Will Scientists Ever Get Science Writing?


It’s usually coffee that jolts me into alertness in the morning. But today, it was a guest post on that excellent science blog network, The Last Word on Nothing. Although alertness doesn’t quite describe it – call it foot-tapping, steaming exasperation instead. Anyway, I was definitely awake.

The post is great, by the way. Titled, “Make Me Feel Something, Please“, it’s by Soren Wheeler, senior producer at RadioLab, and like everyone there, he knows how to make a compelling point. It’s his point that had me sitting up straight in my chair. He was writing about a recent column in the Science magazine publication, Science Careers.

This is how Wheeler starts his post:

A couple of days ago I was sitting at work when my wife emailed me an article by Adam Ruben. He’s a scientist who writes a humor column for Science. This one was about science journalism. I thought: Hey, I’m a science journalist, I like funny things, should be good. But a few paragraphs in, after a snicker or two, something odd happened: a slow creeping bile of righteous indignation worked its way out of my stomach and into my chest. By the end of the piece, I was in a huff.

As I’m still fuming myself, I think it’s safe to say that I had exactly the same reaction.  If you want some better sense of why, let me just give you a couple of examples from Ruben’s post, called The Unwritten Rules of Science Journalism.

He leads off with this statement: In reality, journalists make mistakes. And nowhere is the problem more prevalent than in science journalism. He goes on to blame shoddy science reporting on what he describes as the profession’s unwritten rules. As this is – haha, a humor column – he makes up a list of rules that lead to bad journalism. Among them:

* Relate the research to readers’ everyday lives.

* Remember that ordinary people cannot understand units of measurement.  Therefore, you should always explain measurements in relation to familiar objects…

And perhaps, most telling in his list:

* Don’t think of what you’re doing as dumbing down science. It is, but don’t think of it that way.

As Wheeler says in response, “And here’s the real rub: this smells elitist to me, even if it wasn’t meant that way. The implication is that if you need those things to get it, you don’t really deserve to get it.”

I’ve always loathed the condescending phrase “dumbing it down.” I still remember some years ago serving on a NASA communications advisory committee and getting in an across-the-table argument with scientists about the implied attitude. Because the fact is that every profession, not just science,  has its jargon and internal lingo that needs translation for those living outside the charmed circle.

And the importance of writing in terms of familiar objects and everyday lives is the essential  message – that science is about our world and ourselves.  That it’s useful to all of us. Ruben also complains about the way science journalists humanize scientists. “Be sure and describe the scientist physically in vivid detail,” he writes sarcastically. “Scientists love that.”

And here again he gets it entirely wrong. First, we science journalists don’t – or shouldn’t – write just to make our sources happy. Our mission is instead to make our readers understand research  – and sometimes even enjoy it. And one of the things they need to understand is that science is a human enterprise – at its core,  however smart, however complex, still just human beings trying to understand and better navigate the universe around us. And if we science journalists fail to convey that – then, yes, we are doing our jobs badly.

Of course, this isn’t a new argument. It belongs to a long-standing tension between journalists and researchers over how to tell stories of science. I brought some of this up a couple years ago in a post called “The Trouble With Scientists“, the title of which will tell you that my take is distinctly different from Ruben’s.

I do want to acknowledge that, in the midst of the snark,  he makes some fair points about the ways that stories can be over-hyped.  But mostly he misses his opportunity. And also shows his ignorance of what science journalism does well.  Just to quote Wheeler – who says this so much better than I do here anyway – one more time:

The people I want to reach are not dumb, they just don’t think about these things all day long. So putting things in terms of something people can understand? Nothing could be closer to the core of what I do, what I love doing.


— Deborah Blum

UPDATE: This story really got us Trackers going. You’ll find Charlie Petit’s take  here as well.