Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Popular science is the 99.99% of us who DON'T read the journal NATURE

unread by 99.99% !
The world's most important science journal is read by.... almost nobody.

 The British weekly publication NATURE , the most influential science journal by far in the world, sells only about 50,000 copies but its publisher says around 400,000 read it one way or another. So by its own count, less than .01% of the world reads it.

But NATURE is considered required weekly browsing for all professional scientists, in part to to maintain a credible claim that they are professional scientists.

So indirectly, via NATURE's readership, we have some gauge of just how few professional scientists there are in the world.

About the widest possible definition of a scientist says they regularly do scientific research that gets published in credible peer-reviewed journals in their field of endeavour.

It doesn't say they must be paid for doing so, and it does allow for those who could successfully publish their research, if military or commercial powers didn't prevent it, if only temporarily.

It admits that those who write about, administer or teach science may have once been active research scientists and could be so again, so that while not currently professional research scientists, they are at least highly credible critics of published research.

They must number in the range of millions.

Next are those science-trained professionals who only do "hands on" production science or impact science in government or industry but who can read and evaluate articles in their own area of expertise : again they must number in the range of millions, even tens of millions.

Then there are the students in university level science courses   who are able to usefully assess a published journal article in their own field of interest : they number in the tens of millions.

All together, perhaps 70 million out of a total world population of 7 billion can make some sense of some of the back page articles in the journal NATURE : the scientific "1% " .

But for the rest of us, the 99 % of us , we need the raw data of those dense and turgid articles filtered and translated by science populariziers.

The editors of NATURE, in the front pages of the journal, do a pretty good job of rendering their back page articles into lay language and assessing why these highly specialized reports of research in obscure areas of science nevertheless matter for the 7 billion "rest of us".

Other science journalists and science book writers also try to render - second hand - what NATURE's articles really mean for the non-professional 99% of humanity.

Among the "us" in the 99% or the 99.99% are the most powerful people in the world : presidents of countries or of corporations, generals, publishers of newspapers , activist movie and rock stars .

We , by our power, our money or (for most of us) by our votes and buying dollars will decide most of the big science issues : not NATURE.

This is hard - in fact impossible - for most lifers in professional science to believe.

"Let us bring forth the real-world facts, as predicted by a successful lab-theory, and what more needs be done ?" they cry.

Maybe, once. Maybe once, most of the science-besotted middle and upper classes in the world would have automatically accepted anything NATURE reported at face value (the religious and the peasantry might have scoffed, but who cares about their opinions ?)

But that was before 1945, and 1965, and 1995 . The popular image of Science has undergone two - opposing - and profound changes.

For about one half of the world, the old, pre-1945 image of the scientist remains the same - only today's real-life scientists don't live up to that image.

For the other one half of the world, the old style scientist has been rejected completely and they rather like the new post-war style of scientist.

All this matters, because both sides do not accept or reject new scientific articles based on their own internal scientific evidence, but rather more based on how they feel about the sort of person who delivers them.

In other words, "if they don't like the messenger, they shoot down the message".

The three filters of Science

This blog is concerned about how science evidence is thrice-filtered, rather like Gaul or Saint Peter's Rooster.

First by the multi-person filter of the scientist, his or her employer-superiors and the journal editor cum referees.

Successfully passing through this filter, private science is now public ( published) science.

Next up on the filter machine are the popular Science gatekeepers : the editors and journalists who decide whether this new research gets splashed, downplayed or even ignored in popular science periodicals and in newspapers and on TV.

Finally past this second filter, how do we, the remaining 98% of humanity, assess it ?

If it is first only widely reported in the UK Guardian newspaper that Tasmania is now seeing tropical fish thanks to human climate change, and then this news item is re-published in a hacked up and mocking manner by the Wall Street Journal , the readers of that latter newspaper are likely to deny its truthfulness as mere "warmist claptrap science".

We are the third and final filter ---the biggest one of them all.

How, and why, do we assess this particular - specialized - bit of new scientific research the way we do ?

We don't - we have a few vivid, semi-permanent, images of "Science" in each of our heads and we simply run every new bit of data against those few rigid memes : and then we award a simple pass or fail.

Fundamentally, whether we prefer our scientists to be pre-war SkyGods or post-war earthlings is the only filter we have to assess all the immense amount of science-related news items that hits us weekly.

This is why, in science as in economics , this blog is focussed on the 99%  , not the 1% .....


  1. I'm trying to follow your blog postings here and I'm still having trouble. Are you saying that the pre-war Skygods were scientists on the right and post-war earthlings are scientists on the left?

    "..widely reported in the UK Guardian newspaper that Tasmania is now seeing tropical fish thanks to human climate change.."

    Deniers look at tropical fish in a new place as evidence of climate change only, it is not evidence that CO2 is the cause.


  2. I recenetly read in Scientisifc American that over 95% of scientists in academia vote Democrat, Republican scientists are rather rare nowadays.


  3. Sorry Klem for my delay in replying ; I am out of town for a funeral and not at my laptop.

    I think 99% of pre war scientists - left and right -were Modernists , late Victorian Modernists.

    The leaders in all aspects of life in 1940 were men born between 1870 and 1901, born at the birth cum height of Scientism.

    Most of the basic scientists are democrat or left today - I know a geologist told me it is rare to see conservatives in his university sciences - he is one - he said they may be there but quiet to keep the peace.

    Applied scientists might well still lean conservative or republican.

    What has changed is that more and more basic scientists have rejected Modernity for something I call a sense of global commensality - a sense that humans are stuck into Nature not far above it.

    I will look up that article.

    I can tell you that while researching my book on wartime penicillin I discovered why remote Peoria got the NRRL research facility in 1939. FDR found 1930s university precincts always voted heavily republican so these research jobs were going to his rural small town supporters !