Journalists gonna journal, haters gonna hate

go read Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal right nowOh, hey, big surprise: everybody wants to read science articles. I truly believe that is awesome, but I also truly believe that 99% of people have never read a research article.But still, you say, let’s have the publicly funded research results made available for all—regardless of whether or not they can make heads or tails of it. That makes sense, I say, but also there are actual researchers in the world who need access to these articles, so let’s make sure they have it.

Researchers have good resources. Even when I needed access to a journal that my school didn’t subscribe to, I could still go to a nearby school and find what I needed.

So if most researchers already have access to most research, doesn’t that mean that open access (loosely defined here as freely available; it’s not the same thing, i know, but let’s just use that label for the sake of convenience for now) mainly benefits non-researchers or people not affiliated with universities or their libraries?

Isn’t there a better way to inform this demographic? They are all clamoring for research articles (medical is a popular subject, for obvious reasons), but damned if they can make sense of it. Let’s think, who could maybe help out with describing important research to the public? Maybe journalists?

Ok, so that was a lot of questions bunched together, but the point is that journalists need to get their asses in gear.

This all leads to my proposal: let’s write about science more. Scientists, journalists, students… whoever.

As I see it, most science journalism sucks. There are some truly terrible things written about science and technology each and every day. There are the obvious mistakes that we see all the time, like misleading headlines, exaggerated results, quotes taken out of context, and all manner of hyperbole. These are of course serious problems, but they are surprisingly benign. People are smart enough to expect these types of headlines and attention-grabbing claims. It’s a sad state of journalism when readers are forced to read between the lines to understand a story’s subtleties.

Some of the less talked about problems are much more insidious. Take this recent article in the Wall Street Journal on the invention of the internet.

If it doesn’t immediately hit you, let me fill you in: this is political posturing, pure and simple. Therein, facts are twisted and squeezed until they fit nicely into whatever political-agenda-sized box that L. Gordon Crovitz inhabits.

This type of misinformation is apalling and I’ll leave it to Physics Today to hand this butthole his butt.

Despite the fact that the WSJ is a privately-owned newspaper and can publish whatever they please, my anger is still there. And if a mild-mannered internet scientist like me can get that angry, I wonder what some crazy conspiracy nut will think.

digression

Digression

One of the reasons that I got so excited about physics as an undergrad was electricity & magnetism. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “You said ‘one of the reasons’ jerk.” Oh yeah, I did say that, but guess what? Electricity and magnetism are linked together like spin and magnetic moment, wiener-face.

Ok, ok, let’s just take a deep breath here. I apologize for the language…

In introductory E&M there is a progression. First, ignore Maxwell’s equations, for now. Second, solve and describe the electric field E of a single electric charge. Next, figure out the magnetic field, B—hint: no moving charge means no B field (why B you ask? I have no idea — why do engineers use H for a magnetic field instead of B? I guess the world is pretty messed, dude).

Moving on: give the charge a velocity so that you have a current, I. Now solve for E and B. Now start adding more charges. Now add currents and maybe some random B fields. Finally, when you have the most complex configuration possible of charges, fields, conductors, insulators, and dielectrics, again solve for E and B, and don’t forget to describe the velocity, acceleration, momentum, and energy of your particles.

This sounds like a lot of work. But here are the secret weapons: superposition and symmetry. An insanely complex, many-body problem can be broken down into smaller, simpler problems, which we can easily solve, and then, we add all of the solutions together and voila! With this realization, my world was flipped-turned upside down. All the problems made sense.

What the heck does this have to do with open access, you ask? Well, it seems that OA is a rather complex problem. Many parties have many interests. I was invited to none of these parties, btw… 😦

So, in the interest of “solving” the problem of open access, let me suggest that we continue to do what is already being done: many different solutions. We do not need one giant solution that will fit every situation. PLoSOne is doing a good job. Physics Review Letters is doing a good job. Nature and Science are doing a good job.

Of course, all that I just said is arguable. Some people hate the way Nature is making a buttload of money. Some people hate that they have to pay $30 for a PRL article. Oh well. You can’t try to please everyone because some people cannot be pleased.

How close does this border on hateful language that is not protected speech?

What if the WSJ published this type of misinformation on some other topic? Like capital gains tax or clean coal? Oh wait, they already do that all the time… crap.

I am probably just exaggerating, but it’s ok because that is now the cool thing to do.

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