The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Monday, July 4, 2022

The Dragons of Science: Why we Need new ways to Communicate


A scientist guards his knowledge, making sure that nobody else profits from it. It is the theme of an article of mine (and my coworkers Chiavenuto, Lavacchi, and Perissi) titled "Science and the Dragon:" We were inspired by the work of Seymour Papert, the developer of the concept of "Mind Size" science. We need to tame the dragon and redistribute the treasure to the people. Science belongs to everybody! 

There is a book that I would warmly suggest to you: "The Clot Thickens" (2021) by Malcolm Kendrick. There are various reasons why this book is interesting, one is that Kendrick gives you several good ideas on how to take care of your circulatory system. You have to: that is the leading cause of death in our world. 

But there is more in Kendrick's book. He is a Scottish MD, a specialist in cardiovascular diseases. He is known as a heretical scientist for his negative evaluation of statins and other medicines that bring large profits to the pharmaceutical industry (so much that he attracted a rabid attack from the "Daily Mail" -- an honor!). 

Kendrick is not only a sharp scientist, but he has been developing new methods for communicating science to everyone, not just to specialists in a specific field. That's another reason why I recommend this book. Can you believe that I read this book three times? Yes, I did. Very few books deserve this kind of focused attention -- I don't think I have done that for more than three or four non-fiction books in the life of an avid reader, as I have always been, and I still am. And this one I may read a fourth time. 

Kendrick's book is truly amazing in the way the author masters the use of text for communicating complex ideas. This is not a "popular science" book, that is, it is not a watered-down version of science where a journalist explains to the uncouth masses the wonders that scientists have produced -- you know, galaxies, supercomputers, life extension, that kind of stuff. 

No. Kendrick's book is written by a scientist for scientists, or at least for people who have a certain degree of scientific literacy. Kendrick asks difficult questions, does not always have the answer, and does not shun reporting from the specialized scientific literature. The beauty of the way it is written is that it takes into account the fact that not everyone, not even scientists, understands the dialect of every scientific field. 

So, when we encounter the term "pultaceous," Kendrick stops to note that he himself at first wasn't sure of what it meant, then he explains that it stands for "having a soft consistency: pulpy." Kendrick also focuses the attention of the reader using italics, boldface, quotes, etcetera. And he makes wide use of irony, jokes, and asides, all with the idea of maintaining the attention of the reader. He does use acronyms (CVD for "cardiovascular disease") but sparingly enough that the reader is not forced to stop and think what the heck a certain acronym stands for. 

Let me state it once more. This is NOT the kind of watered-down science that goes under the name of popular science. This is science. Real Science. Hardcore science, if you like, presented in all its multi-faceted complexity. The matter of cardiovascular diseases is difficult, complicated, variegated, and sometimes baffling. But it is not impossible to understand if it is presented in the right way. 

What Kendrick is doing, here, is a major innovative feat: he is developing a new language for scientific communication. Let's ask ourselves a question: why are scientific papers written in such obscure jargon, for instance using the word "pultaceous" when "pulpy" would be just as good? Why do scientists feel obliged to write such hash as "it has been observed that...:" while it would be so much easier and clearer to say "We observed that...."? It is a "defensive" way of writing that scientists use for some reason -- the most likely one is to generate a defensive barrier to avoid incursions in their scientific turf. 

But these little tricks of scientific jargon are mostly harmless. The problem is that scientists almost never ask themselves who would or should read their paper, apart from their colleagues working in closely related fields. So, the destiny of a lot of science is to remain confined to obscure scientific journals that will be read by just a few people (if any). If it is bad science to be wasted in this way, no big damage (actually, it is better if it never sees the light). If it is good science (yes, there still is such a thing) then it is a shame that it is wasted in this way. 

And not just that: even good science is often hidden behind paywalls set by the publishers. This is another nice trick of the way science is managed nowadays. Scientists produce papers mostly using public money. Then they give them to publishers for free. Then, the publishers proceed to have the public pay exorbitant prices if they want to access the papers they have already paid for with their taxes. Are we shooting ourselves in our feet? Sure, multiple times!

In short, scientists have been behaving like the dragons of epic stories, keeping their knowledge for themselves, making sure that nobody else could access it. We need to tame these awful beasts (not necessarily kill them, dragons can make nice pets, as you may have learned watching "The Game of Thrones"). Then we can redistribute the treasure of knowledge that the dragons have been guarding so jealously. But we have to be careful: much of the treasure is fool's gold. Wrong studies, useless studies, repetitions of older studies, fully incomprehensible studies, and many studies are the result of corruption by special interests outside science. Can we sift this enormous mass and keep what's really valuable, turning it into something useful?

A difficult task, certainly, but not impossible. Clearly, it goes beyond the capabilities of the human mind, but we are starting to develop tools that may be up to the task. To acquaint yourself with the capabilities of state-of-the-art artificial intelligence, take a look at the "Leonardo" site. This is an impressive tool that could be used to review the huge mass of the world's scientific literature and reorder it in ways that are both comprehensible and useful. That requires removing the publisher's paywalls, and that won't make them happy. Not at all. But it is not impossible, either. 

One thing is certain: if we want science to survive, we absolutely need to develop new methods of communication. Kendrick's book is a good example of how to do that, and AI can help us a lot to do even better. 



  1. Hello Ugo. Using A.I. to read and index the scientific literature is a great idea, one of the very few uses that A.I. is actually very well suited to.
    But any use beyond selling dubious upgrades and such will have to be made profitable to offset the losses to the publishers.
    Perhaps by a government contract ?

    1. Ah, well, of course benefiting many never works when it damages a few.

    2. That is, there never seems to have existed an overpopulation problem with dragons.

    3. Interesting thought that we could be overpopulated with Scientists... my daughter just decided that in her field (dealing with water pollution) that is probably the case and left academic life soon after receiving her doctorate to work in a government agency.
      Even a single dragon could be an overpopulation to humans if it's eating way too many sheep.

      The comment starting this thread was also mine, Art Deco.

    4. Indeed, we have too many scientists and too few dragons.

  2. It's all just an epiphenomenon of their need for obfuscation in order to discombobulate the public, which I find totally dreckid and scrodgy.

    1. Scientists are specialists in supercazzole con scappellamento a destra (you can understand that if you are italian -- can't be translated into English!)

  3. You have been gracious enough to publish some of my reviews of the book ‘Limits and Beyond’. A theme that threads through all the reviews is that communication has failed. Why?

    I suggest three reasons:

    1) The message is too theoretical. It’s true that gas (petrol) prices are at record highs, and the climate does seem to be acting strangely. But most people still treat these issues as having local causes — they are not seen as the beginnings of systemic problems.
    2) It’s a negative sell. People don’t want to hear bad news. One more report telling us how bad things are is not going to make any difference. Instead, they want to hear how their actions can benefit themselves and their families. And they also want specifics. (If I read a report that says, “We must . . .” I immediately stop reading. Who are “we”? And who are you to tell me what I must do?)
    3) People don’t have time to read lengthy reports that feature all kinds of difficult-to-understand statistics. People communicate through stories.

    However, when it comes to peak resources and climate, maybe the lack of scientific communication doesn’t matter any more. For better or worse, the scientists have told their story. Their day is done. One more report is not going to make any difference. Now it is up to engineers and project managers to tell us what can realistically be done given the resources and time that we have available to us.

    1. Hi, Ian. Yes, I am planning to publish all your reviews. Gradually, so that we don't saturate the attention of the public. But, clearly, we have big problems of communication. Maybe impossible to solve, because you can communicate the problem, but it is difficult to communicate solutions. That is, it is impossible to propose solutions that will impact on the profits of those who make money by destroying the ecosystem

    2. If you want the attention of people interested in making money, you need to come up with ways that those people can make money off of cleaning up their mess! Here is one. Refund double the sales tax on regular Portland cement for portland-limestone concrete! Change the incentives, change the results. Sales tax/VAT refunds will have less pushback than adding a tax. Portland cement makers add limestone so less Portland cement must be made saving them money. WIN/WIN/WIN!

    3. Publish the reviews when you see fit - there is no rush. I have read the complete book, but have not commented on the second half. How is the book selling?

      Regarding impacting the profits of those who make money - I think that it is deeper than that. People, whether they are rich or poor, do not want to face a reduced standard of living. Yet that is where LtG is taking us. That is why I think that we should pass the ball from the scientists to the engineers.

      Regardless of who takes the lead, the absolutely essential ingredient is imagination.

    4. The book is selling reasonably well, although the club doesn't have the kind of financial resources to create a strong advertising campaign. But, yes, people are buying it and they seem to like it. And it is being noticed. See this recent interview with Carlos Alvarez Pereira, my co-editor.

  4. "Communication is, of course, a two-way affair..." and Kendrick "is developing a new language for scientific communication"...- but not for our outgoing Western Civilisation and its thinkers - they are only willing to listen to themselves...

    Thinking itself has become today a cliché - no different from the argument on the gender of Angels...- see here a good sample - if you are able to understand a word of what's said

    Watch here Natural gas burned cooking one plate of food in Asia - one of the biggest importers of NG

    Any natural gas will do - Iraq exports its first-ever batch of LNG - Note how shallow the waterway is, and remember liquifying NG requires 30% more NG energy for the process - in moderate climates. In extremely hot weather-Iraq, Qatar and Saudi, it requires 70+%.

    Grid electricity in Iraq almost non-existent - due to shortages in NG supplies. Iraq needs 90 x 1GW brand new power stations to re-enter the industrial age - but no national NG supplies, they are only available for export.

    If Iraq enjoys a descent grid power, its population will jump from 40 million today to 150+ million overnight - consuming all its own national oil and more - a Musical Chairs Game might materialise between nations - if not already playing out.

    Popular Iraqi Youtube channel promoting eating - like no tomorrow - The incentive is Earnings from Youtube - The Communications is vicious - especially when Iraqi families under the poverty line started recently making their children appear in similar videos eating inhumanly big food intakes for their age - also aiming for pennies from youtube.

    It is a given that parts of Youtube's colossal system must be powered by NG-fuelled power stations, too.

    Watch here a report on NG in Iraq (use Youtube auto-translation feature - if you like).

    Pay attention to that with each and every theatrically-said phrase, the background jumps and changes - the report is deliberately intended to be a mishmash Communications - aiming to cause the audience a severe nausea.

    Could it be that what's called Communications under this late phase of our outgoing Western Civilisation - is no more than an intention to cause the World a severe nausea and disorientation - rather than being any useful - since The Limits of Growth or maybe 1932s Brave New World?

    "In any system of energy, Control is what consumes energy the most"


  5. Yeah, well, better communication would be good. But if cheaters keep being allowed to run off with the store, it won't really help.

    Also. We need more people solving real problems, rather than more people inventing more gadgets.

  6. Hello Ugo,
    You even look like Bilbo, when you wield your longbow. Go for it!

    I suspect that a compounded problems are the push-to-publish quotas, which yields lots of rubbish papers, and the corporate paid advertisement-research to push a product. I am less confident than you that AI could distinguish between misleading noise and real science.

    Sometimes I despair, when I see the sorry state of science. The alternative ways of "knowing the truth" are so much more dangerous. I sometimes think that we are back in the 1880's Romantic Period, which lead to Nationalism and many other feeling-based political philosophies.

    In my surroundings, I have observed friends turn "anti-science" during the debacles of the last two years. They are right in looking very critically at the scientific data, but what disturbs me is that they uncritically swallow the whole messages of "alternative sites" when there are discrepancies in the official story.

    Let's do what we can to restore Science before it is too late. A reformation?


    1. I too "have observed friends turn "anti-science" ...what disturbs me is that they uncritically swallow the whole messages of "alternative sites" .
      Indeed. Starting when there are holes in the story, but very quickly they turn to "alternative" sources when the official story is disturbing or seems hopeless :any big issue like climate change, crime, war, poverty, anything at all they don't want to hear, there is someone, somewhere claiming it's not a problem. The real problem is always some conspiracy or the media or such... Art Deco.

    2. When "official" science panders to concepts like "scientific consensus" and tries to discredit anyone not toeing the line, what exactly do you expect?

  7. Sorry but Science died a long and agonizing Death.

    It must of started with a few money from corporations then a few money from politicians then a "peer review club" then a need for grant money and adjusting the results as asked by money provider... then meta

    But the death Certificate was signed with COVID.

    And a secondary death certificate was signed by Greta/WEF with Climate change that is scientifically real and correct but not acceptable to a world of "NO limits of Growth", "progress", "creativity", "individualism" and "democracy"

    So it is not a problem of communication and not even a problem of keeping the knowledge to the scientist itself.

    Most of today scientist are copy paste political humans that got their STEM diploma by coping at exams by Whatsapp or got a psychology, security or social diploma of similar "value" and methods.

    They have nothing of real value to communicate or to guard against others.

    IF you want "real" science to "survive" then you must make it a secret society with some mad and stupid looking initiation rituals so that everybody thinks it is sexual or other kind of maddens.... meanwhile in disguise keep the scientific method and information and knowledge alive over thousands or millions of years.

    After millions of years it is possible a more intelligent species will emerge and need this info to fast track in absence of an OIL lucky charm.

    best regards,

    1. A bit pessimistic, but I must say that you may well be right.

  8. I second what Bogdan says.

  9. No human endeavour has ever been perfect. 'Science' is no exception. With our huge energy surplus today, throngs of academics pursue knowledge in a vast array of niches. Some is good, some is bad, some promoted by malign parties. Eventually the scientific method should ensure that much of the good remains and much of the bad is forgotten.

    That said, I wholeheartedly agree with the publishing comments. For-profit publishing of publicly funded papers captures the essence of what is wrong with our system. An interesting angle on AI review and indexing could be emergence of AI-assisted meta-research.

    While science could benefit from an improved communication method, overall much of today's problem is a surfeit of poor quality communication. Memes like covid conspiracies thrive in the rancid pools of social media.

    Anyway, what improved communication will convince people to voluntarily become poorer? Until the prevailing stories tell people that there is no 'soft landing' from today's over-consumption, nothing can change the system except crisis.