Part the 4th: In which The New Scientist reviews Open Lab 2008 and Laelaps rocks my socks

Apr 08 2009 Published by under Activism

As some of you may know, Scicurious has a post in Open Lab 2008. So I was totally excited when I heard that The New Scientist reviewed the book, and hoped for little accolades and tidbits to be dropped in Sci's direction, as she's pretty shameless that way. I was also especially interested in the review, as Sci will be the guest editor of this year's Open Lab, and thus I wanted to know what to expect, what we could improve, and what stuff last year's editors did really well.
By the way, you should SUBMIT TO OPEN LAB!!!!! (When I yell it like that, it makes me think of the second Superman movie, when the bad guy is all like "Kneel before Zod!" Yell it like that.)

That's what I'm talkin' bout.

So ANYWAY, little Sci bops over the internets to read the Open Lab review...

...and walks right into the massive ongoing argument that is Science Journalism vs. Science Blogging: Internet Death Match.
I'm sorry, but where do I line up to read the book review?
I was a little disappointed with the New Scientist and their review. Not because they didn't review the book. And for all I know their reviews of it are accurate (Sci will admit she's biased). I am disappointed because the book review appeared only to serve as a platform for a continuance of this debate. This is especially unfortunate given that there is really only one post in Open Lab 2008 that directly references the debate going on. Though admittedly, Coturnix does give somewhat of a smackdown in the opening comments.
Still, it's a bit of a backhanded compliment to say "science blogs in general aren't any good, but the posts in this book are ok". For an example of this, he uses the fact that climate change denialist blogs have won best science blog award in years past. It may indeed be true that there are bad science blogs out there, but it doesn't negate the work that the rest of us are trying to do, though admittedly, we aren't as popular.
The reviewer also notes that blogging can reinforce bad ideas because "people are generally drawn to blogs that reinforce their own views, not ones that challenge them". But isn't this also true of books, TV, or any other form of media? The fact is, people will be attracted to the stuff they like, and rationalize away the stuff they don't.
But the reviewer does note that Open Lab is good (w00t!), and mentions a couple of the best posts by name. However, he also notes that "too many are mini-lectures, with no narrative or personal angle to sustain your attention." I guess he must have read mine. πŸ™‚ If he doesn't like well-written lectures on basic science material, I certainly hope he doesn't read most of the popular science books out there. He will find himself woefully bored.
Sci admits she doesn't really have the most background knowledge on this debate, or why the reviewer was sparked to use Open Lab to take issue with science blogs everywhere. For that, I recommend Laelaps and Blake. Blake's got a hilarious take on it, but Laelaps really delivers a well thought-out rebuttal.

So anyway, until other reviews come in, Sci wants to know. If you submitted to Open Lab, read Open Lab, love Open Lab, hate Open Lab, cuddle with Open Lab at night, why? What about Open Lab works for you? And what suggestions do you have for improvements or possible changes? I'd really like to know!

9 responses so far

  • Blake Stacey says:

    Thanks for the link-love (wink-wuv?).
    I like a good science history or biography of a scientist as much as anybody (in fact, probably more than most). When I happened to cross paths with James Gleick at a conference last year, I made a point of telling him I found his biography of Feynman "inspirational", and I meant it. What bugs me is when people take "having a personal angle" to mean throwing in distractions about a scientist's hairstyle in a story which should by rights be about the science. Writing "the life and times of Rosalind Franklin" is one thing; pretending you're educating people about DNA and X-ray crystallography when you ain't talking science at all is something else.
    It's hard to talk about this kind of thing without specific examples in hand (one can easily start arguing with somebody who basically agrees with you, which is an icky phenomenon). Above all else, I thought a big part of having an anthology was to showcase variety. Ashby's Second Law: you can't please everybody all the time if you only know how to do one thing.

  • Laelaps says:

    Blake said "Thanks for the link-love (wink-wuv?)."
    Ditto, although thanks to one of the images included in the post I now have a song stuck in my head about fairies and field mice.
    Like others have said maybe the New Scientist review is their attempt at revenge since they have been criticized by science bloggers so much recently. If that's true, though, it's really immature. Still, if Le Page's crummy review gave me cause to write something that rocks people's socks, then I guess the outcome was at least partially positive. πŸ™‚

  • Blake Stacey says:

    I always try to be grateful to irritating people for giving me opportunities to talk about more interesting things in such a fashion that people might pay attention. πŸ™‚

  • Toaster says:

    Maybe this is logistically impossible, but there are 3 things I'd love to see:
    1) Pop-out diagrams. How cool would that be?
    2) Scientific comics, and I don't mean 3 panels-1 gag like PhD Comics or xkcd, I mean more like "Love and Rockets" with multiple pages and panels. We can throw lots of words at complex topics, such as why diabetes or cancer may develop, but a large portion of people are always going to miss them. Maybe a visual format could do much better.
    3) An OpenLab2009 for children, explaining cool stuff in the natural world in accessible terms, some messy home experiments they can do, that kind of stuff. There're already books like this on the market, but they're generally written by one or two people and kind of stink in terms of diversity and depth. We need more stuff about how to make edible, luminescent Jello and fewer baking soda volcanoes.

  • Toaster says:

    Yar, but better.

  • rpg says:

    What's tickling me is that not only was the piece of mine that 'references the debate' written as an off-the-cuff rant, but it wasn't, by a loooong way, my best work (and not even the best of the pieces of mine nominated for OL'08).
    So. Yeah. I'm steadfastly refusing to lose any sleep at all.

  • I can understand why you feel a little disappointed, so let me explain why the review took the form it did.
    Online, most readers of book reviews are seriously considering buying the book. In print, most readers are just casually flicking through pages, and have no specific interest in the book in question.
    For that reason, in New Scientist we try, whenever possible, to write reviews in a way that is interesting and entertaining to casual readers as well as would-be buyers. We want people to read the review pages every week, not just when they’re looking for a book.
    The usual way to do this is to summarise some of a book's most interesting content, as in the review below. With an anthology like The Open Laboratory, however, this is very difficult.
    Instead, the brief I was given as a writer was to discuss the role of science blogging more generally as well as the book itself. And all in 450 words.
    Had the review been written for the web rather than print, it would have been very different.
    I did enjoy your entry, btw

  • Scicurious says:

    Michael: Thanks very much for commenting. And I'm glad you enjoyed my entry. But I do wish that there had been more commentary on the book as opposed to continuing a debate about science blogging vs journalism that wasn't the focus of the book. As it is, I feel that people will get a very wrong idea of what the book actually contains.
    I would also be interested to hear why you felt that many of the posts featured were mini-lectures that were dry and without interest, as compared to many other science books written for a lay audience. While I do see some differences, many of the entries to me seemed to have a more personal style which I feel might be more engaging than many of the books which I have read dealing with science for lay audiences. But I do admit I'm a little biased. πŸ™‚
    Thanks again for your comment, and finally, I would be very interested to hear any ideas you might have for improvement of future editions of Open Lab. Your input would be very much appreciated.

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