The Slow-Science Manifesto: 'We Don't Twitter'

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A movement implores researchers to slow down, take time away from the computer, and spend their hours thinking about the big questions

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Scientific American has an item up today regarding a manifesto published by the Slow Science Academy in Berlin. The manifesto declares:

We are scientists. We don't blog. We don't twitter. We take our time.

Don't get us wrong -- we do say yes to the accelerated science of the early 21st century. We say yes to the constant flow of peer-review journal publications and their impact; we say yes to science blogs and media & PR necessities; we say yes to increasing specialization and diversification in all disciplines. We also say yes to research feeding back into health care and future prosperity. All of us are in this game, too.

So, apparently, these slow scientists choose not to blog and tweet, but beyond that, it's hard to discern what it is about the way science is practiced today that they oppose. They conclude:

We do need time to think. We do need time to digest. We do need time to mis­understand each other, especially when fostering lost dialogue between humanities and natural sciences. We cannot continuously tell you what our science means; what it will be good for; because we simply don't know yet. Science needs time.

John Horgan, writing in his blog at Scientific American, responds, tongue in cheek, that he opposes this movement, fearing that "if scientists really slow down, and start publishing only high-quality data and theories that have been double and triple-checked, I won't have anything left to write about." But the bulk of Horgan's response is a bit more sympathetic to the slow-mongers, and actually provides a better defense of slow science than the movement's own manifesto. Horgan writes:

The likelihood that a claim will hold up ... is inversely proportional to the initial attention that it gets from other scientists and the media. Large, fast-moving, "hot" fields, which can yield large financial payoffs, tend to have the worst records.

This phenomenon makes all too much sense. Far-fetched claims -- about drugs that not only dispel depression but make you "better than well," about diets that help you lose weight while eating all you like, about genes that predispose you to Tea Party membership or liberalism, about parallel universes where your doppelganger wears funny hats--are more likely to attract attention than boring ones, and they are more likely to be wrong, or unverifiable.

There definitely is a problem here, but it's unclear whether that problem is specifically the speed with which scientists conduct their research or a host of other related issues: the flaws in the funding mechanisms (e.g. the tendency to fund "safer," more incremental research); the extent to which hiring and tenure decisions are based on publications not teaching; and the habit of university PR departments, journalists, and politicians to oversimplify scientific findings. These factors may combine in a way that makes science seem too "fast," but the speed of science per se is not itself the problem. These reasons are systemic, and any scientist who follows this manifesto's advice risks may slow down only their own career, all while not changing the underlying causes.

Slow science resonates with a sense many have that life has sped up and they cannot keep up. Myriad "slow movements" recommend aspects of life that should receive the slow-down treatment: how to eat, spend time with our families, and dress, to name a few. In contrast with slow science, participants in these movements may find great pleasure in these pursuits, but they do not place their careers at risk in pursuing them. Adding science to the list of slow movements may feel right, and may ultimately be right, but proponents' critique would be more valuable if they accounted for the deeper reasons why science has sped up.

Image: JSmith Photo/Flickr.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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