Saturday, May 24, 2008

Good Science Writing

 
In case you haven't noticed, there's a debate going on about the quality of science writing. Many scientists—I am one—think that the quality of science journalism is not as good as it could be.

I maintain that the top three criteria for good science writing are: 1) accuracy, 2) accuracy, and 3) accuracy. Everything else is much less important. Scientists tend to score high in accuracy when they write about science, especially if it's their field. (There are many exceptions.)

Professional science journalists tend to score high in other categories such as readability and style. These are very important features of good science writing and no scientist can be considered a good science writer without being a good writer as well as a good scientist.

What about the non-professional who writes a good story that is not scientifically accurate? Can such a person be awarded kudos for good science writing? If the awards are handed out by other journalists, and not by scientists, is accuracy of information going to count for very much?

All these questions come up in a posting on Thomas Levensen's Blog The Inverse Square Blog [More on Richard Dawkins’ Peculiar View of Science Writing]. Levensen is upset about the fact that Dawkins only selected articles by scientists in his recently published anthology The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing.

Read Levensen's posting to see the point of view that I dispute. Note that Levinsen refers to some very popular books by science writers who were not scientists. Some of these books may be popular but they do not score high in the category of scientific accuracy. How would Levensen know this? He's turned on by a good read and not by whether or not the information is correct. Other books by science writers are excellent. They are well written and scientifically accurate. Nobody disputes that. The question we're addressing is the general quality of science writing and not the obvious counter-examples.

As a general rule, do you think that science journalists are doing a good job of presenting accurate scientific information in their books and articles? Do you think that professional scientists do a better job?


[Hat Tip: John Wilkins]

19 comments:

  1. a science journalist do know how to use language that can be understood by the public. Although many professional scientists have better understanding and accuracy in science, their lack of ability to communicate their works with public are a problem (of course there are some scientists who can do that).

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  2. I have a friend who graduated with a masters of journalism from Ryerson. I've had conversations with him about this sort of thing and he's pointed out that journalists (and other writers) aren't free to write whatever they want - they've got editors and other people above them that will 'direct' the kind of language and subjects they can use. Furthermore, it can also be in their interests to be somewhat vague in their descriptions of scientific subjects because any complaints about the accuracy of the piece will fall back upon the original author. If they try to be too detailed, it's plausible that there's a greater chance that they'll get it wrong (assuming that the writer isn't a trained 'scientist' and has good, but not detailed familiarity with each individual field).

    I'm not saying this is a good thing, but that's the answer I got. The flipside of course is that most science students can't write. That's a fact; I've graded enough essays to know that unless you did an Arts minor and got some experience in writing university-level papers, you'll probably graduate with a B.Sc. and a ~12th grade writing level.

    There are obvious exceptions to this rule as many scientists are quite eloquent writers, but the ability to communicate thoughts and ideas to the public is something that requires practice, like anything else. Scientists don't necessarily learn it unless they practice as well.

    As to your question about accuracy, I think that scientists probably do a better job than non-scientists at presenting accurate information (though while I enjoy many of his books, Richard Dawkins would not be my personal paragon of scientific accuracy). However, there aren't many scientists whose books are necessarily well suited to the lay-person. But this isn't a zero-sum game, a scientist could get editorial feedback on how to improve his/her scientific communication to the public, just like a science writer could have his/her book rigorously proof-read for accuracy, time and cost notwithstanding.

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  3. One of the best (certainly my favourite) popular science writers around is Richard Fortey. His writing is simply wonderful and his books accurate. He also happens to be a very eminent palaeontologist.

    Highly recommended.

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  5. The most annoying thing about seicnece writers is that its always about triumphs and heroes. They tend to be very uncritical, even if they realize they are boombasting what is actually only one way for thinking...or only what is of anglo-american origin, as simple as that. See, if you assume you're on top, you don't need bother looking to anyone else.

    As for the scientific accuracy of Dawkins views on evolution....no comments. I really put this kind of thing first; you don't really make up for by bad science, by accompanying it with a heap of antirreligion. If anything that just makes things worse as far as spreading confusion and misinformation about the motivations of most TRUE evolutionary scientists. You know, the kind that will actually publish some research on evolution.

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  6. In reference to the question I wouldn't really wish to swing either way - because I don't really think that I have read enough of either type of writing to draw a conclusion. I would, however, like to say that that are two limitations - not unsurmountable - for scientific writers. The first limitation I think is that it is very difficult to be critical of sources of information if you are not embedded in the field. It is also very difficult to identify the perspective a source of information comes from if you don't have a frame of reference - this frame of reference generally tends to, I think, come from extended study within a field. The second limitation I think is that when writers communicate they often need to connect the information they are relaying to information the reader is familiar with. I think that this effort to connect often leads to inaccuracies.

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  7. I maintain that the top three criteria for good science writing are: 1) accuracy, 2) accuracy, and 3) accuracy. Everything else is much less important.

    Well, if this view is widely held among scientists, that would account for much of the need for a debate about quality.

    I'm in the business world, not science or academia, but I've heard the excuse far too often that, "Look, my information is accurate; I just don't have time to dress it up or make it sound or look pretty." That's a blinkered idea in business, in science ... anywhere. Science has no monopoly on a concern for accuracy, nor is accuracy enough to ensure effective communication.

    Quite apart from the legitimate question of accuracy, effective written communication is difficult and time-consuming work. Without accuracy, the work is misleading at best, but if it's not effective writing, it's more or less pointless.

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  8. Could you be more specific on what "very popular books...that do not score high in the category of scientific accuracy" Levinson refers to?

    And in your analysis you've ignored Levinson's first point that Dawkins would have to exclude the vast majority of his own writing as acceptable based on his scientist-only criteria.

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  9. I guess if Dawkin's comment has been interpreted correctly by the blogger - it suggests that nobody other than an expert in a field has the capacity to produce accurate work about that field. Quite apart from Dawkin's scientific texts - this implies that Dawkin's other works - such as "The God Delusion" must automatically be excluded from a discourse on faith. As far as I am aware - Dawkin's is no specialist in sociology nor is he a philosopher

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  10. A minor concern, but perhaps appropriate on this blog, is when author have more or less well hidden agendas, often denigrating other sciences. Fred Hoyle and Paul Davies are example of authors that can write well (on at least some topics and /or fora) but are annoying by not plainly stating their bias. As Dawkins as usual is mentioned, he is a counter example.

    @ Anonymous:

    In his TGD, he states early on (in both prefaces to the 2nd paperback ed) that he writes as an atheist. Presumably he is an expert in it, as he has devoted quite some time and public work on the subject of atheism.

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  11. Bayesian Bouffant, FCDMonday, May 26, 2008 9:35:00 AM

    I'm curious to hear your opinion of Coming to Life by Christiane Nusslein-Volhard (ISBN-13 978-0979845604). It's a book on developmental biology. I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the material, but I feel the book is weak in another area: it's boring.

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  12. Bayesian Bouffant, FCDMonday, May 26, 2008 9:36:00 AM

    when author have more or less well hidden agendas, often denigrating other sciences.

    You could add Francis Collins to the list.

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  13. I recently asked a similar question on our blog about science programs on TV. I'm with you, accurate information is the top priority.

    Scott says: "Without accuracy, the work is misleading at best, but if it's not effective writing, it's more or less pointless."

    That may be true, but inaccurate though effective writing is worse than pointless - it can be damaging. Of course there's no reason that one can't be accurate *and* readable, it just takes more effort.

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  14. Actually, in some of Dawkin's earlier works (The Blind Watchmaker, etc), I can't remember any religion or anti-religion at all. It only pops up occasionally in passing in his more recent science books, and of course in the TGD. Apparently what happened is that, despite his best efforts at being polite (which are very considerable), repeated creationist attacks and dirty tricks began to take their toll, and he got pissed off, which is perfectly understandable. They spoiled his love for evolutionary biology with their incessant lunacy, and he had to vent it. As a science-lover myself who is surrounded by creationists, I can understand that perfectly. Dawkins is nevertheless an excellent science writer and communicator, who writes elegantly and clearly. His prose is a joy to read.

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  15. Anonymous: Dawkins' first recorded snark at religion is in The Selfish Gene, where it is perfectly gratuitous.

    As a science writer myself, at least some of the time, I remember two books on cloning Dolly the sheep, one by Gina Kolata of the NYT, and the other by two of the people who actually did it (so boring was the work that I have forgotten their names). Now Kolata was almost certainly inaccurate, and the other guys as accurate as they could be, at least about the science -- though there were of course political constraints on how they told the story of the discovery. But I really wouldn't care to judge which book was worse, or the bigger failure. The scientists' book was written as if for people who wanted to clone their own sheep; the journalist's for people who couldn't care at all about science. Both faults were equally crippling, and both betrayed a huge misunderstanding of the role of pop science writing.

    And, TL - that Dawkins is an atheist doesn't mean for a moment that he has studied what his opponents believe. On the contrary, he thinks himself far above such accuracy. Isn't this the burden of the "courtier's reply"?

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  16. A few scientists do write well about cognitive content. But the best writers about science are historians and philosophers who see it as an institution subject to pressures. Yes, an individual scientist is sometimes able to satisfy her/his curiosity and produce interesting results, but science as a whole is shaped (and distorted) by the availability of resources or by transitory political and social pressures. And by personal biases and ordinary motivations. Science is a protected space in which a carefully selected group of people is allowed to explore in relatively freedom, sometimes. The results are surveyed from the outside and cherry picked for development and sale. Resources are injected into "science space" based on outside wish lists (a better bomb, a cure for cancer, more reliable cell phone service) and best guesses about how "useful" or profitable the results will turn out to be. Most of science is puzzle solving to make pre-existing processes a bit more appealing to consumers.

    To write well about science you must write from the outside in. Writing from the inside out gives a highly distorted view of the motivations, processes and pressures that shape the institution and the array of results.

    Science journalism, at its best, rejects the biases of scientists (and their self-interests) and views their work critically, asking (always) where did the money for this research come from, who really wants it, what will it be used for and who cares.

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  17. And, TL - that Dawkins is an atheist doesn't mean for a moment that he has studied what his opponents believe. On the contrary, he thinks himself far above such accuracy. Isn't this the burden of the "courtier's reply"?


    It means that he has studied atheism, and atheism makes a conclusion on the natural world that concerns religious claims. I am throughly tired of the special pleading that religions use in their apologetics.

    More precisely, the main argument in TGD is based on empirical claims that most large religions do. Most reviewers reply with a "courtier".

    Now Dawkins also discuss some of the social phenomena that adheres to religious activities. I'm sure that he has made some mistakes there, though I've so far only heard of one. IIRC, one reference is rather vacuous if not outright wrong. The exact reference has slipped my mind.

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  18. To write well about science you must write from the outside in.

    I can't agree with that, as many of the best science books are written by the scientists themselves, such as Brian Greene on string theory or Robert Bakker on dinosaurs. It works even for more historical and philosophical contexts, such as Abraham Pais on Einstein.

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  19. I'm a writer though not a scientist. Non-scientists writing about science (or anything else, for that matter), have a duty to be accurate, and that duty takes precedence over every other consideration.

    That said, the vast majority of lay readers read for pleasure: if you don't pleasure them, they won't read. Of course the material can be as challenging as the subject demands, but that can't be an excuse for bad writing.

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