Shame on you, Neil deGrasse Tyson.

When Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice — a film I avoided like the plague — showed up on a movie channel during a snowstorm recently, I watched a little bit of it. And guess who makes a cameo? Everyone’s favorite science educator and astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, intoning the following as if on a real news program:

We’re talking about a being whose very existence challenges our sense of priority in the universe.

He invokes heliocentrism and Darwinian evolution in the mock interview, as if to ground it further in scientific verisimilitude.

The being he’s talking about is Superman.


Superman is soft science fiction treading the line into fantasy. He’s more Star Wars than Star Trek, to use a common geek distinction. Superman’s story isn’t about exploring scientific concepts and elaborating scientific possibilities. It’s a male fantasy.

Tyson wasn’t the only one whose reputation was caught up in the Batman v. Superman spectacle. The movie also plucked journalists and two politicians into the unwatchable proceedings, including Anderson Cooper, Soledad O’Brien, and Patrick Leahy. But Tyson, a bona fide scientist and science educator, should have known better. Batman v. Superman is no Contact, which was serious science fiction penned by his mentor, Carl Sagan. Contact explored alien contact and its effects on society, politics, and individuals in a plausible, grounded style, basing it all on elaborations of actual scientific principles as humans grappled with change in a plausible manner.

As a representative of the scientific community, I think Tyson was wrong to lend his credibility to a fantasy movie. But this type of blending of science and entertainment is becoming commonplace, and represents a larger and longer-term trend in the way our society shares serious information and topics, a trend that inhibits memory, uptake, and a sense of a shared reality. Tom Nichols writes about this in the book I reviewed yesterday, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters:

So why do people remain resolutely ignorant and uninformed, and reject news, along with expert opinion and advice, even when it’s all delivered to them almost without effort? Because there’s too much of it and it is too closely fused with entertainment.

We live in an age dominated by television, video, movies, and screens of all sorts, with text becoming more decorative than functional in many of the environments where we find information. Is the medium the message, as Marshall McLuhan said?

Perhaps, the medium is the metaphor. This is Neil Postman’s twist on McLuhan’s quote, a riff that appeared in 1985 in Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death. The book struck me as prescient when it was published, and the passage of time has only cemented that perception. The other day, I dug out my original paperback edition (college bookstore price tag still glued to the back — $6.95), and refreshed my memory. Postman’s premise is that by moving away from textual sources to video and entertainment, we’ve moved the metaphor from print and its expectations of logical satisfaction to a metaphor of spectacle and its expectations of emotional satisfaction.

In the 30+ years since I first encountered Postman’s book, showmanship — polished or tawdry — has replaced serious discussion, changed how information is generated, undermined the demands of communication, and lessened critical thinking. Naturally, this has had detrimental effects on the communication of science. Bring a snowball onto the floor of the Senate to dispute global warming, and you just might thwart climate science for weeks, months, or years. Make a movie about the perils of vaccination, and get invited to the inauguration of a reality-television President. Or, feel comfortable undermining your role as a serious scientist and science educator by lending your credibility to a fantasy spectacular, as Tyson did.

Seriousness has been replaced by fatuousness, even at the highest levels. What some call approachability has consequences, including giving laypeople false confidence about how much they know, how well they think, and how clearly they understand complex ideas and intellectual cultures.

The complexity of science does not survive in an environment in which simplicity and emotional gratification are routinely sought. In fact, simplicity may make it easier to reject facts people don’t like, as an article in the Guardian captured recently:

. . . could it be that non-scientists, emboldened by easy-to-digest science stories in the media, now have the confidence to reject what scientists say, or go with their gut feeling instead?

The paper that spurred the Guardian article is from the journal Public Understanding of Science. This research suggests that the simplification of science can actually make science less viable among the lay public, giving laypeople what the authors call “the easiness effect,” which causes them to transform understandable lay summaries into more confidence in their own ability to judge scientific claims, increase their general trust in their own judgment, and lower their desire to seek or defer to outside expert opinions. Making science easy actually makes it more emotionally gratifying while fostering false confidence, if these results are to be believed.

What if audiences are starting to smell a rat? What if academic and scholarly publishers are in the thrall of too many digital preconceptions to acknowledge their needs and demands?

Science, like reality, is difficult, frustrating, complex, and nuanced. Television and other modern media offer something easier and more entertaining. Simplified and mostly visual, Postman writes, television:

. . . offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification. . . . Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.

Typical science education now suffers from the instinct or demand (the metaphor of entertainment) to offer emotional gratification in place of frustrating complexity and painstaking logic, with the term “empirical entertainment” being used recently to describe shows like MythBusters and others that attempt to bring science to the masses, calling the personalities leading the escapades “science entertainers.”

From podcasts to television programs, science educators/entertainers may be failing to recognize that the medium they now use imposes severe limitations on its practitioners and its audience, including:

  • Ideas organized to maximize entertainment value
  • Constructions that thwart uptake and recall
  • Inherent simplifications to support the dominant goals of striking visual imagery
  • Story arcs that mute logic in order to maintain emotional engagement and gratification

Compare a television show like the recent version of Cosmos — which pushed large scientific concepts into cartoons and dramatizations focused almost entirely on emotional gratification through storytelling — with reading complex scientific literature about electrical conduction, astrophysics, or biology. You learn from the latter, but are entertained by the former. Studies suggest the difference is night and day when it comes to comprehension and recall. Perhaps this helps to explain why our cultural progress over the past 40 years has not been toward more scientific literacy, but rather away from consensus and comprehension. We don’t learn as much, and we can’t remember it anyhow, so we go with what was actually instilled by simplified science and entertaining experts — an inflated sense of our own abilities and an inherent message that how we feel matters more than the facts.

News as entertainment, facts subsumed by spectacle — these trends would not have surprised one of the sources in Postman’s book, Aldous Huxley. As Postman writes:

[Huxley] believed that it is far more likely that the Western democracies will dance and dream themselves into oblivion than march into it. . . . it is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcoticized by technological diversion.

That last sentence bears re-reading, trust me.

It was not always so. A main theme of Postman’s book is that there was a period during which the “typographic mind” came to dominate the world, one in which:

. . . print put forward a definition of intelligence that gave priority to the objective, rational use of the mind and at the same time encouraged forms of public discourse with serious, logically ordered content. It is no accident that the Age of Reason was coexistent with the growth of a print culture, first in Europe and then in America.

But this period is being (has been?) undone by the rise of new communication media, which impose their own rules, their own metaphors:

. . . as typography moves to the periphery of our culture and television takes its place at the center, the seriousness, clarity, and, above all, value of public discourse dangerously declines.

If we continue to participate in the broader cultural movement toward spectacle, we may help to feed the suppression and culture-death predicted by Huxley, not the more commonly intoned Orwellian type. As Postman encapsulated in 1985:

In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk: culture-death is a clear possibility.

Social media is an extension of the attention-busting entertainment space, imposing its own performance constraints on both producers and consumers. At no point is there a demand for a logical, coherent, informative summary of information, a perspective on events. Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat defy exposition, coherence, and logic. They are temporal, not logical.

With all this shallow and illogical information, what if audiences are starting to smell a rat in their dependence on television and digital? And what if academic and scholarly publishers are in the thrall of too many digital preconceptions to acknowledge their needs and demands?

Among 18-24 year-olds, 19% had read a print newspaper. Moreover, in no age group did the reach of the online edition exceed that of print, and by a good margin in every case.

This may be the case already in the newspaper business. In a recent study in Journalism Practice entitled, “Reality Check: Multiplatform newspaper readership in the United States, 2007–2015,” Chyi and Tenenboim sought to discover how readership has actually responded to all the various digital initiatives newspapers have tried. Their analysis throws many digital assumptions into doubt. One major preconception is that digital newspapers would be more popular among the young. Chyi and Teneboim’s research shows that among 18-24 year-olds, 19% had read a print newspaper in the prior week, while only 8% had read the online edition. Moreover, in no age group did the reach of the online edition exceed that of print, and by a good margin in every case. These and other findings were so shocking to a major newspaper trade association that it:

. . . told her that because her findings showed that moving to digital might not be the best strategy for newspapers, the organization didn’t want to share them with its members.

This type of self-imposed blindness to facts and actual trends may be part of why newspapers have continued to flounder. But, as Jack Shafer of Politico writes:

These findings matter because conventional newspapers, for all their shortcomings, remain the best source of information about the workings of our government, of industry, and of the major institutions that dominate our lives. They still publish a disproportionate amount of the accountability journalism available, a function that’s not being fully replaced by online newcomers or the nonprofit entities that have popped up. If we give up the print newspaper for dead, accepting its demise without a fight, we stand to lose one of the vital bulwarks that protect and sustain our culture.

Here we see false equivalencies in publishing theory, in this case between print and digital. Scholarly publishers also possess some assumptions that digital is superior and more highly desired than print, and more useful. Digital has so many benefits — searchability, reach, and format variety — we can’t fathom that we may be wrong.

Yet, year after year, we face the enduring utility of the PDF, the enduring print circulations of many journals, and the enduring sales of print books. We proclaim death to the PDF, to its tyranny of columns, typography, and pagination. Yet, it continues to gain in popularity, infusing new services and competitors with value while we complain about how outdated it is. Are we as blind as the newspaper trade to the value of print and a useful print proxy? If we’d treated the PDF as a valuable asset and not an afterthought, would Sci-Hub and its ilk have taken every publisher’s PDFs so easily?

The PDF’s power may run deep, in ways that scientific and academic publishers need to contemplate. After all, in the “alternative facts” world we find ourselves, conveying quality, expert accurate information easily and memorably may be more important than ever. Research suggests print conceits — “the typographic mind” — convey these benefits. PDFs are our best print proxies.

There have been private studies in the marketing realm exploring the value of print compared to digital, employing MRIs and fMRIs to detect differences in brain functions based on media. In one study, conducted on the behalf of Canada Post, the findings indicate:

  • Paper media have a lower cognitive load (they’re easier to read). Online layouts are inconsistent, chaotic, and intrusive, imposing a higher cognitive load as you have to figure out each one. They are often interrupted by advertising or other distractions. This all adds to cognitive load, making it harder to absorb information. When a message enters the mind easily and makes sense right away, you’re much more likely to encode it into memory. Distractions and page factoring impede uptake and recall.
  • Physical media are processed faster than digital media. Physical media are tangible, engaging the mind more immersively, allowing information to flow faster into the brain. This matters because, as one summary of the research puts it, we live “in an era where goldfish have longer attention spans than humans.” Physical media make the most of it.
  • Physical material is more “real” to the brain. Physical information has more meaning, a place and time, as another private study summary states. It is better connected to memory because it engages with people’s spatial and temporal memory networks. Your fingers remember the size of the book, the turning of pages, the feel of the cover, the heft of the object, and where you were when you read it. A screen leaves no tactile and little temporal memory, so you don’t remember it as well. This was underscored when I remembered a 32-year-old book from college, and knew where it was on my bookshelves. The pages looked and felt immediately familiar again, bringing back a splash of memories featuring this book and interacting with it at various stages in my life.
  • Physical media is more interactive during intellectual work. Users write on pages, fold them, tear them out, post them in public spaces, leave them on desks or tables to peruse again, put them in their briefcases, stumble upon them years later. People interact with paper media more, in short, which again aids recall through repetition and engagement on many more levels than digital.

Moving wholly in the direction of Facebook, Twitter, video, and digital without the infrastructure — intellectual and actual — of print or other physical media may be a profound mistake for science. With the volume of research increasing, a medium that is easier to read, processes faster, and aids memory retention has a lot to recommend it. Yet, rather than bolstering our print editions, we’ve hacked at them so we can afford more social media outlets to drive traffic, fancier screen designs that distract and dazzle, and more navigational options to entice users to . . . well, to our PDFs, mostly, because that’s what they seek in spite of all this.

Maybe scientists and scholars still possess more of the typographic mindset than we believe? Maybe we have a false equivalency between digital dazzle and print practicality?

More than a decade ago, when I helped to launch a video article series at the New England Journal of Medicine, the editors insisted we add a PDF summary of the findings to the videos. The project team thought this was just more work and, ugh, PDFs, but the popularity of these downloads proved the editors were right. They felt these summaries were important to highlight the logical course of action and to underpin recall. To this day, PDF summaries are still created for every video, and they are still popular. I’ve seen them printed out and left in residency program inboxes for trainees on more than one occasion.

The spectacle of new media is hard to resist, and publishers seem susceptible to the same siren songs that have drawn newspapers away from potentially more effective and profitable directions. More importantly for scholars, educators, and researchers, we may be moving away from what works for deep reading, logical constructions, and demanding intellectual interactions. We are moving away from the tried and true conceits and practices from the era that generated the typographic mind — writing, exposition, and explanation. We may be falling prey to a misleading notion that digital provides an equivalent — some might say, superior — experience via spectacle and moving pictures. Those assertions may be exactly wrong.

As perhaps the guardians of many vital aspects of intellectual life, such as facts, truth, and accurate information, our awareness of the pitfalls of spectacle has to improve. Our allegiances to the traits of the “typographic mind” could be strengthened with a willingness to accept the constraints and benefits of print proxies and what our audience truly prefers. It may be time to view the PDF and all the other pedestrian and popular imprints of the typographic mind with a smidge more respect.

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.

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30 Thoughts on "The Tyranny of Amusements — Science, Spectacle, and the Lowly PDF"

It is surprising the much-maligned PDF is still going strong over 20 years after it came into use. There is an important distinction that I think got lost a bit in your essay between digital dissemination and digital display. When I started a digital journal in the mid-1990s and tried to promote it, often the people I was lobbying would say, a digital journal what an interesting idea but I don’t like reading something like an article off my computer screen. I’d have to point out they had this device attached to their computer called a printer and they could print out what they wanted to read and only what they wanted to read at the point they wanted to read it and then I would watch the lightbulb go on.

While wide area networks and digital dissemination opens all sorts of avenues for dissemination of multimedia that seemed like it would have revolutionized scientific communication, print seems to live on and the PDF remains and ideal format for this type of digital dissemination that can easily be converted to paper or read on a tablet or phone. Print formats developed over a long time and they continue to remain ideally suited for reading.

To me the real revolution remains digital dissemination that allowed information to be sent anywhere quickly, cheaply and efficiently to be read at the reader’s convenience whether they choose to print it or read it on a screen. The venerable old PDF still serves that purpose beautifully and that is why it has remains so popular.

Good point. Transmission of print proxies has been improved dramatically with the Internet, and bandwidth improvements now allow easy and quick transmission of large files. It’s worth noting that when pirates can get large caches of files from us, they go for the most valuable trove, which remains PDFs.

However, that said, I continue to hear calls to kill the PDF. I just heard this at a meeting last week from a self-annointed rebel and disruptor. It makes no sense, and seems a deeply flawed idea.

To your point, there are gains in efficiency and reach we should celebrate with the Internet, but I’d argue it would be a mistake to turn our backs on other gains from the age in which “the typographic mind” developed — that is, a way of exchanging ideas based on logical progressions and proofs, as contrasted with the current trends toward flash, spectacle, and emotional gratification.

So Kent, does it follow that you would further develop this essay through the tedious path to a scholarly publication, disseminated by a boring PDF, through a stodgy publisher that promises to keep its archives going into the distant future? I rather hope you do. This is one of many good essays that I’ve read on SK and wondered if they will still exist 10 years hence. Beall’s list of predatory vanity publishers seemed a solid part the science publishing landscape until it abruptly vanished one day.

And on your core argument, like so many topics discussed at SK, it seems like a boring, middle-of-the-road approach is the way to go. Science can’t be just another form of reality entertainment, although I think the empiricalism (is that a word? doubtful) of Mythbusters is one I’d defend. Yet if science remains the exclusive domain of a high priesthood, it’s no more relevant outside the ivory tower than a mass in Latin was outside the monastery.

I do think the responsibilities of scholarly, scientific, and academic publishing are substantially different from the responsibilities of the mass media. The middle of the road may be a safe course, but I also think experimentation that reflects the needs of our readers and authors is great. There have been some major success stories here, but most actually do respect the printed word, rather than trying to supplant it. The demands of the typographic mind (logic, coherence, recall, information transmission) should be central to any innovation we attempt.

The empiricism of Mythbusters is good for inspiring young people, to some extent. However, very few of their lessons stick with viewers unless the lessons are reinforced later in school and via in-depth reading. Like the “Videos in Clinical Medicine” example I give in the essay, if Mythbusters had sent along printed descriptions or outlines of experiments and the theoretical underpinnings, recall and absorption would likely have improved dramatically.

Science can’t remain in the ivory tower, but as I mentioned yesterday, experts risk undercutting themselves when they cater too far to the audience. “The easiness effect” undermines the notion that someone may know more or understand more. Removing science from an entertainment zone, or purposely using the entertainment zone to move people into deeper lessons and more memorable and complex experiences that stir their intellects more than their emotions seems a path forward.

One place where I think we go astray is in adding more and more bells and whistles constantly, often “technology for the sake of technology,” throwing stuff up because we can do it, rather than because it serves a useful purpose. When one speaks to researchers, they want less to read, not more, yet we are deeply invested in recommendation engines and trying to drive them to more articles that they may like. In reality, what they want most from us is efficiency — how quickly can you get me to the article I want to read (usually the PDF).

There are a lot of great points in this essay, but as a reader I found myself distracted in the beginning by all the hate being thrown at fictional works. Is anyone really mistaking the BvS movie for science? I agree that television, video, etc., are not the best formats for disseminating scholarly content, but the context of the work matters. Just because something is in print doesn’t make it inherently good (look around at all the print products surrounding you next time you’re waiting in line to check out at the supermarket or the drug store), just as something being in an alternative format doesn’t make it inherently bad (for the record, I thought Cosmos was a great gateway for people to learn more about science).

From my perspective as a publisher, the problem is that we publishers have done a terrible job with the alternative presentations. As you state, the HTML view is often difficult to read and cluttered with ads and links that distract from the experience. The PDF is easier to read, and once you download it, it’s always there. But publishers shouldn’t give up on innovating – they just need to do a better job of giving readers something useful.

If I may ask Kent, as this wasn’t clear to me from the essay, do you see a path toward a more updated or interactive experience that still engages the reader/viewer on a deeper level, or are you advocating for a return to the old ways? Also, you seem to suggest that the move into the digital realm was a decision made by the just the publishers, but from where I was in the industry at the time, the publishers seemed to be responding to libraries who didn’t want to dedicate limited shelf space to so many growing journals. Either way, how can we reconcile that if you’re advocating for a return to print?

The example of NdGT and BvS was used to illustrate how subservient scientists and science have become to entertainment.

The point about print is that the formats of print seem to generate high-yield information exchanges — easier uptake, better recall. Whether you read a trashy newsstand magazine, a high-brow literary journal, or a scientific journal, you probably get more and retain more from print.

I don’t accept your contrast of “updated/interactive vs. old ways.” What I’ll advocate is effectiveness. I think chasing innovation for innovation’s sake often loses sight of what works, and what users want. Note the reaction of the newspaper publishing association that sought to squelch information that didn’t comport with their insistence on a digital future. Should publishers explore printed options again? Maybe. Whatever is effective. We shouldn’t have our digital blinders on all the time, as we might miss opportunities or limit our own effectiveness. The PDF is a nice blend of a print proxy that retains the effectiveness of a stable reading experience and all its benefits, while also taking advantage of the distribution advantages of the Internet. When do we declare victory?

I have to disagree with your “subservient” comment. Obviously only NdGT knows for sure, but I suspect that he, and other scientists in his position, see the value of going to where the eyeballs are. If even one casual viewer looks him up later, does a little research, reads some of his more meaningful works and actually learns something new, that’s a win for all of us.

To your question of “When do we declare victory?,” my answer is never. We in the scholarly publishing industry should always continue to innovate and look for a better path forward, to better meet the needs of our authors, readers, and the general community, because it’s not a perfect system, and it never will be – we must continue to work at it. For those individuals only concerned with keeping the lights on, I suggest they go work for the electric company.

I have to disagree. The price we pay for a culture in which expert opinions and experts themselves are swept up in spectacle and overpowering visual media products that emphasize emotions and narrative propulsion more than logic and facts seems to be high and mounting. Sure, one person might be inspired to look up who NdGT is, but at what cost? Here is a serious science educator who has, in my opinion, largely succumbed at this point to the power of the media he’s serving, so much so that he’s become a caricature of a science educator. If this were all a net positive, you’d imagine 40-50 years of this yielding a society that is more attuned to logic, facts, and accuracy. What we seem to have is nearly the opposite, which suggests to me something is wrong in our media balance.

I agree, we should never declare overall victory, but we should be able to recognize when we’ve clearly won a battle. The PDF + Internet distribution was a clear victory, yet we continue to behave as if we capitulated to some old-fashioned, retrograde idea. A main point of this essay was that “the typographic mind” is a common thread in scholarship and science we ignore at our peril. We apparently found a way to serve this more effectively and efficiently. Maybe we should celebrate that.

What about TED talks as a medium for disseminating scientific knowledge to a wider public? I know a number of high school students I interview for college who regularly watch these talks.

As for digital newspapers, I get the Dallas Morning News in print because it can be delivered to my doorstep every morning. I get the Centre Daily Times (which serves State College, PA, where I used to live) via its digital edition so that I can read it in timely fashion; if it were mailed, the news would be several days old.

TED talks are often renowned because they deliver emotional satisfaction, which is exactly the point of the medium. The fact that students watch them is, to me, another sign that they are accustomed to media that deliver emotional gratification. Whether they are accurate, memorable, or educational are separate questions their popularity doesn’t answer.

Re. deGrasse Tyson undermining science in favor of entertainment: what to make out of OUP marketing Tom Nichols as a five-time undefeated Jeopardy winner then? (see: )

Undermining as well? Or clever tactics to bait unsuspecting readers into reading legitimate expert opinion?

Or is it that black and white at all? As you write yourself, reality is complex and nuanced. And applying the same to dGT, if some Superman-adoring kid checks his IMDB profile now he might peep his Cosmos rework, then perhaps work its way to Sagan’s original etc. Given enough time then, dGT ends up in net-good territory science-wise… though the showmanship part of science communication is getting more and more tiresome for sure.

OUP is not using video or spectacle to promote Nichols’ book, just an interesting bit of trivia about the author. Might was well say, “Enjoys collecting stamps and playing the trombone.”

Reality is complex and nuanced, and information exchanges that purposefully embrace this can work. The example I gave of a video series that purposely created a PDF accompaniment to give textual support to a video experience is one such initiative. But to hope that A lead to B and not to design it into the activity is an abdication to the medium of choice, which is usually video and its emotional satisfactions. It’s like showing a movie based on a book rather than making your students read the book, in the hopes that they’ll read the book after they watch the movie. The better experience is probably to require they read the book first (because it’s more detailed, nuanced, and memorable), and then watch the movie. But to believe that it will all take care of itself magically with just a little emotionally-satisfying media exposure seems to be proving insufficient.

Not to disagree, but to ask for qualification: What about those people who have trouble with reading? I have both a brother and a co-worker with dyslexia, and they find the printed word hard work. I am lucky enough to learn easily from printed matter, but not everyone’s learning styles suit that method.

As usual, Kent, great observations and analysis. The PDF may be a “for-now perfect” medium for science/information/analysis, a sophisticated and simple graphic-designed product focused on text that echoes a familiar materiality that can transmit information while generating thoughtfulness, further insight and challenge. The task of an academic reader, or any reader for that matter, is to take into account information and analysis but to suspend belief, more easily done when ideas are formulated into words rather than a complexity of music, words, images, characters and plot. Picking up on Chris Mebane’s comment, the OA scholarly journal, Scholarly and Research Communication, would be very interested in a scholarly article version of your post — and many others on Scholarly Kitchen.

Off topic and perhaps a bit pedantic on my part, but I can’t help but point out that Neil deGrasse Tyson’s surname is “Tyson” not “deGrasse Tyson.” He usually lists himself as Neil D. Tyson or N. D. Tyson on scientific articles, and the CIP entries in his books list him as “Tyson, Neil deGrasse.”

I want to highlight one of the limitations from the Journalism Practice study you mentioned:

This study analyzed readership data collected by Scarborough Research. Several limitations warrant discussion. First, our analysis included only larger local daily newspapers with circulation of 120,000 or above, not nationally circulated newspapers (The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and The New York Times) or the large number of small community newspapers in the United States. One should take the characteristics of this sample into consideration when interpreting the results.

Your comments here and in the review of the Nichols book are excellent and surely on target. Have watched this unfold, and also remember so clearly (we are of the same age, judging by the price of your original paperback) the famous McLuhan quote. But I want another column from you. What is the average person who is terrified of where the world is going, given this reality, to do? How can we make a dent in this unfolding horror story? This is a much bigger challenge than turning a ship!

Thanks, Kent, for sharing some very interesting and provocative thoughts. I was trying to find the PDF version of your article for better comprehension, but was unsuccessful. Is there one published on SK somewhere?

Interesting comment, a bit tongue-in-cheek, I’m wagering. But I’ll unpack it anyhow. I actually thought about making a PDF, but didn’t for a number of reasons. First, the new design makes our printed posts look pretty good, so it seemed unnecessary. Second, I didn’t want to set a precedent that we’d have a hard time supporting. And, finally, I didn’t want to send the wrong signal about what this is — a blog, not a scholarly research publication. I don’t think we should masquerade as such, even though we do get cited (in papers, in lectures, at meetings).

Kent, thank you for a provocative article with much to commend it. I am concerned, however, that you seem to ignore the fact that much academic writing is not read by the general public for reasons other than a fear of depth and logical argument. Much of today’s academic writing ignores basic communication principles, is structured for the convenience of the author, not the reader, and is sometimes even ungrammatical or illogical. Richard Mitchell addressed this a generation ago with his amusing, creative and insightful (and, dare I say, even entertaining) critiques of academic writing in The Underground Grammarian, but his one-man campaign for better communication seems to have been largely ignored by his colleagues.

This is an interesting set of issues. This critique of scholarly and scientific writing has been put forward by some great writers, like Richard Mitchell and Lewis Thomas. In fact, their writing about it was so good it was a gift in and of itself. But my experience editing and working for a number of scientific and research journals is that they actually miss important points about how jargon, various passive constructions, complex sentences, and other annoying aspects of academic writing can themselves hold signals to the reader. I’ve experienced re-reading texts after gaining experience with a particular field’s literature and seeing why using a particular bit of jargon or a particular passive phrasing actually sent a signal that only practitioners in a field would see as sarcastic, cutting, or jovial. I’ve been around experts who laugh over a particular word choice (intentional or not), whereas a synonym a lay write might use would not have the same effect.

I’ve therefore been more on the side of “let experts talk to experts.” Scientific communication is about being on the forefront, where there are neologisms, attempts to capture new and elusive thoughts with sometimes tortured phrasing that sorts itself out as more information becomes available, and complex community signals that sometimes elude (or suffer from) simplification.

As I noted, “the easiness effect” is perhaps not something we want to amplify, as it can create false confidence by eliding distinctions, blunting expert signals, and putting style over substance.

> Research suggests print conceits — “the typographic mind” — convey these benefits.

The evidence given seems a bit sparse. I haven’t seen many studies that allow such strong conclusions to be drawn, most fall short in some way e.g., testing subjects with decades of print reading experience but no training in digital reading, questionably designed web content, poorly executed skeuomorphic interfaces. For example, produces and provide a more nuanced picture.

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