How well does Wikipedia handle technical scientific concepts? John Timmer explores this dilemma in a recent article and I extrapolate a little further. Could the failings of the scientific community to communicate clearly impact the search for cryptids?
In a recent article for ArsTechnica.com, John Timmer (photo below left) reviews how scientific articles are handled in the world of Wikipedia. Now you are probably wondering why I’m bothering to talk about this here in CryptoVille.
This topic is important to me because I search for scientific data to help explain (or conjecture) about the mysterious topics I cover. I do pretty well, but I’m not a fully trained scientist, so I think it’s very important for the scientific community to explain themselves clearly and gear their explanation to their intended audience.
Matching the Audience with the Technical Level
John Timmer points out that the audience for Wikipedia is a general one, in other words, people aren’t looking for scientific dissertations just to find out what a <pick a topic> is. Scientific dissertations have their place and their audience. Wiki is not one of them.
John writes, “One problem with all of these [technical scientific topics] is that they’re structured in a way that requires you to already have advanced knowledge of a topic in order to understand nearly anything on the page. In other words, they’re probably only useful for people who would never have to read them anyway.”
I worked as a technical writer for quite a few years and what we had to do was take technical data from software engineers and create user information that was subsequently field-tested for usability. We studied how people use and process information and the most basic tenet of all of this was to know your audience. Writing for a group of engineers or astrophysicists was very different than writing for astronomy enthusiasts trying to understand how the universe works – in layman’s terms.
John believes that Wiki does a good job overall, giving people the general, top to mid-level information they are interested in and can use. He adds, “This is not to say that there’s no place in Wikipedia for material designed for experts. But it should be secondary to material that allows a person who’s not an expert to get the basic gist of what the topic is about and why it’s significant. The advanced material could easily be placed into a separate labeled section.”
John also mentions the problem science has in today’s world. He refers to it as a “science literacy problem.” I know what he means. It’s become obvious to me too, that many people don’t understand how basic science works. If you don’t believe me, how many times have you heard people say they won’t get a flu shot because it makes them get sick. I’ve even heard some people say it causes Alzheimer’s. Neither of these scenarios is true. But people don’t even have a basic concept how a virus works, and science hasn’t yet figured out what’s causing Alzheimer’s disease, but it sure as heck isn’t a flu shot!
So people are skittish about science and intimidated by it. John’s point is that by writing such highly technical and jargon-filled papers/posts about scientific topics, science itself is causing people to shy away from pursing more of its knowledge. He says, “It’s elitist in the worst possible way. And, at a time when many scientists bemoan the public’s lack of interest and support, entries like this can potentially worsen the situation.”
The basic biology needed to understand how animals and creatures come into existence is pretty straight forward. For example, many of us can understand that sheep and wolves or sheep and apes cannot mate and produce offspring. It simply wouldn’t work biologically. So whatever Sheepsquatch is, IF it exists, it’s probably something demonic, not biological at all.
It gets trickier when trying to decipher physics and astronomy. That all gets sooo technical that finding relatable information regarding, for example, how strange lights can form in the sky over volcanic and earthquake activity, why some places on earth “feel” strange, and how cameras can malfunction to form strange images is a little overwhelming.
What I’d like to see is the scientific community teaming with technical writers, perhaps through the Society for Technical Communication (see reference section below), and get some help turning their technical material into something that the general public can use and understand.
Searching for the Truth
We’re all searching for the truth in the cryptid world . We want to know once and for all if these things exist. Science is the best tool we have to help in that search.
Science needs the public’s support and grants to be able to continue their search for all the things they’re looking for. The best way to do that is win over the public by educating them so they’re excited to get behind your efforts and help support more research.
Wikipedia is Good
I agree with John’s assessment that Wikipedia does a lot of good, educating people at the general level no matter what topic interests them. But the scientific community can do better and help broaden the general public’s understanding of how the world works at deeper levels.
Personally, I would appreciate the help, too. The more I can grasp, the better able I’ll be to share that information with my readers and we’ll all be better able to understand the strange creatures and phenomenon populating our world. It would be a win-win situation.
So how do you feel about Wikipedia? How do you feel about science?