This is a condensation of a piece on my web site: WHAT ARE THE NEW YORK TIMES SCIENCE FORUMS GOOD FOR? Can newspapers really participate in science? Can they really cover it? Should they? by M. R. Showalter and S. J. Kline, http://www.wisc.eud/rshowalt/whytimes written about six months before Professor Kline's death.
It says something about barriers to innovation. It speaks about the role of newspapers, and the forums, in the process of effective intellectual innovation: ..................... Bob Showalter
business, different parts of a firm are expected to reach workable agreements
about what the truth is. Commercial realities force this.
Some of the forces are internal and some external. Claims a
firm makes are often subject to scrutiny by public agencies, and overclaims
that result in loss to customers can draw lawsuits. In engineering
(particularly in fields like automotive or aeronautical engineering, where
safety is a major issue) requests for right answers are "command performances."
However, in the academy, major, operationally important disparities between
fields can go unresolved for many decades. I believe that academic usages
are irresponsible in this way, and would remain so regardless of the stakes,
even if hundreds of millions of dollars, or tens of thousands of researcher
years, or thousands of unnecessary deaths were at stake. If
scientists are better than ordinary citizens in some ways, they are worse
If one lives in a university, and sees the pressures people confront there, this is understandable. People's careers depend on the reaction of the "invisible colleges" of their specialty to their work. They depend almost not at all on responsibilities to a larger "body of scholars" or to the public at large.
(insert from Steve: A larger question arises here. What responsibilities do scientists have, particularly professors with lifetime tenure, to our social system? The answers can be unfortunate when they happen by default.)
Any faculty member has struggled desperately hard
for a paid place as a member of his specialty. Graduate students are under
severe pressure to make that same grade by the particular and specialized
standards of their invisible college. Publications are central
to gaining and justifying status in the "invisible colleges."
Published papers are a core requirement for academic hiring and promotion
- a publication is, in large part, a "chit" for employment, issued
after the writer has shown sufficiently high qualification according to
the specific standards of the particular discipline (invisible college)
in which the work is done. With a few elite exceptions, the
editors of the academic journals are overworked and undercompensated in
money. These editors are motivated by service to THEIR invisible college,
and by a desire to gain honor in THAT PARTICULAR invisible college.
Paper reviewers for the journals, practically always uncompensated, also
do their editorial work as a honorific duty to THEIR invisible college.
This is honorable work, motivated, as much of the good work of society
is, by notions of duty and status. Society derives enormous
advantage from such hard, careful work. Still, the question
arises - what happens if publishing an argument would reduce or endanger
the status of the editors and reviewers who let the work be published?
What happens if someone asks that a piece be published, or that an idea
be considered, that questions and may in some way undermine the invisible
college itself? In such cases, we cannot be surprised if all
concerned within the invisible college recall that
who troubleth his own house will inherit the wind."
11 - 29
How will an idea that strongly "troubles their own house" fare? For psychological reasons, that idea may not be understood at all. But suppose it is. How will rational (and often fearful) professors and graduate students react to it? What happens if a member of the group champions it? How long can she do so, and how vigorously can she do so, and remain a member of her invisible college in good standing? What happens to her if she loses that good standing?
What does this do to the publication prospects of an unwelcome idea?
Editors are human, and will not like to give the gift
of publication, which operationally exists in their sole discretion, under
these circumstances. The same question has redoubled
force if the people asking for consideration and publication are outsiders.
By understandable standards of professional fairness, OUTSIDERS
are not appropriate players in a competition for chits for employment and
promotion. The journals now deal primarily in such chits.
who radically questions an invisible college is an outsider by definition,
or becomes one very quickly.
rules make the task of the boatrocker harder still, by penalizing anyone
who becomes convinced by her. Federal grant requirements lock
investigators in, so that admission of the need to change, on the basis
of new ideas or new information, is an admission of defeat.
The upshot is that our professional journals, and other semi-organized patterns of our invisible colleges are not adapted to consider or publish controversial pieces that dispute the accepted wisdom of the invisible colleges involved. The notion of fairness to new ideas or fairness to outsiders is in conflict with the specializations in place.
The academic journals often do the jobs they are built for well. The professoriate and their subordinates and apprentices often do their jobs well. The jobs the academic journals are built for, and the professoriate is rewarded for, are essential jobs. Nonetheless, the journals are now repositories and developers of a carefully edited truth, according to self-chosen and self- enforced standards of specialized invisible colleges. The professors are engaged in the elaboration and defense of that truth. This may be ideal specialization so long as the ideas of the invisible college involved are right. This may be the usual case. Even so, these arrangements and specialized patterns are NOT adapted for discussion in the broad sense in which that term is understood elsewhere in society. In their natural, unsupervised state, these arrangements are not engines for determining truth as the notion of truth is understood elsewhere in society.
have a role to play in science. .............................
The need for newspapers in the sciences is, in important
ways, the need for newspapers everywhere else in society. When
"HOW WOULD THIS LOOK, IF WRITTEN UP OBJECTIVELY, AND IN DETAIL, IN THE NEW YORK TIMES?"
.....issues of communal responsibility are more carefully thought about, and better looked after, than they would be otherwise.
NYT forums can discuss issues that the focused journals cannot.
They can deal with issues without being much constrained by issues of territory
and status. They have a real, creative intellectual service
If one is to have hope of working out a problem, one must first sharply, carefully describe it.
Prior to sharp description, one may face a mystery, an unspeakable mystical strangeness in some body of relations.
Sometimes, after the work of sharp, careful, well checked
description, a mystery may be transmuted into something much different
and far more precious. The hard thought and description may have generated
a sharp, defined contradiction.
Such a clearly defined contradiction is a target identified, a place to reassess and rebuild, a source of hope. A mystery is a call to awe and stasis. A contradiction is a call to thought and action.
The forums can facilitate this descriptive sharpening.