Monday, January 23, 2006

Seed magazine & scienceblogs

Back to Seed Magazine. My comment about Seed "trying too hard to be hip" is actually a big caveat for me. This problem goes to the identity of the magazine.

The purpose of the magazine, it seems to me, is to help build a community of the scientifically literate.

But the effort seems destined to fail if they envision that happening through a magazine that one commenter called "a Maxim for science."

Maxim is essentially a well-done magazine for male morons. What lessons is Seed supposed to draw from this quarter?

And it isn't that the commentator who brought up Maxim is off-base. He has identified precisely what the problem with the magazine is: it's trying to bring together an intellectual community with an anti-intellectual instrument. The contradiction is written all over the magazine.

The thing is that what they're trying to pull off hasn't been done before. To my knowledge, there has never been a widely accepted voice for/by/of the scientifically literate. What Maxim pulled off was easy by comparison: cut the claptrap and give 'em some cleavage. A time-honored formula that need only be updated.

How do you properly make science seem "cool and relevant and edgy?"

My first suggestion would be to not make ostentatious efforts to be cool and relevant and edgy. Go for simple, straightforward and minimalistic. Don't overcommit to any particular field of study, group of people or style. Be true to the scientific spirit and experiment in an open-ended fashion. In other words: feel your way forward.

And, for God's sake, don't run long articles with big blocks of text faced by incredibly distracting graphics, or intersperse various textual elements randomly with graphics. Short attention spans may be something you have to live with, but you shouldn't be in the business of enforcing them.

These are all lesson already learned by Wired. And Seed doesn't have the luxury of repeating those mistakes. Wired had a lot of dumbass millenarianism behind it (remember cyber____, e____ and virtual ______ till you were ready to barf?).

Seed and science will have to show their relevance not just reap the rewards of irrational exuberance. So away with the trappings of pseudo-hipness and cut to the stories that will change the way people think about the world. Away with the Steven Pinker worship and let's have let's have some hard, critical looks at science.

Let the trappings grow up organically out of the core concerns of the magazine. You are building a culture not a clique.

Will Seed be able to pull it off? Maybe. But it's going to take some truly daring modesty and caution.

Science itself has been hurt of late by some of the same tendencies toward shallowness and showiness Seed has displayed, and the troubles surrounding evolution are what we reap from this.

For instance, much evolutionary psychology is, quite simply, bad science, and it's been long tolerated because it takes natural selection as a given. But it is long since past time that science stopped counting the display of appropriate allegiance as a scientific credential. Science should be, first and foremost, a highly self-critical endeavor. So far, Seed gives little reason to think that'll happen in its pages.