaccination hysteria, pseudoscience, and Holocaust denial will certainly continue as it has in the past. I will not promise that there won’t be changes, but I hope they will be changes for the better. For one thing, besides being flattered that Christopher Mims considered me worthy of being associated with bloggers like PZ, Chris Mooney, Tim Lambert, etc., that very association is likely to goad me to be better. Surgeons are by nature a bit competitive, and I refuse to be the weak link in the ScienceBlogs chain. Second, because this is a group of science bloggers, I plan on actually trying to implement my previous promise to do more straight science blogging. I may not be able to write about developmental biology the way PZ, for example, can do it, but one thing I can do better is explaining important new research findings in medical science and clinical studies, particularly about surgery. For example, my area of research interest is tumor angiogenesis, and it’s high time I wrote a bit about that. Ditto breast cancer and melanoma. Finally, to the consternation of some and the relief of others (and probably to the head-scratching of the editors of Seed Magazine, who will look at each other and say, “What the f—?”), the Hitler zombie will continue to make occasional appearances right here to eat the brains of the unwary and stupid. And, to the near universal delight of all (because he’s such a happy and lovable figure–who could hate a face like this?), a certain blog mascot will also continue to make his regular monthly appearances.

Finally, a word about the pseudonym. I’m not infrequently asked why I maintain a pseudonym. The reason is simple. When a patient Googles my name, I want them to find my medical school and cancer center page as the first links that come up, not this blog. This is not for any nefarious reason. My “real” identity is more or less an open secret anyway. Many friends (and, sadly, a fair number of people who detest me and everything I stand for, such as the aforementioned J. B. Handley) know who I “really am,” as do my Division Chief and Department Chair (though, sadly, neither of them read me regularly, as far as I can tell). If I had truly wanted to remain completely anonymous, I would never have resurrected a pseudonym that I had used before for so long, given that a number of people had linked my name with my pseudonym before. (Besides, a picture of a box of blinking lights is far more attractive than a picture of me and therefore less likely to chase away readers if I put it on my sidebar.) I may one day just start blogging under my real name, but I doubt I’ll ever completely drop the pseudonym. There’s just too much history there.

So that’s about it. I’m here; I’m set up; and I’m ready to rock. The pace of blinking of the colored lights is accelerating, meaning that Orac is gearing up to let the Respectful Insolence flow.

And flow it will. Quacks, pseudoscientists, and Holocaust deniers beware!