The phenomenon of popular news outlets completely garbling, sometimes spectacularly, the findings and/or implications of scientific experiments and academic research studies that they cover has been well-documented. “Often,” Michael Crichton once said, “the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the ‘wet streets cause rain’ stories. Paper’s full of them.” It was with this in mind that I scanned a recent article from The Independent titled Chimpanzees Love Horror Films, Research Finds.
Of course, the study in question found no such thing, but rather that chimpanzees and bonobos will demonstrate retaining memory of the events of a film they’ve watched by the anticipatory movement of their eyes to key areas of the movie screen on repeat viewing. Curiously, the body of the Independent article itself affirms all this, so that it reads like one of those old DC comic books whose stories are only faintly familiar to their covers.
It’s a tough call what’s more pointless — the frivolous, poorly-titled Independent article, or the inanely trivial “research” it glosses. Really? Chimps can remember stuff? You don’t say! I’m going to go with the whole “peer-reviewed research” paradigm as the cake-taking title-holder in the arena of pointlessness, though. The ostensible purpose of peer-review is to serve as a sort of editorial prophylactic against printing something stupid. The “peers” who conduct the “reviewing” comprise a first (or more probably only) layer of scrutiny, supposedly affirming “OK! This research isn’t just a bunch of nonsense. You can publish it.” This approach misses the point completely: Being published isn’t evidence of vetting. Being published is the first real step in the process of it. Great Apes Make Anticipatory Looks Based on Long-Term Memory of Single Events is every-bit as ponderously written as its title suggests. Even more self-defeatingly, its publishers propose with a straight face that the privilege of reading it is worth paying them $31.50. Small wonder then that the “peer-review” paradigm begins with the premise that critical reaction is a rare commodity. Someone ought to point out to them that the most thoroughly peer-reviewed articles on the planet are the ones on Wikipedia.
“What about professional journals?” you ask. I used to sell 3D fluid-modeling software, and one of the marketing gimmicks I employed was to host seminars featuring an “expert guest”, Dr. So-And-So, former editor of –no kidding– Pumps & Systems Magazine. I’d try to picture a subscriber bounding gleefully indoors from checking their mailbox, eager to crack open that month’s issue of Pumps & Systems. They must’ve had a readership in at least the dozens. Actually, though, I think a good professional journal could be the perfect third way between lazy “science” coverage in the news and the abysmal churn of the grant-grubbing “researchers.” Writers and publishers hopeful of realizing the potential there ought to be taking their cues from, say, Popular Mechanics, or Wired, maybe neither of which qualify as “professional journals”, but which both have many of the qualities needful to any professional journal that wants to be more consequential than Pumps & Systems. Of paramount importance is that such an outlet be reader-accessible, which means meeting three critical criteria: 1) That it be written to be read. Messrs. Kano & Hurata might be crack researchers but they’re crap writers. Bad as The Independent might be, at least their write-up flows. 2) That it cover things that actually matter. Sure, The Independent gave their article a bogus title, but consider their predicament. Who’s going to click a link reading “Study Shows Apes Remember Things”? Meanwhile, somebody somewhere is doing something important. I want to read about them. 3) That it be free to read. This one is the most important, for reasons that are obvious. A market in which I can torrent my textbooks and find articles off JSTOR on my peer-to-peer network isn’t going to tolerate a pay-per-view model for anything other than live sports. That isn’t just the way it is, it’s the way it ought to be. Journals that rise to meet this new world’s demands could be the vanguard of new knowledge, especially as long as the legacy outlets continue to cement their irrelevance.