Saturday, January 24, 2009

Good Science Writing


Good Science Writing
David Suzuki
Helena Curtis
David Raup
Niles Eldredge
Richard Lewontin
Steven Vogel
Jacques Monod
G. Brent Dalrymple
Eugenie Scott
Sean B. Carroll
Richard Dawkins
Albert Lehninger
Stephen J. Gould
Douglas Futuyma
Just to remind everyone that there is such a thing as a good science writer, here's a list.


  1. Not disagreeing... but most on your list trained as scientists not writers.

    (ps: Eldr*e*dge)

  2. E.O. Wilson & Stephen Pinker seem like obvious omissions.

    Carl Zimmer should probably also be there, along with Dan Dennett.

  3. Steven Pinker, rather.

  4. And Carl Sagan, of course.

  5. Bueller_007 says,

    E.O. Wilson & Stephen Pinker seem like obvious omissions.

    Thank-you for noticing. They are deliberate omissions because they don't meet the criterion of good science writer.

    Carl Zimmer should probably also be there, along with Dan Dennett.

    Carl Zimmer is the best scientist writer who is not a scientist.

    Dan Dennett is the worst.

  6. Yeah, Dan Dennett is a poor philosopher.

  7. I must say, I'm very curious why a Crafoord Prize winner with two Pulitzers under his belt doesn't "meet the criterion of good science writer".

  8. Although he is no longer with us, how about Ernst Mayr?

  9. Bueller_007 says,

    I must say, I'm very curious why a Crafoord Prize winner with two Pulitzers under his belt doesn't "meet the criterion of good science writer".

    Are you laboring under the false impression that Pulitzer Prizes are given out for scientific accuracy?

    Wilson's first Pulitzer was in 1979 for "On Human Nature." His second was for "The Ants" in 1991.

    I haven't read "The Ants" but I suspect it was pretty accurate in terms of the science. Unfortunately, Wilson also wrote many other books.

  10. Anonymous asks,

    How about Ken Miller?

    Thanks for injecting some humor into this thread!

  11. Anonymous asks,

    Although he is no longer with us, how about Ernst Mayr?

    Which one of his books do you think merits consideration?

    The problem with Mayr is that he was so inconsistent that you can mine his writings for almost any position in biology. He was capable of saying one thing in one part of a book and directly contradicting it in another.

    That's not a mark of a good science writer.

  12. Re Larry Moran

    1. The only books by Mayr I have read are his two volumes, "What Evolution Is."

    2. I have to admit that mentioning Ken Miller was aimed at rattling Prof. Morans' cage. I suspect that Prof. Miller feels the same way about Prof. Moran.

    3. How about Chris Mooney (when he's not discussing framing)?

  13. Re Ken Miller

    I would also point out that Richard Dawkins apparently doesn't agree with Prof. Moran relative to Prof. Miller as he strongly recommends Millers' books. However, since Prof. Dawkins was conspicuously left off Prof. Morans' list, I guess he doesn't think much of Dawkins either.

  14. However, since Prof. Dawkins was conspicuously left off Prof. Morans' list,

    No, he wasn't.

    Although I'm a bit surprised that one C. Darwin was. Oh, and there's that R. Feynman, who was alright.

    I'd also like to note that different writers are better for different levels of experience - I read a lot of Martin Gardner and John Gribbin when I was a teenager and, regardless of their accuracy, would recommend them for interesting younger readers in the broader sweep of science.

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  16. Larry's got it totally wrong, wrong, wrong, once again.

    We've been hearing a TON of whining against science journalism lately, but I can't help noticing that much of this whining is directed towards articles on epigenetics that I found to be perfectly good, carefully executed pieces of science journalism.

    Don't blame the science journalist: Blame the scientist. It' scientists who cannot agree. It's amazing to see how science bloggers are so ready to place all blame on the science journalists. They are in a sate of denial as to differences of opinion within science. They are saying "all of this about journalists overhyping epigentics". Not true. Many scientists think that the gene-luving neodarwinian framework, despite its virtues, is too narrow and that new ways of thinking must be used to deal with the full importance of the environment.

    In this case, consulting with sciencie bloggers will consistently disinform the reader, since he is likely to fall on the turf of some partisan gene-lover who thinks there is nothing new about epigenetics yet actually knwos so little about epigenetics as to be totally unaware of any connection between environment and epigenetics...and much less lamarckism. See, some sicnetists are barbarians with simple and plain knee-jerk reactions to words like "lamarckism". Fortunately, science journalists are not loaded with some chauvinims an prejudices that may permeate the specific area or schooling of the science blogger.

  17. Oh, OK, having read a bit further I see that this entry is related to the Dawkins-edited book, that all of the listed writers have been left out of same and that he's stuck with writers in the past 100 years.

    Which explains why you haven't mentioned Darwin, but all of your others are pretty good calls. I can't believe SJG was left out; what about Sagan? Did any bloggers make it into the book?

    My only real criticism of your post is, therefore, that I think you're having your cake and eating it. You've added writers who are all (with the possible exception of Dalrymple) evolutionary. But you know too much about that field to be a reliable judge.

    Are there any writers on, say, physics whom you think are good? If so, tell us and we'll pull you apart for liking writers who are so obviously ill-informed and out of date...

  18. "Are you laboring under the false impression that Pulitzer Prizes are given out for scientific accuracy?"

    Not in the slightest. I'm just pointing out that:
    a) He has received the most prestigious award in his field of science
    b) He has a received the most prestigious award in the field of writing

    And of course he's also got the Lewis Thomas Prize...for science writing.

    If 'scientific accuracy' is the key, then Lewontin (The King of Motivated Reasoning, Confirmation Bias & Mischaracterizing His Opponents' Arguments) should certainly not be here.

  19. I disagree with David Suzuki. I often read his column in the Metro Newspaper, Canada, and he often sensationalizes and misleads. I know he has been fantastic in promoting environmental issues but I think his writing is terrible. In one article he put an incredible amount of emphasis on the importance of the existence of large mammas for the sake of the environment and the planet. Large mammals are the least important species of organisms on this planet, and while it is sad that any of them should go extinct, this would not have a large adverse effect on the environment as a whole.

  20. There's something seriously wrong with a list of good science writers that doesn't include Carl Sagan.

  21. Well, I loved Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, but then, as he'd admit, he isn't a scientist. And I mourn the omission of E.O.W. Too "political"?

  22. About David Suzuki:

    In one of his columns, David Suzuki once recounted the "hundredth monkey" phenomenon as a real event. (This was about learned behavior of monkeys on Koshima in Japan.) Although sources debunking this claimed phenomenon were readily available, Suzuki did not consult them. When I pointed out that the phenomenon was dubious, he readily admitted he was wrong (but did not print a retraction).

    Doesn't meet my criterion for being a good science writer.

  23. (1) I'd nominate David Quammen as a good non-scientist science writer, and heartily recommend his The Song of the Dodo.

    (2) A lovely quote on the general theme of Dr. Moran's post:

    [I]t's the fault of the whole idea of science journalism, which involves getting non-experts to write, very fast, about complicated issues and make them comprehensible and interesting to the layman even if they're manifestly not. I used to want to be a science journalist, until I realised that was the job description.

    The above is from a December 08 post in the Neuroskeptic blog regarding an article in...New Scientist! [rimshot]

  24. oh, and if it's physics/maths you're after, Simon Singh's The Big Bang is great, and Fermat's Last Theorem is wonderful too.

  25. As much as you may despise Ken Miller, his rebuttal of ID in "Finding Darwin's God" is one of the best, if not the best, that I have come across. As you probably know, Dawkins heartily endorses it. Also, Steven Pinker does not meet the criterion of science writer because his writings encompass much more than science. I am surprised you don't like him though. Have you read "The Language Instinct"? It's a marvelous book for the sheer scope of its examples. I would also add John L Casti for his book "Paradigms Lost"

  26. I always enjoyed reading Steven M. Stanley's books. Both his text books (earth system history) and his popular works (Extinction!)

  27. Dobzhansky was a graceful writer.

    Dave Wisker

  28. Ditto Quammen, add McPhee.
    hmmmm, which of EO Wilson's books gets him blackballed by Prof. Moran...The Diversity of Life? Consilience? The Theory of Island Biogeography? Biophilia?
    Or could it be what he's heard about the last chapter of Sociobiology?

  29. I would add:
    Carl Sagan
    Steven Pinker
    E O Wilson
    John Casti
    Carl Zimmer
    David Quammen
    Isaac Asimov
    Freeman Dyson
    James Watson
    Robert Crease
    John Gribbin
    Leonard Susskind
    Simon Singh
    David Kanigel
    Keith Laidler (Canadian!)
    George Gamow
    Alan Lightman
    Peter Galison
    David Lindley
    Brian Greene
    Martin Gardner
    Michael Shermer
    Natalie Angier
    Olivia Judson

    Some of these are not just science writers though; they write about many interdisciplinary issues and are equally eloquent expositors of psychological and social topics. Also, many of these are trained as scientists.

  30. Hello, thanks for quoting me Jud.

    What I was referring to was day-to-day science journalism of the kind that makes up the science pages of the newspapers, the "news bits" of New Scientist, etc. Personally I think that's an impossible profession.

    But there are some extremely good science writers. The key is being an expert in the field in question without being so engrossed in it that you lose sight of the "outside world", I think. It's a delicate balance which is why there are so few of them, but I'd say that Steven Pinker, Stephen J Gould, and Jared Diamond, whether or not you agree with their science, get the balance just right.

  31. Good list! I would add:

    Olivia Judson
    Bob McDonald
    Arthur C. Clarke
    Carl Sagan