I am just returned from my morning constitutional. It is raining, one of those lightly blowing mild rains that wets one without awareness, but only mildly. The podcast was an episode of the BBC’s “The Infinite Monkey Cage” which is billed as a comedic science podcast. It is rather exemplary if one can appreciate a British sense of humor. Happily my waling is always at least a bit strange so the discussion about science and society was fulfilling, even if disappointing as the program goes into hibernation.
Also, I ran across an article [Link] this week that was an extract from another blog where the blogger talks about a “Gutenberg” moment in on-line science publishing. Earlier I ran across an article [Link] that advanced that science writing for the public (which I shall simply call public science or PS, for simplicity and ease on my sub-vocalizations) should be more like Tony Stark than Sheldon Cooper. I fear I found both articles sadly lacking. After I found out that Tony Stark is a comic book character (now also movies) and reviewed the characterization, I have to advance the assessment that both are inadequate. Yes, the Stark character is wittier than the Cooper character, but neither really talks about science; they do talk sciency and to my experience falsely so. Alright, the Stark character doezs talk like a lot of BIG defense contractors I have known, all basically purveyors of serpent petroleum. Given the comic book origin this is not disappointing; Cooper’s failure to verbalize as a scientist is.
But along the same vein, the numerous sources cited by the blogger are also disappointing. Three are classical sources in the sense of well established periodicals like Scientific American, (which I have bashed previously,) and Popular Science, (which actually makes SA look good.) Of the new sources he cites (and links) some are behind paywalls that I decline to pass on general principles. This is supposed to be an age where we get content for the servitude of ignoring advertisements. I refuse to pay for information not attached to matter. Of those not requiring coin, a couple are moderate intriguing enough to sample further but the rest are somewhere between unsalted, unbuttered grits to stomped cow patty. Especially the one he lauds as the epitome. It is so off-putting and apparently devoid of meaningful content, on science, at least, I will concede it is full of bog fuzzy wuzzy blue serge emotionalism, that I have to despair for what the blogger thinks science is.
This is the root of the difficulty. Based on my own samplings I have determined that PS is almost always mediocre, at best. This seems to follow naturally. Scientists, with few exceptions, cannot simplify science and write a good story. The exceptional can do one but not both. Alternately, when the scientist explains the science to a journalist the probability of a good story increases but the errors in explanation that sabotage the story increase. I am currently reading a history of liberty written by A. C. Grayling, who is not a scientist and writes fairly well but his science descriptions are nauseating.
I do have to admit that a scientist is not a good person to kritik these works. But I do have to worry that this may be why the bogs are so indifferent to PS, either because they resent the down-talking or they sense the hideous quality and accuracy. It is hard to engage people if you tell them up front, overtly or covertly, that they are inadequate to comprehend. If you do it often enough you destroy intelligence and no little of sentience, as demonstrated by organized religion.
But if I think back to my childhood when I was not a scientist, I find that there were a few, a very few, who wrote good science books. Most PS books in the ’50’s and ’60’s were horrible, especially the institutional ones. Trust the large corporations and the government to churn poo, for they did. But there are a few notable exceptions, the one I still have a book written by a Popular Science hack, a fellow with some science education but not a practicing scientist and earning his living as a writer of science stories. IOW, neither a scientist nor a journalist. That seems to be what we need now, what Phillip Jose Farmer called a JOAT – a jack-of-all-trades, or at least of two in this instance.
One more bit of evidence that over-specialization leads to mediocrity.