Pesky ideas about science

Here’s an idea that recently I can’t get out of my head: the way science is done sucks more than it should. Part of this is related to the open science movement that has sprung up in recent years, but even more than that I’m concerned with the publishing process itself. Given that the internet is pretty much ubiquitous now (or at least to me it seems ubiquitous, but then again I essentially grew up on the internet), it seems to me totally backwards that such a large a portion of scientific communication occurs in published papers (i.e. in journals). I don’t have figures about exactly what portion of scientific communication is done via papers in journals, and I know that papers aren’t everything (there’s also discussion at conferences and maybe even emails and other communication between researchers) but published papers seems to be the metric for research today. My understanding is that if you want to obtain and maintain a job in academia, it’s publish or perish.

Before I get further in this, I should note that I am not a scientist or a researcher, at least not yet. I have only a bachelor’s degree and am not even in graduate school, so I’m a wannabe scientist at best. The hypothetical reader might be wondering: “What is this jerkoff doing, writing about things about which he has little to no experience? He should actually experience the process before he dumps all over it. ” Maybe, but I’m willing, for now, to adopt the opinions of others on this topic, others who actually are scientists and who contend that the process sucks more than it has to.

Obviously I can’t fix all of science by my lonesome, but I can attempt to lay a good foundation for the science I intend to carry out. This is my present concern.  I’ve read journal articles in several fields, and this experience is not optimal. Generally, when you find a word in an article that you don’t know, you can’t click on it and be relieved of your ignorance. This alone is awful. It’s the 21st century, we have the internet now, and there is no excuse for that whatsoever.

But of course I’m not talking about just being able to click on words. The point is that if you lack the background needed to understand an article, it’s generally more difficult than it needs to be to find out what it is exactly that you need to know. This is not an issue for established researchers, but it very much is an issue for laypersons or for scientists who are reading outside their specialty. Look at the consequences of this sad state of affairs: in this post about how to learn about everything, Eric Drexler recommends that you “read and skim journals and textbooks that (at the moment) you only half understand…Don’t avoid a subject because it seems beyond you, instead, read other half-understandable journals and textbooks to absorb more vocabulary.” This is good advice if you actually do want to learn about everything, and it’s by far the most efficient way to do it. But what if you only want to learn about a few topics? Wouldn’t it be better to have some backstory?

Fortunately, there’s a well-known mechanism that produces such a backstory for less-specialized knowledge. It’s called Wikipedia, and I have used it to fill in missing details hundreds if not thousands of times. I use it so often that I have a special bookmark keyword in Firefox that allows me to search Wikipedia from my URL bar. Wikipedia does a great job on entry-level science, but for cutting edge research I doubt very much that it captures most of the details. The reason for this is that the people who make Wikipedia are generally not scientists, because scientists are too busy writing grant proposals and bolstering their collection of published papers or whatever it is that scientists do. The exception to this is Scholarpedia, but it has a limited selection because this wiki isn’t integrated into the workflow of the scientists producing the entries.

Ah, so there’s the crux of the matter: if the explanation process was integrated into the workflow, science becomes wayyyyyyy more accessible to interested lay audiences and people reading outside their field of expertise. Of course, this is largely incompatible with the way science is presently done, because academia is competitive and it is of utmost importance to hide away your work from everyone until you can write it up and obtain credit for it. When one amasses enough of these credits, they can be redeemed for tenure, which is, of course, the point of research in the first place.

Oh wait, no, it’s not. The point of research is to make sense of the natural world, a goal which at times seems (from my outside-looking-in point of view) to be disincentivized by the traditional publishing process.

(Side note: I’m extremely uncomfortable with how sloppy and ranty and rambly this post is. However, that’s all part of the plan, and plus I’m writing anonymously anyways, so no one will ever know the source of this low-quality writing. I can say whatever I want! Fuckballs!)

Okay, I’m going to back away ever so slightly from crazyland and make explicit another point I was getting at in the rant above, which is an assertion that the scientific process can be accelerated by a shift to a more informal medium.  I quote Michael Nielsen here:

Let me make a few observations about blogging as a medium.

It’s informal.

It’s rapid-fire.

Many of the best blog posts contain material that could not easily be published in a conventional way: small, striking insights, or perhaps general thoughts on approach to a problem. These are the kinds of ideas that may be too small or incomplete to be published, but which often contain the seed of later progress.

That’s spot on, and I don’t have much more the say about it than that.