Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you are interested in science and you want to learn more about it. Maybe you’re tired of creation vs evolution debates and you want to do the research yourself, or maybe you just want to become a more informed citizen. Whatever your reasons, you have a few options but none of them are all that appealing.
First, you can obtain most of your information online (as most people do). This includes subscribing to the various RSS feeds such as National Geographic, Scientific American, Space.com, and the PLoS journals. Now, aside from PLoS, what you can expect from these services is a wide assortment of scientific news written for the average lay person by a professional writer or journalist. Many of the topics will be media friendly because each site makes money off of online ad revenue and will not be very in depth. You will get a decent overview of the topic at hand but often you will notice that further reading is required.
The PLoS Journals are unique in that they are professional, peer reviewed journals that scientists pay to publish in. They are really no different than other professional journals and are often quite good. PLoS, hopefully, is the wave of the future, but we’ll get back to them a little later.
Your next option would be to subscribe to a print magazine. Again, much of what you can find online will also be found in the magazine, but sometimes the articles are slightly more in depth. Over the years I have subscribed to National Geographic, Scientific American, Astronomy and others. Lugging around boxes of 10 year old magazines (heavy, I might add), can be allot of trouble but at least you can hold them in your hand. Once more, the magazines make money from the advertising contained within so the articles are usually written for the lay person, though on occasion you might come across something with some meat in it (though not often). The real difference is that you have to pay $20-$40 a year for 12 issues of a popular print magazine.
The final option is to go right for the jugular and subscribe to a real peer review scientific journal. These are not called magazines because they are not condensed news and are written by the scientists who actually did the research (well, usually some poor grad student typed it up, but you get the idea). The language can range from well written (a scientist with some liberal arts influence) to downright cryptic (a scientist who expects to only write for other scientists in their field). In other words, very often you will need a degree in the subject you are reading about. The largest hurdle to a peer-reviewed journal is the price. A subscription to Science or Nature is double that of Scientific American, but you do get 52 issues per year. Other journals are much more expensive – in some cases costing thousands of dollars annually. I’ve compiled a list below of some of the more popular and well regarded journals:
General Science : Science : $99.00 (weekly, online only)
Astronomy : The Astrophysical Journal : $1525.00 (weekly, online only)
Chemistry : Journal of the American Chemical Society : $3589.00 (weekly)
Physics : Physical Review : $40.00 (monthly)
Biology : Cell : $179.00 (bi-monthly, 26 issues)
Medicine : New England Journal of Medicine : $99.00 (weekly, online only)
Total Annual Subscription Rates : $5531.00 (does not include shipping rates or ISP fees)
For a real, in depth journey into the bowels of scientific research, you can expect to pay nearly $6000 annually to stay up to date on the latest, greatest discoveries (a few of which may even remain relevant in the face of newer research for a year or two).
So, what is the concerned, scientifically minded citizen to do? Personally, I get allot of my information off of the web and through books at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com. Trouble is, that even though I have a good mind for science and I can usually weed out the bollocks from the real stuff, it’s hard to really know if what I’m getting is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the unfettered, un-hyped, un-sensationalized truth.
About 100 years ago (or more), it would have been possible for one person to stay atop and even contribute somewhat to the scientific process. One person working alone in his basement could perform experiments, make observations and create new technology that might better the world in some way. Back then, science was seen as a new frontier and a ways with which humanity could finally pull itself from the medieval ooze of religious darkness into the great enlightenment of a bright and useful future. Everyone, from old ladies to young people were excited about the possibilities of progress and science because it seemed that finally the mysteries of the universe were at our fingertips and all we had to do was muster the courage and imagination to forge ahead with our grand ideas.
Today, however, that is simply not the case. While it may be possible for the lay person to make a breakthrough (such as an asteroid hunter making an astronomical discovery), the chances of you or I contributing in any significant (or even insignificant way) to the scientific process is pretty much nil. The cost is simply too high. Even a decent telescope such as a 10″ Meade reflector (though I prefer a good refractor because I’m old-school and I appreciate quality optics) will set you back thousands of dollars.
This high cost of science is a major contributing factor to the decline of the popular scientific process and it’s no wonder that science and scientists are not held in any high regard by a major portion of the American population. People are skeptical of science because it’s practically impossible for the average Joe or Jane to independently verify the results or even comprehend the findings in print format. What we are left with is relying on paid professional journalists to “dumb down” the science in such a way that it’s readable but also very often misleading. These journalists may only focus on one aspect of a discovery and totally disregard the other research solely because it is “boring” and won’t sell magazine subscriptions. To compound the frustration, when these journalists “get it wrong” people become even more skeptical. I’m sure most of you can easily count how many times you’ve read a retraction or addendum to a major discovery.
Science, then, has become such a foreign culture to our lives (even though we so heavily rely on it), that we just don’t think about it anymore. Many people not only don’t think about, they outright don’t trust or believe it. Think about how many people believe global warming is a hoax, or that the moon landing was faked, or that evolution is a lie. Now imagine if the scientific process was more accessible to the average person. Do you think we would still have this mistrust of science in general?
I spoke earlier about the PLoS journals and I want to point to them as a reason for hope. PLoS is freely available to the general public, and though the language can be very daunting in each article, it is not impossible for a fairly intelligent person to make sense of what they are reading about, even if some of the details are a bit fuzzy. My hope is that in the future, we will see more of this type of publication so that more people can gain access to a very important part of the personal education.
However, scientists themselves must also be responsible for what they publish. Though it would be impossible to write a full paper dealing with the quantum fluctuations of the atomic structure of the nitrogen atom in a superheated state without relying on some “thick” language, it should not be written in such a way that someone with a good mind can’t read it either. The other main reason why science is not trusted anymore is because nobody knows what the hell scientists are talking about. Yet scientists are really just teachers, right? They explore the unknowns of the universe and report their findings, yet when they (or their grad students) type up the paper, they too often forget that they need to be writing in a style that is assessable to more than just the 5 other people in their field.
Science has a responsibility to the people who will ultimately benefit from the process – you and I. Though I would never require scientists to “dumb down” their findings for the average citizen because it is also our responsibility to raise our own intelligence as well, it should never the less be a requirement that scientists never forget why they are doing the research in the first place. Science must be held accountable to not only present their findings in a clearer and more concise manner, but they should also explore every possible alternative to publish those findings so that the majority of people have reasonable access to them. $6000 a year for journal subscriptions just is not going to cut it anymore.
Scientific journals need to stop stealing the science away from the average citizen because they have been a major reason why people have wandered off to study Intelligent Design and Young Earth theories. I mean, think about it, do you see this fake research being sold to Christians for $1000 annual subscription rates? Of course not because if that were the case, nobody would read that crap either. Yet the people who wish to dabble in falsehoods and fake science, understand economics much better than the real scientists do. They know that if they keep the cost down, they can reach the brains of millions more people and influence their thinking.
I’m not saying science should be free, but science can no longer be practiced for such a high cost because if it does, we will only see even more people put their faith in the cheaper sciences (psychics, faith healers, creationists and the rest of the bull). I do understand that science is an expensive field (particle accelerators don’t exactly grow on trees, you know), but if more average people were excited about science, they would be more willing to allow their tax dollars to go fund such expensive programs.
It is high time we put the scientific process back in the public eye because the days of white lab coated, goggle wearing, funding greedy, secretive scientists will only lead to another demise in enlightened civilization. Do we really want to live in a future where prayer replaces medicine, where astrology predicts when to plant the crops and where alchemists attempt to create the next alloy for a space craft?