Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Science Summaries

Anybody who’s ever read so much as a Malcolm Gladwell article or an Alfie Kohn book knows that science can be fascinating, that its attempts at answering our questions not only can have a real impact on our lives but are interesting in their own right. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place that reported these things?

If this exists, please tell me — I’d love to read it. But if it doesn’t, I’d like to start one. Here’s the idea:

We have a bunch of contributors, each of whom reads a variety of journals or journal summaries. When they come across an article that seems particularly interesting, they write up a one or two paragraph summary of the experiment and the findings aimed at an intelligent but generalist audience along with a link to the actual article.

So here’s an example of what this might look like:

Economists at Cornell and Indiana University tried to see if television causes autism. Thinking that rainfall could cause kids to watch more TV and thus induce autism, they looked at county-level data in California, Oregon, and Washington — states with high variability in rainfall — and found that autism was was correlated with rainfall (R^2=.77). Thinking that the use of cable TV was another random variable that increased autism, they looked at similar data in California and Pennsylvania and found the use of cable TV correlated with autism (R^2=.21). [Paper]

(I probably screwed up the R^2 bit, but that’s why I’m looking for other people to write these.) Of course, this particular study got lots of media attention (that’s why I knew about it), but I’m hoping that with enough contributors we’ll uncover interesting studies that don’t make it into the general news.

So the contributors write a paragraph like this and send it in to an editor, who posts it to a blog, where people can subscribe and comment and so on like any other blog.

I’m happy to set up the blog and serve as the initial editor, so what I really need are contributors. Do you read journals or other reports of new science? If so, either post here (be sure to include your email so I can contact you!) or email me@aaronsw.com with a list of the journals or news sources you read and would be willing to go thru.

Or, if you have comments on the idea, feel free to post those too.

You should follow me on twitter here.

October 18, 2006


You can try New Scientist (http://www.newscientist.com/home.ns). It is the online version of the paper-based magazine. Most of the news items are free but the in-depth articles are subscription based only.

posted by Alex on October 18, 2006 #

how about Sci Tech Daily Review (a bit like Arts & Letters Daily) at http://scitechdaily.com/

posted by David Mackinder on October 18, 2006 #


posted by Seth Finkelstein on October 18, 2006 #

Having a well classified river of abstracts is a good idea. But what is missing in the media/Internet is a method of determining which propositions are true. One way to do that would be to have “reading groups” which assembled a context about a particular proposition and delved into it sufficiently to come up with a finding. It would be like an ad hoc commission. I’ve done a couple of these inquiries in http://fastblogit.com/tags/inquiry%20node but i seem to the the only person interested in pursuing a better truth. The whole point of a “reading group” would be to extend the intelligence of the inquiry beyond the single brain pan that lies on one side of my reading glasses.

posted by Seth Russell on October 18, 2006 #

I read lots of science press releases and abstracts (and more rarely actual papers) and love talking about them, so this sounds like a good idea to me. My brother reads Science magazine, which arrives every week, contains full peer-reviewed papers, and also contains lots of the kinds of “news/interest/chat” stuff… I mostly rely on him to read the good bit aloud to me.

posted by Zooko on October 18, 2006 #

I wonder if those Cornell and Indiana University economists [economists?] considered reading Aaorn Swartz articles as a variable that might possibly increase autism? What about people who live in rainy climates, receive cable TV, and watch it excessively while reading Aaron Swartz articles?

Hmmmm..I think we are on to something.

Now excuse me as I return to studying my snow globe…

posted by ged on October 18, 2006 #

This already exists: it’s called Science News. You can see their website at http://sciencenews.org/ , but by far the preferred way to read it is to get the magazine. It’s weekly, and it routinely has three-or-so paragraph summaries of interesting and new research. It also usually has 2 or 3 featured articles per issue, as well, which highlight some scientific research for 2 or 3 pages or so.

I’m not sure if all of the articles are also put online (I imagine not, but maybe the featured articles are), but I’d highly recommend subscribing to the magazine. It’s the only physical magazine that I find actually reports on relevant things in a timely manner.

posted by Simone Manganelli on October 18, 2006 #

I’ll second scienceblogs.com, but note that it seems to be increasingly moving away from just summarizing science papers and toward broader discussion of anything vaguely related to science. At least that’s what I’ve noticed in the few I read.

posted by Scott Reynen on October 19, 2006 #

The Medical Letter does this for doctors. It is wildly expensive, but has zero advertizing. This is also one of the economies of scale that doctors gain through group practice, and a major advantage of being in acadamia in general. Your new science subreddit is good; hopefully it will improve with usage (training?). I admit I was just thinking as I went through science.reddit that a much more valuable resource would be a reddit of journal articles. Maybe you could start a PubMed subreddit that cross-checks all new posts to verify they correlate with journals or books indexed in PubMed. Then we could post to Grand Rounds, other blog carnivals, and medical libraries to get the word out.

posted by Niels Olson on October 20, 2006 #

As can be seen in the replies above, there already exists a vast industry of science popularisers out there. I think what Aaron is really asking for, is science writing of the quality that someone like Malcolm Gladwell. Unfortunately, brilliant prose stylists like Gladwell come few and far in between. I mean, he’s good enough to be a staff writer for the New Yorker. For starters, the research he does for his articles is incredibly extensive - what you see in the articles is only the tip of the iceberg. And the boy can write. You can tell by his absolute command of the judicious metaphor. He can pack more in a sentence than most writers in a paragraph. Funny enough, his articles follow a very classic essay structure - begin with a character anecdote, which leads into a fascinating problem, then discuss the researchers who solve the problem, and ends with a brilliant hook. Wish I had one for this comment.

posted by Bosco Ho on October 20, 2006 #

Postgenomic.com (which I work on) collects blog posts written about scientific papers and sorts them by recent popularity, etc. etc.

It’s aimed at scientists interested in the discussions surrounding specific papers, but it’d be cool - and relatively easy - to adapt the code for a wider audience. It’s open source if anybody wants to have a shot at it. :)

posted by Stew on October 20, 2006 #

I think there are two things lacking: contributors and schema, that is, the framework of knowledge within which any given science article fits in. Remember, journals are written for experts, by experts. These people already have schema, but even they only have schema for their chosen branch. I suspect folks reading this could compose HTML tables, including stylistic choices, in a text editor, but most readers are probably not to comfortable with which drugs have increased bioavailabilities and half-lifes in the body when digoxin is on board. Meanwhile, digoxin drug interactions are beaten into the heads of all medical students because they’re lethal, and, they might do well in a set of html tables, most docs couldn’t tell you what html stands for.

Let us not go into the importance of the Hamiltonian in physics or affinity in chemistry.

They’re all, however, major joints in the schema of the respective sciences, assumed pieces of knowledge within which the facts of any given article are written to fit. No schema, no place for the facts to fit. Whole metaphors will be completely missing.

Every once in a while a new idea grows up to become a major component of the schema. People tend to get prizes for these things and the work, while it may be first mentioned in a single paper, the signifance may not be instantly obvious. To wit, the mathematics behind CT earned the Nobel, but the work sat in a journal for a decade before an engineer arrived looking for the math that would guide his solution to what he saw as an engineering problem.

If you need expert contributors to screen new articles for people who aren’t experts in that field, then you face the same problem experts have faced for hundreds of years: sometimes, you just don’t know if something is important until it is. That’s why libraries remain essential. Scientists need someplace to keep the thinking until someone goes looking for it.

If it is obvious that something is new, and big, then the editors usually pick up on that and make press releases.

Finally, sometimes there are articles that help guide the development of your schema, even though they aren’t particularly profound. These will stick in your mind, but no one really cares. Philip Greenspun’s HTML primer is a great example, for me. It’s such a beautiful little example of its own principles, sort of a Strunk and White of HTML, and probably a few other people treasure it like I do, but professional programmers don’t need it and the vast majority of humanity doesn’t know what HTML is.

Similarly, this article on sepsis came out in the New England Journal of Medicine yesterday, and may well become a schema-forming article for me (we’re studying this right now), but it’s not ground-breaking, and I doubt it’s going to capture the imagination.

So, I think the objective, while the problem may be easily stated,

science can be fascinating, that its attempts at answering our questions not only can have a real impact on our lives but are interesting in their own right. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place that reported these things?

it isn’t nearly so simple in reality.

posted by Niels Olson on October 20, 2006 #

I’ve read a large variety of periodicals about science, and for Aaron’s preferred criteria I second the recommendation of Science News.

posted by C. Niswander on October 23, 2006 #

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