A friend pointed out that what I said about research in Tuesday’s post on Fareed Zakaria didn’t really apply to the sciences. In those fields, the vast majority of relevant research really is online—even if it’s behind paywalls. That’s fair enough, though the reason I didn’t mention the sciences is because I feel like the general public has a much better sense of what scientific research should look like, even if they don’t always distinguish between good and bad work.
Scientific work is permitted, even expected, to be complex, specialized, and difficult to understand. In fact, there’s a whole profession devoted to taking scientific research and interpreting it for the general reader. Science journalism is a field with professional associations, educational programs, and a substantial market. Humanities journalism, if it even exists, is a niche within the trade papers that cover higher education (such as Inside Higher Ed or the Chronicle of Higher Education) that’s mostly read by people who were already predisposed to read the original work.
You can see the difference when a science and technology journalist like Charles C. Mann starts writing about fields like anthropology and archaeology. Not just the sources but also the people come alive. The scholarly process becomes something worth talking about and the fact that research involves debate and interpretation comes to the fore. When the same person writes about the work of archival historians, all that disappears again and we go back to being invisible toilers in the footnotes. (Don’t get me wrong: 1493 is an excellent book. It’s just not nearly as illuminating about what researchers on the topic actually do as 1491 is.)
I understand why journalists writing about history don’t choose to foreground the scholars in the archives. That work is dusty, difficult to explain, and often uninteresting. But the same is true of much of the reality of science, and that doesn’t seem to stop people distinguishing between front-line research, analysis and synthesis, and general reporting.