Seven+ Confessions of a Reader of Science

Antoinette Burton is the Director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities.


Science magazineI recently joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in part because I wanted to get a subscription to their weekly magazine, Science.  I am, after all, the director of a humanities center on a STEM campus. A historian by training, I did some work very long ago on the history of science but I am an outsider even in that subfield– albeit it a curious one. Perhaps characteristically for a humanist, I was motivated to join up by my sense that one way into the intellectual community
of scientists was by reading the organ of the AAAS, which touts itself as “the world’s largest general scientific society.”

I have not been disappointed by my subscription. I love reading the table of contents, the opening editorials (which typically gloss a research article or issue to follow in the main section of the journal) and especially the weekly endpapers, which are featured under the column called “Working Life.” These are career stories designed to allow practitioners to talk about how they got where they are and what that might mean both for science and for the social and cultural environments in which it works.

In the October 7, 2016 issue, Lorena Barba, an associate professor at George Washington University, wrote about “the hard road to reproducibility”— a short “Working Life” reflection on the challenges of guaranteeing that experimental results can be replicated. This has been a concern of scientists since Louis Pasteur, but it has become an issue in light of recently debunked experiments and correlative claims that as many as 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments. That figure was reported in Nature, an organ that calls itself “an international weekly journal of science” (Confession #1: I don’t subscribe to Nature. I know my limits).

I enjoy the “Working Life” essays in Science not just because of the biographical idiom they are written in but because they try to contextualize scientific problems and to link what’s happening in labs and classrooms to contemporary headlines and unfolding stories of science in the world at large. I find myself ripping out these endpages and sharing them with colleagues because they resonate with things we think about in the humanities as well: knowledge production, experimental practice, and the ongoing challenge to all kinds of expertise, whether that is rooted in data or its interpretation. When I finished the Barba essay I Googled her. She tweeted that when her piece in Science was published, she got so much attention and so many requests for help with the question of reproducibility that she developed what she calls “The Barba-Group Reproducibility Syllabus,” which has a list of top 10 readings in the subject.  As I scrolled from 1-10 I marveled at the fact that my subscription to Science had taken me to this page, and to a discussion of the credibility crisis in all domains of today’s learning, scientific or not.

Confession #2: I could read Science online but I have a paper subscription because, not having been “born digital,” I know I am more likely to read the hard copies as they pile up on the coffee table next to the cozy sofa I do all my best reading (and writing) on. And while I do rip out the “Working Life” page I also often go into the online version of the journal and pdf the essay for easier circulation and sharing. And obviously (Confession #2a), I Google Nature, and practically everything else as well.

Okay, as long as I am at it, Confession #3: I mostly skip over the technical reports on research which make up the bulk of Science.  I do TRY to dig in, but I am typically foxed by the terminology, the math and the graphs.  The latter are beautifully rendered, I must say, and I admire them as aesthetic objects. “Figure 3: Theoretical analysis of the TCI step edge electronic structure” that accompanies the article by Sessi et al., “Robust spin polarized midgap states at step edges of topological crystalline insulators,” [volume 354, issue 6317, 9 December 2016, p. 1271] is particularly dreamy and mesmerizing, but it’s by no means exceptional in that regard. The art of visualization in science, and in Science, is an endless source of fascination, even pleasure, for me. It makes me think that it cannot be an accident that the call to visualize is as urgent and ubiquitous in the meditative healing literature as it is in the data science literature at this particular moment (but  [Confession #3a], I digress).

Meanwhile, my utter incomprehension of the meat and potatoes of the contents of Science does not stop me from enjoying what I do read, and doing my own modest ethnographic speculation about it. I frankly wonder at the expertise and knowledge and sheer hard work that has gone into the production of each and every one of the research reports – and at the complex collaboration and team work that goes into the experiments, the data collection and the write up. I am also fascinated by the high stakes of publication in this, one of the premier peer reviewed venues for global science. When retractions occur I worry about the research team. I desperately want to know the skinny on what they are saying to each other in the wake of that kind of negative notice in this most prestigious of publications.  Are they working night and day to challenge the challengers? Are they hanging their heads in shame? Did they lose their funding? Who is getting or taking the blame?

Confession #4: I feel a little terrified by the vast quantities of science I simply have no clue about, nor any hope of ever even remotely grasping in this short lifetime.   Yet despite being pretty intimidated by the entire enterprise of Science between covers, let alone STEM as an aggregate, I do love to dive into my subscription copy every week. The cover stories are enticing. Recent special issues have been devoted to “Genes and Environment,” “Photosynthesis in Crops” (wow! I actually found that interesting) and “Family Ties: Saudi Arabia Strives to Prevent Genetic Diseases.” There are always half a dozen “easy on the eyes” stories preceding the more technical research reports that provide analysis of science undergirding areas like health, neurodevelopment and even “collective action.”  That rubric pointed me toward a “Policy Forum” write-up of research by Nyborg et al. in an essay called “Social Norms as Solutions” which was about behavioral norm experiments and their use value for social policy.

And of course, the obituaries are endlessly fascinating and extremely thoughtful and well written. They stand up well against even the best of the genre in the business, the Economist obituaries, which appear at the end of that publication and are routinely tour de forces. In fact, so gripping are the Economist obits that they compelled me to start a practice I apply to several other weeklies to which I subscribe: I read them back to front. Not Science, though; at least not yet. I still need the orientation device of the table of contents at the start to help ease my sense of intimidation at the fact that I am trying to grapple with such interesting but forbidding intellectual terrain.

And yet, in fact, my anxiety is likely just habit because I thoroughly enjoy my weekly romp through the magazine. What prompted me to write this Reading Matters post (my first since IPRH launched the blog in the fall of 2015) is an article I ripped not out of Science but out of my college alumni/a magazine under a section called “Findings,” which features summaries of research in professional science and social science journals. This short squib details research from the journal Social Science and Medicine which suggests that “bookworms live longer.” Based on data from 3600+ individuals who have been involved in a study on health in people over 50, Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology, concluded that those who read books for up to 3.5 hours a week had a distinct “survival advantage” over those who didn’t. “More questions need to be answered,” Professor Levy conceded. “But we know that reading books involves two cognitive processes that could confer a survival advantage: the slow, deep immersion need to connect to content; and the promotion of empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.”

Good news for Reading Matters readers! And for me in particular, as I am drowning in books that I both read and can never get to (let’s save that sob story for another post). When I am able to immerse myself in the pile, it is the equivalent of restorative medicine for me. In contrast, the habit of reading Science has made me nervous: I am now uneasy when I think about Levy’s research. What are the reproducibility factors for her study? What would Professor Barba and her group say? Will Levy’s research end up on some top 10 list of studies that fail the reproducibility test? (Confession #5: I have no reason to think it would, but I am paranoid about research on bookworms). Thanks to my subscription to the AAAS, I am, perhaps, a more self-consciously scientific reader than I used to be. Indeed, I might well have skipped over the bookworm article in my alumni magazine before I took up my weekly reading of Science. Though maybe not, since, shocking as this may be [Confession #6), I am and will always be a sucker for anything even remotely bookish.

And yet, my new habit has clearly left its mark. I have more confidence in my capacity to breach the walls of scientific writing and thinking, which are not so very intimidating after all. And even if more research needs to be done about bookworms like me, Science has likely contributed to my longevity — in ways that are not fully capturable through data or even experiment per se.

Confession #7: In the end, I have to wonder whether my own Science experiment is really just an example of confirmation bias – in my case, confirmation of my conviction that all knowledge is situated and that data doesn’t tell the whole story. Even if that’s true, I plan to renew my Science subscription — the hard copy, with access to the online version for ease of sharing all the great articles that resonate with everything we think and talk about as students of the humanities.

All of which begs the question: what if the humanities had a similar weekly?

What if there were an American Association for the Advancement of the Humanities — an AAAH? I’d definitely subscribe to a magazine called Humanities, as much out of intellectual curiosity as out of professional interest. And I’d like to think that our colleagues north of Green Street would as well. At the very least, it might give them the kind of survival advantage that anyone interested in the future of research knowledge is going to need — in this new year, and beyond.

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About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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One Response to Seven+ Confessions of a Reader of Science

  1. Pompilia says:

    My regular diving into the scientific word is through the Science section of the New York Time. It is absolutely fascinating, and, yes, there are issues which I read entirely. I even share the ones with great color pictures with my son to show them to his science teacher. But the world of historians and the history of the world are so fascinating, so cozy, and so little explored, there is so much still to do in one’s field, or in one’s area, that it makes me wonder if it is worth abandoning raising a toddler in order to pursue dreams of driving an airplane. Because doing both simultaneously is practically impossible. Will the new (scientific or humanistic) mindset help us better understand humankind in all its past and present?

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