Tearing Down Skyscrapers for Interstate Highways

In reading the second half of Too Big to Know, one very important message shone bright – that the nature of science is changing, and so, our outlets for science must change with it. I believe that, with the formation of the scientific internet, that major scientific print publications must switch to the web or be left behind.

I believe such a dramatic shift must occur for three main reasons – firstly, that such a change would quicken the publication process, and thus the scientific process, significantly; secondly, that such a medium would allow for a bi-directional flow of information, thus improving the speed of discussion, iteration, and scientific advancement; and finally, that such a change would allow researchers and scientists to harness the massive untapped potential of amateur scholars.

Currently, research and publication is severely hindered by the speed of print. Whereas an article could be published instantly on the internet, a print publication can take multitudes longer. Victor Henning, creator of Mendeley, an online publication sharing platform, aptly states the problem in saying “if I’m writing a paper today it takes a year to get it peer reviewed and another year to get it published”. The fact that it takes two years in order for modern information to get to its consumers makes the entire process prohibitively expensive in terms of progress. Conversely, Mendeley, as previously mentioned, allows for immediate publication and discussion – a huge perk to the scientific community, as shown by its “450,000 registered users and 33 million articles” a mere twenty months after its conception.

However, as if the fact that this information gets to the populace immediately weren’t enough, an online publishing platform would also allow for immediate fact-checking, criticism, and further progress. This is fantastic, because it allows for immediate feedback and development, as opposed to the long and arduous process of print publication. As witnessed in Deolalikar’s proof of P = NP, “within two days, Delolalikar’s paper suffered the fate of prior attempts … both armchair and professional math pundits proceeded to tear it apart in comments sections and subsequent blgo posts, finding major flaws.” Had Delolalikar’s paper been published via print, not only would it have taken years to enter the public sphere, but upon entry, it would have taken years further in order for a formal response to be published. Rather, we skip these four plus years of peer review and bureaucracy, and instead directly enter the meat of the matter.

But wait, there’s more! This process also allows for immediate and organic collaboration with hundreds, if not thousands, of interested scholars. While they may be amateurs, the probing minds of this horde strictly outperform the handful of brilliant minds belonging to peers and colleagues. While these amateurs may not be breaking any new ground or establishing any new theories, this teeming mass is more than happy to fact-check every last detail. Albeit with a slightly disappointed connotation, Weinberg puts it succintly: “These amateurs are not tearing down the wall of credentials within which the scientific community lives. They are extending the apparatus of science.” It would be foolish to let such a powerful resource go to waste.

I made a city metaphor in previous blog posts, describing the science of old as a city built tall and narrow, and the internet as one built flat and wide. To return to that metaphor, this shift would be the equivalent of taking a tower-top restaurant with elevators slow to rise, and swapping it out with a huge drive-through on an even bigger highway. Sure, it’s a little less fancy, but the tradeoff in throughput makes it more than worth it.

Changes in Knowledge Creation

When I was younger, I had a junior encyclopedia set. Everything presented in the set was knowledge that was agreed upon by whoever published the set. The books included all of what the authors deemed necessary and excluded everything thought to be unworthy of publication. The information in that set was the truth, and that was end of it.

With the rapid increase in use and popularity of the Internet, the amount of information that is presented as true has grown. Anyone can present their analysis of a subject online. Amateurs can argue for hours with professionals on social media websites on nearly any issue, but they also work together online. Either an amateur or a professional can post their findings online, but now it is up to the reader to analyze the research’s authenticity. This is an issue in online knowledge creation. In Weinberger’s Too Big to Know, he mentions the controversial figure Jenny McCarthy, whose large media presence has been used to convince parents that vaccinations are dangerous and can cause autism in their children. This is not based on anything resembling science, yet many viewers perceive the medical advice from the actress/model McCarthy as knowledge.

Another part of Weinberger’s discourse on open knowledge creation is the idea of public research. There is the example in Chapter 7 of Jean-Claude Bradley’s “UsefulChem,” which was an attempt to document Bradley’s lab’s work and relay the information to the public. This is an important development in the realm of knowledge creation for a few reasons. First, this exercise teaches the public how the research method actually works. An interesting observation that Weinberger makes is that journals rarely publish boring or negative test results, yet most research projects conclude with such results. Second, the exercise alters the traditional temporality of the research results. In the past, time consisted of two parts for the public in reference to a research project: the time before the research results were published, and the time following the publication. With a live experiment like Bradley’s, the public could now follow his research as it went, well before publication of the results. This would allow the public to use Bradley’s findings to theorize for themselves. Having such an open platform could take away credit from those doing the experiments, but more knowledge is being created and science may actually benefit from it. It is an interesting balance that will need examination in the coming years.

 

Openness

The Internet is like a big playground, and it just seems to be getting bigger. More and more people are joining conversations in the Internet and some are wondering if certain people should be allowed to play or not. This openness has allowed people that were previously untrusted with knowledge to gain access to tools, information, and ways of communication to collaborate and voice their ideas. As Weinberger says, this has not eliminated the need for professional scientists but has certainly grayed the area because of the mix of public and the “professionals” (131).

With more contributors, there is of course an abundance of knowledge and information with the Internet. As we have discussed before, there is an inherent problem that comes with the openness. We have to acknowledge that not everything is truthful. We often have to dig through layers or search a long time to find the “best” information. As summed up by Weinberger, knowledge has become a playlist and not a library. We search for something and we get results, similar to looking in a genre for songs.

Not only is there an abundance of information, as networks are created between people and groups of people, authorship is beginning to lose its grip. If more minds collaborate on an idea, everyone may be able to benefit because a better product can be produced. In the past, we have limited the production of ideas to the original people that thought them up, not allowing changes that could make it better until a certain time. Even now, copyright laws have been strengthened to encourage this thinking. We need to allow the public access to these ideas so that collaboration can produce a better idea for the general public.

We need to learn how to play well with others. We need to learn that as a group, we can make good ideas better. Of course, there are downfalls but the public will benefit greatly from this type of openness. There will always be a need for professionals but amateurs have much to offer as well. One thing is for sure, the playground is only going to get bigger.