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About information, and science today

January 4, 2012

I read an interesting interview in Salon this weekend entitled, “Are We on Information Overload?

Like so many today, the author being interviewed (David Weinberger, senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, who has just published Too Big to Know) questions the changes in learning over the last 10-100 years and contemplates how our inventions are changing us – even the way we think.  The discussion is pretty standard until Weinberger is asked about Darwin and the claim that his science would be done very differently today:

[Darwin] was so reluctant to write; he remained relatively private about his theory for decades and published only when somebody else, Wallace, was on the verge of beating him to it….  Darwin today would not be operating this way. He would very likely be tweeting from the Beagle. He would be announcing his findings and initial ideas online, and people would be arguing with him all along, taking his ideas, applying them elsewhere, pushing back, criticizing him deeply — all of the things we do on the Web. That work has revolutionary, incredible value, but put into the Web, it gets teased out, amplified, corrected, as well as misunderstood and degraded. Nevertheless, that Web itself has more value than the individual content, so I would expect that Darwin today would be gathering his data from clouds of linked data, trying out ideas on the Web, and drawing those ideas in the tussle. The old rhythm of knowledge and science not coincidentally is the rhythm of publishing. The Web has completely broken that rhythm.

This surprises me.  Does it surprise you?  Has your way of doing science changed in the past decade (other than the typical maturation path)?

Why or why not?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 21, 2012 9:32 pm

    Am trying to get word out that my book was published today by Palgrave Macmillan, Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science’s First Family. It is already garnering great reviews… here’s just one today..

    I’m working round the clock to raise the book’s profile. I’m so proud of the book, based on interviews with Marie’s 86-year-old granddaughter in Paris, and would really like people to read it.

    If there’s anything I could write about the book for you, please just let me know. Thanks so much!
    Shelley Emling
    205 Inwood Ave.
    Montclair NJ 07043

  2. Becky W permalink
    January 24, 2012 1:02 pm

    I disagree. Darwin would still be reluctant to publish and want to perfect his work prior to finalizing it in print. That was his nature.

    The internet fosters communication, but science still relies on the peer-review process.

  3. January 6, 2012 7:03 pm

    “The old rhythm of knowledge and science not coincidentally is the rhythm of publishing. The Web has completely broken that rhythm.”

    I don’t think the web has broken that rhythm since as an academic scientist, I’m not at all rewarded for tweeting my latest results or posting hypotheses on facebook for my “friends” to comment on. However, I I certainly also wouldn’t get tenure if I followed Darwin’s model and pondered my results for decades before finally publishing them in one big manuscript, no matter how many citations it received.

    So yes, science is very different today compared to Darwin’s time for many reasons, but I don’t think in the way Weinberger proposes (other than easy access to raw data and the ideas of others in the peer-reviewed literature, if you are privileged to be working at an institution with lots of pricey subscriptions that is). I’m not a “gentleman” scientist, spending my inheritance tinkering in my garden throughout my “career”. My work is supported by public tax dollars, student tuition and fees, alumni donations, and a symmetric distribution of household and childcare duties with my spouse. All of these sources of support expect deliverables within a timely fashion, whether they be publications, courses taught, graduate students advised, or commensurate hours spent with my family. The rat race may be a lot faster now, but I’m glad I get to be part of it. As the daughter of middle-class educators, I certainly wouldn’t have been 150 years ago!

  4. sutari permalink
    January 6, 2012 2:42 pm

    I am no longer a practicing scientist, but I am appalled at the thought that this is the way science is being and will be done. That is not what science is! Darwin might have tweeted OBSERVATIONS from the Beagle. He might even float a hypothesis or two. But to summarize it all, it needs to be pulled together, conclusions drawn, presented to a limited audience for peer review, and THEN circulated to the general (subscriber?) population. People already don’t understand the process and the importance of the process…. I hope the next cold fusion debacle won’t be tweeted.

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