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[2b2k] Science chapter

I’ve been over and over the draft of the chapter on science. I believe I’ve gotten the organization better, but it’s still 14,000 words, which is twice as long as it should be. I can see how to cut out about 1,000 words, but that’s not enough.

Here’s a rough outline of the chapter. Note that I’m paraphrasing myself as briefly as possible, so much of this will sound more over-stated than it is. That is, I’m over-stating my over-statements. Also, I proceed mainly through examples and interviews, which I’m not mentioning in this summary.

Intro: The traditional processes of science are turning out not to scale. We have so much more data, so many more connections. The Net does scale, however. The organizing hypothesis of the chapter is that science is starting to take on properties of the Net. Each of the six sub-sections looks at one such property.

1. Hugeness. The famous 1963 letter to Science, “Toiling in the Brickyard,” worried that science was being overwhelmed by facts. Yet, we now have exponentially more facts and data, and can scientifically address some phenomena that were too complex for prior techniques. In some instances, we get understanding without theories. This is a big change given our traditional Western idea of knowledge.

2. Flat, or at least flatter. Science has a long tradition of honoring amateurs. (The professionalization of science is relatively new.) This is a great time for amateur science. But, most of the contributions of amateurs are crowd-sourced and don’t require much scientific training; you still generally have to be a specialist/professional to make a big contribution. Even so, the fact that the work of professionals is available to anyone with a browser is changing the ecology of science. So, the distinction between amateurs and professionals will remain, but the Net is vining the gap.

3. Open and continuous. Rather than science following the publishing cycle of work being done in private before it is launched into the public as done, projects like “open notebook science” are making the process of science more continuous.

4. Open filters. Peer review continues, but is changing. E.g., PLoS. Publish-then-filter is becoming far more common.

5. Difference. The Net lets us see disagreements. Some important sorts of differences among scientists now are often (not always) left unresolved through mapping of schema rather than trying to come up with a single, right, true order of nature. (Many things are miscellaneous, I hear.) Differences among non-scientists are becoming of increasing concern to scientists because there isn’t a single set of authorities who can dole out the truth, and to whom the public listens.

6. Hyperlinked. Science had been governed and shaped by the requirements of paper-based publishing. Ownership and authority were established via getting published. But, science’s idea of knowledge itself at some level was also modeled on the publishing system: You work on an idea until it is ready, it passes through expert filters, and then it exists in the world in an almost thing-like way. Now that we can hyperlink all the way back to the source data, and now that what we make public (at any stage) gets linked to by those who discuss it, science is much more like a network than like a system for publishing results.

Finally, I talk about how this is not only a great time for science, it is also a great time to be stupid. If you want to ignore the inconvenient truths of science, you can surround yourself with a web of ignoramuses who provide a sham system of misconstructions that make falsehoods seem as profound as truths. But, the new stupidity in the Age of the Net is also due in part to the old stupid idea of science we got in the Age of Broadcast. Seeing networked science may — may — teach us more about how science works than did the announcements by the broadcast media of the latest, poorly-contextualized scientific study about Alzheimer’s and coffee, chocolate and heart attacks, and wifi and brain cancer. And it may lead us to view knowledge not as a set of self-standing truths, established and independent of us, so much as the constant processing of ideas through well-established, methods, by a complex network of humans — which long has been science’s view of truth anyway.

5 Responses to “[2b2k] Science chapter”

  1. Well, Weinberger, I guess you were not satisfied with bamboozling the reading public with your last book, the breathtakingly execrable “Everything is Miscellaneous”. Now if I understand correctly your bathetic blathering in this post you are getting ready to drop yet another horrific stink bomb of a book on the unsuspecting populace. At this point I must wonder if you have ever sat down at a computer keyboard without making a monumental deduction from the sum total of human knowledge. “Shameless” should be your middle name.

  2. Whether right or wrong, the comment above by D. Croner is completely unproductive.

  3. I wonder if your State department fellowship is bringing critical oddballs to the surface, David. I noticed Evgeny Morozov gave you (and the Berkman Center) a hard time in his Foreign Policy blog earlier this week too. Price of fame? Whatever. I’m sure you know that plenty of us critical oddballs are supportive of your work as well. (Actually, Morozov’s piece is kinda meaty and I’m still trying to ascertain what it’s about. Maybe his job is just to increment the denominator in the S/N ratio. Maybe it’s more than that.)

  4. Frank, the Evgeny Morozov article is about one aspect of corporate/goverment interconnection, with particular emphasis on tech businesses. The Berkman Center is a notable player there. And, simply stating the bare fact, David Weinberger has a public role in the overall system.
    (anti-strawman: It’s not a unique role, or all that powerful a role, but that’s true of many people within any system – there’s always a bunch of positions to perform certain functions) .

  5. I’ll get around to respond to Evgeny sooner or later — a lot to do at the moment and it’s not a simple piece to respond to — but: he’s right to raise concerns about cyberutopian foreign policy, but he’s factually mistaken about the role of the Berkman Center and about the positions of those he’s criticizing. Also, for the record, I am attached to the eDiplomacy group at State that is concerned solely with deploying Web 2.0 tools internally within the Department, the Franklin Fellowship and the Berkman Fellowship pay me a total of $0 (although there are other benefits of course), and Evgeny is broadly wrong about what Heidegger says about technology.

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