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Open science – campfire, formal knowledge acquisition or both?

Armenian Urn by Dmn
Image via Wikipedia

Recently I’ve stumbled upon this provocative post by Robert Paterson entitled Are Books Bad For Us?. Of course he doesn’t advocate to burn all books, but rather wonders whether books lower our ability to observe and think for ourselves. What catched my attention was the paragraph below:

How did pottery get invented? Surely no one said “Let’s have a project to invent Pottery!” How can you invent something that had never existed? No it must have happened like this – The People stopped for the night after a rainfall. The next morning, as they prepared to leave, the fire keeper noticed that beneath the coals that she was harvesting, the ground had baked to a crust. Maybe she could carry the fire in this thing – this bowl. That night as they shared the food around the fire, she told the people what had happened and showed them the “bowl” that she had lifted out of the earth the day before. And the conversation began  “how had that been? Did it hold the fire well? What else could it hold? What if we put it back in the fire? Would it hold water?” And on and on. Experiments were made. Some earth worked better than others. At the seasonal meeting with the Cousin Peoples, the People shared their story with the others and gave up a “bowl” as a gift their elder. At the next season meeting, the two tribes spent days sharing the stories of the experiments that they had been making…

Having open conversations and sharing stories of experiments are, at least that is my feeling, the sentiments of open science. Knowledge acquisition became too formal and took away the joy of discovery. However, some readers under the post above pointed out that increased complexity of the knowledge requires formal acquisition process. The way I understand it is that amount and complexity of data requires certain protocols and formats, such as MIAME for microarray experiments.

On the other hand, shared stories of experiments are cultural events. Have a look at notebooks of people working in Steve Koch lab. I like to browse them, even if I have hardly an idea what the project is all about. In some way they resemble articles from MAKE magazine, but you can easily interact with authors (some of them have blogs or are active on FriendFeed). Blog posts linked from Polymath project page are another examples – in addition to good science, they often makes a good story (I like this sentence from Nature’s article on first Polymath project: “Who would have guessed that the working record of a mathematical project would read like a thriller?”). And sharing stories is as important as making the data reusable. Without “campfire” aspect, open science is not that exciting anymore.