Wednesday, May 13, 2009

You Can't Tweet Science

One little piece of information I missed during my weeks without obsessive news content was the late-April gossip about a shakeup at the venerable Scientific American, in which both editor in chief John Rennie (above) and publisher Steven Yee left the magazine. While Rennie denies it, rumor is rampant that the board wants to take the magazine further into the Discover domain of consumer-aimed, Twitter-feed-led pop science. Shudder.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that Rennie didn't walk on water, though he wrote damned fine editorials and tried to hold the line against the superficiality tide sweeping science publications. SA had gone a bit crazy in brand-extension, launching bimonthly publications on the mind, and on special topics, that almost made the wider Scientific American brand as difficult to pace as The Economist. Hell, it was during the Rennie/Yee tenure that SA broadened into science cruises at sea, f'cryin' out loud ("not that there's anything wrong with that").

But I can see the 140-character handwriting on the Twitter wall now for insta-science feeds from our friends at SA. Ugh. Thankfully, Lost creator J.J. Abrams has spoken out in an essay in Wired against instant-gratification culture, and my dear friend and fellow blogger Ruth Mowry has reminded us that Twitter feeds of The New York Times were never a good idea. Scientific American, are you listening? Science can be fun and stimulating, to be sure, but it must also be serious, lengthy, and loaded with content.


The Rider said...

Hello Loring,

Remembering a friendly disagreement we had at lunch in Chicago a few years ago, I trust we are more aligned this time 

I first read SA back in high school when I could only understand half the articles. They were tough, deep and exploring. My impression is that lately SA is already disappointing may people. If it goes further towards Discover-ish style and content, maybe they should just get in line behind GM and the Boston Globe. New management makes sense.

I think New Scientist benefits from all of this. It provides a nice overview of lots of different activities in the scientific community. You can always dig deeper into whatever tickles your fancy.

Keep well,

John Brandte

Ruth said...

I still need to read that Wired essay that you first commented about at my blog.

I feel like during my 3-day vacation I have done nothing but try to create head space for the rest of my life - in order to balance the mega-information in some kind of zen outlook. I wish I could just let it be, but me brain isn't cooperating.

Loring Wirbel said...

And Science News in its biweekly format isn't half-bad either...

Loring Wirbel said...

Ruth, my brain has been uncooperative in playing "catch-up". Maybe I shouldn't.

Greeley's Ghost said...

What? You're saying that boiling the complexities of life into 140 characters is stupid? C'mon... where have you BEEN, man??
But seriously, to Ruth's point: I love social media and blogging and Tweeting and whatnot but when I disappear into the mountains for a few days, it just reinforces how unimportant it all is...a campfire, some wine and the rush of a nearby stream to serve as background to a few friends' social conversation (real social conversation), well that's where it's at.
But that's just one old bastard's musings.

Ruth said...

Agreeing back with GG.

It's the stories of how people interact with all this that matters. Wendell Berry talks about local farmers and how they tell stories of the land, of their parents and grandparents, of social histories as well as how scientific discoveries have affected them and their work. Information without context, without assessment of its impact on local communities - well we've seen the results of that crapola. If Monsanto cared one whip about farmers in India . . .

I see firsthand the college students who are Twittering, texting and calling someone on the phone every free minute. It is what it is, and I'm trying not to be all Luddite, but I don't think anyone is equipping these younguns to go deeper. Sure, they're fantastic at multi-tasking. But it's been proven that when you do five things at once you don't go as deep into any of them as if you do one thing for longer periods of time. Your brain synapses need the prolonged focus to make connections.

Blah blah blah. Wish we could sit and talk.

Ruth said...

Oh, well, coming back I have to say maybe the English professors in my department are trying to at least get students to do a close reading of a text. I wonder if it's working.

I mean, it's not that no one is working toward what we're talking about. But society in general, if you look at the media - jeez.

Loring Wirbel said...

We need to make it a challenge: "Only wimps use Cliff's Notes. Only losers use cheats. Taking the most direct route is as pathetic as asking for directions (this one only works for men)."

The popularity of competition reality-TV shows that people love to be challenged. Maybe we can challenge them to go deep, avoid superficiality. I try to do my part by repeating the mantra, "Twitter? How lame." Can't say it's working all that well so far.