The decline of popular science journals.
We are creatures of habit and pleasure. When we find something of pleasure, we tend to revisit it with regularity. Despite what a large part of the mainstream media might have you believe, not all pleasure starts at the gullet and ends at the genitalia, though eating well and making love, are of course pastimes we all enjoy.
Your pleasures are as individual as you. It might be an actor or actress you like, who only ever appears in movies you enjoy, so whatever they’re in, you make a point of seeing. A musician or band, who rings your bell, so you always buy their latest CD, irrespective of the reviews. It’s that restaurant or diner you love to go to. It has an atmosphere, the food is good, the staff are fun and you don’t have to wash any dishes after the meal, just pay the bill. It’s that writer you like, the sportsman you find admirable, the team you’ll always support, the columnist you enjoy reading or a magazine you subscribe to, because you always find the articles engrossing.
They’re all pleasures in their own way but we’ve all had the experience of realising something you liked has gone off the boil. Their last few films were pretty forgettable, the last couple of books were a shadow of what they’d previously written and the last few CDs, though critically acclaimed, you know in your heart of hearts, were pretty ordinary.
It’s always a bit sad when that moment of realisation arrives. You know it’s gone and you also know it only very rarely comes back. Sure, you see the odd flash of the old days, but that’s all that’s left, just the odd flash. I remember reading Islands in the Stream and understanding why he’d taken his own life; a fine writer, who can no longer write, is a useless creature. He was always too honest and too hard on himself, right down to the end.
I like to read and I like to read speculative stuff in science, because the ideas give me pleasure. It doesn’t really matter if it’s hard science or soft science or science fiction. Sure, I like reading literature with the capital L but it rarely has those mind-blowing ideas. The big ones. The what Ifs that rock you back out of the read, the mebbe it actually works this way or just imaginings of a world that doesn’t work the way you’ve always thought it did. Even the playful ideas like Feynman’s fractional charges of particles. He was taking the Mickey big time but it was done so artfully, it was just fun.
Part of pursuing that pleasure, was renewing subscriptions to popular magazines such as Scientific American, The New Scientist, National Geographic and Nature. For each of those magazines, and some others, I reached a point where I realised they no longer dealt in big ideas, and the truth to be told, no longer even dealt in science. They’d dumbed down to touchy feely mysticism, a weird sort of political correctness and agenda-driven articles and papers. One by one, as the renewal dates arrived, I cancelled the subscriptions.
There are still many fine specialist journals around but the popular science magazines, with the big circulations, have all gone down to the same debilitating disease.
Writing easy mystical stuff, pretending to be a science article, is a cake walk. What the hell, I’ll tell you exactly how to do it. Your starter is always the headline. You gorra go for something eye-catching. Scientists say the world’s going to end next Tuesday at exactly 8 minutes and 14 seconds past noon. Eating salads can kill you. Your household pet is your worst enemy. Researchers say having Tantric sex could add years to our life. Any one of those headlines will pull in the punters and its link to the article, doesn’t have to be very strong. The next thing, actually writing the article, is a bit more difficult, but not particularly arduous, if you take the lazy approach.
You can try to read the paper about the science you know bugger all about or you can just look at the press release. If there isn’t a press release, read the abstract. If the abstract means nothing to you, hunt up the office nerd, who will actually have read the whole damn thing. Ask him about it and shut him down after a few minutes. You’ve found your angle, so you can just write that up and anyway, you know the sort of spin the old Hippies upstairs like. Half an hour’s work, and it’s heading for the printing presses. It actually means nothing, you don’t care about it anyway and you move onto the next piece. Shit like that writes itself and guess what, you’ll be paid for putting your name to it. Everyone else is doing the same, life is good, Ford is in his flivver and if you keep on doing that sterling work for the next twenty years or so, you’ll eventually get a journalism prize, for being a great communicator of science. It’s a living, I suppose.
Writing with honesty, accuracy and lucidity about the hard stuff in science is a bastard. First off, you actually do have to read those papers. They might not mean heads nor tails to you, so you have to go away and learn something about that area of science. You eventually write the piece and then you go back over it. First thing you lose are any equations or graphs. They are, after all, just a stripped down minimalist language anyway, so you have to express exactly the same meaning, but using those old-fashioned things called words. You have to find a way to do that cleanly, each time and every time, because you know most people are graduates of that aversion therapy course, run by that seemingly endless supply of bad math teachers.
Next comes all the initials; they’ve got to go. Leave a bunch of them in the thing, and it all starts to look like one of those doorstop Russian books, where you have to start writing down the names of all the characters, just to keep track of who the hell is doing what to whom. Next comes zapping the Swahili, you might speak it fluently but the ordinary reader doesn’t. Move it into English, dummy. If you can’t write it without the jargon, you’re the idiot. Lastly, but most importantly, don’t insult their intelligence. You’re supposed to be an adult having an intelligent conversation with other adults. Damn well write like it.
When you’ve done all of that stuff, you have to walk away from it for a few days and come back to try to read it yet again with a fresh eye and ask yourself, does it have real content, red meat, something that means something. The next question you ask about it is the killer. If it was on a sheet of paper you found on the seat beside you in a bus, or in a train, or in a diner, or in a bar, would you find it sufficiently engaging to get to the third paragraph? Would you keep reading or at least be sufficiently intrigued to fold it up, shove it into your back pocket for later, because you’d arrived at your stop? If it fails those simple tests, you throw it all away, grab a fresh sheet of paper and start all over again. If you want to do it right, that’s the territory.
You do anything else, you’re just another lazy liar, busy lying to the reader, like the rest of the media whores. Yes, whores, because the best whores simulate what the client wants, just for money. I show you beaucoup good time GI. Jigga jigga. Plenty boom boom. Tell me what you want, I do it. I be who you want me to be, baby. I love you long time, big time. Gimme your five Dollar.
The only dread I have about blogging, and I do mean dread, is putting out a piece that means nothing more than that I’ve shoved out something, anything. That’s just prostitution of your integrity and showing complete contempt for the reader. They don’t all have to be atom smashers but they do have to have a point and a real one. If there’s ever a good gap between blogs, it’ll be because I’d rather stay silent than offer you thinly disguised crap. That gap will come some day and I’d like you to understand and respect that when it happens. You want boom boom and jigga jigga to fill in the gaps, tune into another blog. It ain’t going to happen here.
This decline in the standard of journalism in the popular science journals, is part of the traditional mainstream media’s overall decline. It’s now more about the entertainment of 12 year olds and passive people, with an atrophied sense of curiosity. Increasingly, that’s its survival mechanism and though it’s a bit pathetic, you can’t blame it. That’s all they’ve got left to offer and to be frank, that’s the audience they’ve reduced themselves to. The advertising money has mostly moved online, because that’s where the audiences are moving to.
What I do know is that we’re now it. All those popular science journals we loved to read are gone. They’re actually irrelevant now. Sure, they’re all still on an automatic subscription renewal on most academic institutions but the young minds are now reading the science blogs, because that’s where it’s at. If they can’t sell the same uninteresting drivel in the physical world, what makes them think it’ll fare any better just translated into pages on the internet? And it isn’t selling there either. It really is all about content, as it always was, and the traditional media in this area have been found wanting.
The huge and winning advantage the science blogosphere has over those dinosaur science journals is money. They can make it, we can’t, and paradoxically, that’s precisely what is killing them.
For them, the cover price barely covers printing costs. The real money is made from the advertisers and the advertisers don’t give a rat’s ass about content; for them it’s always just about circulation numbers. If you don’t have the numbers, you don’t get the advertisers, which means you don’t get the money. The journals have to work harder and harder to keep the circulation up and are quite happy to dumb down the content to hit those numbers. Keep it up, keep it up, is the incessant battle cry.
Despite all those blue coloured Viagra snag-them-in headlines and those easy brain mush articles of kiddie science for the under twelves, Professor X has become Doctor Droopy. The circulation numbers are all still heading south and the readerships, especially the young, are all heading out into those more interesting Mad Max badlands of the science blogosphere.
Their instincts are correct in doing so as well. The only common denominator every revolution in science has, is a bloody good fight. A battle is always fought between the new idea and the currently accepted wisdom. Traditionally, it raged across papers, studies, articles and letters to the journals. You will not see these controversial upstart ideas in any of the popular journals, because they’re in that cancerous grip of consensus groupthink. If an idea is not mainstream, it simply won’t be published. The big new ideas, and the battles over them, will first be fought over and settled in the science blogosphere, long before they ever hit the mainstream publications.
The decline all comes down to laziness and money. The money means they’re driven by the audience numbers, to do the type of content, to attract them for the advertising. We can’t make any money, so we write the content as we see it and the audience arrives or they don’t. We actually don’t have anyone to sell out to. There is something nice and secure about being able to say that.
In simple terms, their circulation numbers drive the content, whereas our content drives the circulation numbers. It’s an honest way not to make a living.
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