05 January, 2011

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Scientific Literature

Things have changed rather drastically.  As recently as six months ago, I couldn't have read a scientific paper to save my life.  Oh, I grant you, I'd tried a few times, but found myself bogged down and stymied by incomprehensible language.  So I usually gave them a miss.

Instead, I read the science blogs, which are for the most part written in layperson-friendly language.  Popular science books, ditto.  Ventured into some heavier stuff written for a non-lay audience and found it heavy going, but waded on through, aside from a few books I had to put aside because I Just Wasn't Getting It.

Then, a few months ago, I started wanting to read the papers referred to in various and sundry.  Problem being, far too many of them are behind a pay wall, and I am far from rich.  Grumble.  I didn't really notice my attitude shifting, but it was.

And then, last month, as I developed a sudden need to research ice caves, I turned in desperation to Google Scholar.  Some freely-available .pdfs turned up in my searches, and those, combined with a dearth of suitably-detailed stuff written in regular people language drove me to actually read a couple of scientific papers, and I discovered I liked them.  I enjoyed reading them.  I understood at least the gist of what they said: the language didn't seem incomprehensible, the big words didn't frighten me, and I'd absorbed enough of the terms and concepts through other reading that even the denser passages weren't that difficult to read.  I know I'm still missing at least 50% of what those papers are trying to say, but I'm getting enough of the context that I can understand what they're getting at.  If a term throws me, a quick Google search resolves the confusion.  The math is still completely beyond my ken, but surprisingly many papers on geology have little to no math featured.  So that's all right, then.

I've been watching my own reading in fascination.  Sometimes, I'll stop and think, "Holy shit, I'd have had no idea what that meant last year."  But somewhere along the way, I learned how to read science.  I picked up enough Greek and Latin that I can loosely translate very large, unfamiliar terms with relative ease.  I mean, take this phrase: "cryogenic carbonate precipitates."  Sounds huge and scary.  But all it really means is carbonate rocks like limestone deposited in a cold environment.  Basically, if you know how things like stalagmites form in caves (deposited by water carrying dissolved calcium carbonate), know that carbonate refers to stuff that contains carbon and oxygen (like limestone), and that cryo means cold, you've got it made.  Even "heterothermic" held no terrors.  Hetero - mixed.  Thermic - temperature.  Mixed-temperature.  Easy-peasy!  I've got the gist of it justlikethat!  Sure, it's not 100% precise, but at this point, it doesn't have to be.

And that ability to translate on the fly didn't come from studying ancient languages, but simply from reading a lot of books and blogs about science, where the authors carefully defined terms when they couldn't use plain English, and thus I started seeing patterns in what certain words mean and how they're used.  I didn't even know I was learning that sort of thing!  It just happened, and wasn't obvious until the day I needed it.

You science bloggers and popular science book writers, you may not quite realize what you're doing.  You're making it possible for former English-History majors like myself, us college dropouts, us regular old Joes and Janes with an interest in science but absolutely no formal training, to dip into the scientific literature and read it without undue strain.  It's challenging, absolutely - but thanks to those writing for a popular audience, it's not an insurmountable challenge anymore.  Give me another year or two hanging about your blogs and reading your books, and it's quite likely I'll be a more confident judge of quality, as well - I'll begin to understand statistical methods better, I'll have a better sense of what makes the difference between solid and shoddy science, and it's just possible that even math will hold no terrors.  It's because you've embedded these tough concepts in a matrix of clear prose.  And you've thus given me the keys to a whole new kingdom.  I don't have to rely on translators so much any more.  It's wondrous is what it is.  So, a thousand times: thank you.

Now, if you'll excuse me, there's a whole ocean of science papers I've yet to dabble my toes in.


Anonymous said...

Even as a science major I find science journal articles to be a bit intimidating at times. I think I've read a couple and came out feeling more confused than when I started. But you're post reminds me that you just have to keep on trying. Thanks for the inspiration!

Chris R said...

At the AGU blogging workshop last month, I argued that blogs could act as a link between popular science and journal articles - and here you are, proving my point :-)

More seriously, congratulations for taking the plunge and making the effort.

Karen said...

Here's a effort-saving method for reading geology papers. Start with the Abstract. If you've read it and you think you understand it and you want to know more, read the Introduction, look carefully at the illustrations, and read the Conclusion. If you still haven't learned what you want, then go read all the really dense stuff in between the Introduction and Conclusion.

Silver Fox said...

I'm with Karen on that, also reading the discussion unless it's too heavily data oriented and you aren't interested in that part. Overall though, it depends why I'm reading the paper, sometimes knowing exactly how they designed the data collection part and what they did with the numbers (whether I think their use of statistics is valid) is my main concern, usually it's their conclusions, then I evaluate whether I think they came to their conclusions in a way that makes sense.

Dan McShane said...

I really liked this post. One it helps inform me on how science interested people might read science. But it also describe some of my own research. I am a geologist but have deep interest in other areas of science or history that I find a bit challenging.

You and the comments provide sound advice. I rarely proceed past abstracts. But when I utilize papers I always try to understand the assumptions that have been made. The assumption language in scientific papers is frequently lost on those not well versed in the particular science and has led even those that are astray.

Anyway always fun reading your blog