The Dragons of Science: Why we Need new ways to Communicate

Date

source

share

 



A scientist guards his knowledge, making sure that nobody else profits from it. It is the theme of an article of mine (and my coworkers Chiavenuto, Lavacchi, and Perissi) titled “Science and the Dragon:” We were inspired by the work of Seymour Papert, the developer of the concept of “Mind Size” science. We need to tame the dragon and redistribute the treasure to the people. Science belongs to everybody! 

There is a book that I would warmly suggest to you: “The Clot Thickens” (2021) by Malcolm Kendrick. There are various reasons why this book is interesting, one is that Kendrick gives you several good ideas on how to take care of your circulatory system, one of the leading causes of death in our world. (Of course, unless the war expands, in which case you are likely to die of completely different causes). 

Malcolm Kendrick is a Scottish MD, specialist in cardiovascular diseases, known as a heretical scientist for his negative evaluation of statins and other medicines that bring large profits to the pharmaceutical industry. Kendrick is not only a sharp scientist, but he has been developing new methods for communicating science to everyone, not just to specialists in a specific field. That’s another reason why I recommend this book to you: you can learn a new way to communicate. Can you believe that I read this book three times? Yes, I did. Very few books deserve this kind of focused attention — I don’t think I have done that for more than three or four non-fiction books in my life as an avid reader. And this one I may read a fourth time. 

Kendrick’s book is truly amazing in the way the author masters the use of text for communicating complex ideas. This is not a “popular science” book, that is, it is not a watered-down version of science where a journalist explains to the uncouth public the wonders that scientists have produced — you know, galaxies, supercomputers, that kind of stuff. 

No. Kendrick’s book is written by a scientist for scientists, or at least for people who have a certain degree of scientific literacy. Kendrick asks difficult questions, does not always have the answer, and does not shun reporting from the specialized scientific literature. The beauty of the way it is written is that it takes into account the fact that not everyone, not even scientists, understands the dialect of every scientific field. 
So, when we encounter the term “pultaceous,” Kendrick stops to note that he himself at first wasn’t sure of what it meant, then he explains that it stands for “having a soft consistency: pulpy.” Kendrick also focuses the attention of the reader using italics, boldface, quotes, etcetera. And he makes wide use of irony, jokes, and asides, all with the idea of maintaining the attention of the reader. He does use acronyms (CVD for “cardiovascular disease”) but sparingly enough that the reader is not forced to stop and think what the heck a certain acronym stands for. 
Let me state it once more. This is NOT the kind of watered-down science that goes under the name of popular science. This is science. Real Science. Hardcore science, if you like, presented in all its multi-faceted complexity. The matter of cardiovascular diseases is difficult, complicated, variegated, and sometimes baffling. But it is not impossible to understand if it is presented in the right way. 
What Kendrick is doing, here, is a major innovative feat: he is developing a new language for scientific communication. Let’s ask ourselves a question: why are scientific papers written in such obscure jargon, for instance using the word “pultaceous” when “pulpy” would be just as good? Why do scientists feel obliged to write such hash as “it has been observed that…:” while it would be so much easier and clearer to say “We observed that….”? It is a “defensive” way of writing that scientists use for some reason — the most likely one is to generate a defensive barrier to avoid incursions in their scientific turf. 
But these little tricks of scientific jargon are mostly harmless. The problem is that scientists almost never ask themselves who would or should read their paper, apart from their colleagues working in closely related fields. So, the destiny of a lot of science is to remain confined to obscure scientific journals that will be read by just a few people (if any). If it is bad science to be wasted in this way, no big damage (actually, it is better if it never sees the light). If it is good science (yes, there still is such a thing) then it is a shame that it is wasted in this way. 
And not just that: even good science is often hidden behind paywalls set by the publishers. This is another nice trick of the way science is managed nowadays. Scientists produce papers mostly using public money. Then they give them to publishers for free. Then the publishers proceed to have the public pay exorbitant prices if they want to access the papers they have already paid for with their taxes. Shooting oneself in the foot? Sure, multiple times!
In short, scientists have been behaving like the dragons of epic stories, keeping their knowledge for themselves, making sure that nobody else could access it. We need to tame these awful beasts (not necessarily kill them, dragons can make nice pets, as you may have learned watching “The Game of Thrones”). Then we can redistribute the treasure of knowledge that the dragon had been guarding so jealously. But we have to be careful: much of the treasure is fool’s gold. Wrong studies, useless studies, repetitions of older studies, fully incomprehensible studies, and many studies are the result of corruption by special interests outside science. Can we sift this enormous mass and keep what’s really valuable, turning it into something useful?
A difficult task, certainly, but not impossible. Clearly, it goes beyond the capabilities of the human mind, but we are starting to develop tools that may be up to the task. To acquaint yourself with the capabilities of state-of-the-art artificial intelligence, take a look at the “Leonardo” site. This is an impressive tool that could be used to review the huge mass of the world’s scientific literature and reorder it in ways that are both comprehensible and useful. That requires removing the publisher’s paywalls, and that won’t be easy. But not impossible, either. 
One thing is certain: if we want science to survive, we absolutely need to develop new methods of communication. Kendrick’s book is a good example of how to do that, and AI can help us a lot to do even better. 
 

Originally appeared on The Seneca Effect Read More

More
articles

More
news