Facts So Romantic

The Problem With Science Writing

Photograph by Nic McPhee / Flickr

Want to hear a seamy insider secret from the science communication industry? The border between journalism and public relations has more turnstiles than Grand Central. Professionals move with relative ease, and little stigma, between newspapers, websites, and magazines and what would otherwise be called propaganda centers—university communication departments, government agencies, corporate PR arms, military research branches, and so on. So it should come as no surprise that the outputs from these two domains are sometimes hard to tell apart. Informing the public about science can become nearly indistinguishable from efforts to promote it.

Think about it. For every article singing the praises of new science, how often do you see one that is critical? Not often. Unless you’re talking about eugenics or fission bombs, a new scientific result or technology is almost always treated as an unequivocally good thing.

If by “science” we simply mean its ideal description—the construction of models that give good explanations for data and predict phenomena—sure, that’s a good thing. But that represents just one part of the modern-day scientific enterprise, which also includes technology, policy, and politics. Since a powerful enough scientific result can have unforeseen consequences in all of these domains, we need to be that much more critical to understand its significance.

The porous boundary between journalism and PR is not the only contributor to oversimplified science reporting. Science can just be plain hard to understand.

The public is isolated from the scientific world and there are stark barriers an ordinary person must overcome to get an education. This was recognized over a century ago, when the American Association for the Advancement of Science was founded. As far as I can tell, overcoming that isolation and those barriers still constitute our central dilemma today.

There are many good efforts at communicating science to the public without being too reductive, both from communication professionals and from professional scientists like Richard Lewontin or Douglas Hofstadter.

But a common solution chosen by today’s science communicator is to make science less complicated and more entertaining. To this end, there’s been a steady emphasis on communicating scientific ideas through stories that either dramatize the working lives of scientists or speculate about the impact of a scientific idea on American society and culture. This can be done well, of course, if it is done carefully and reported out responsibly. Unfortunately, some of these stories end up with the verisimilitude, complexity, and overall appeal of a fairy tale. The simplicity raises skepticism and alienates the reader even further.  

Obstreperous writers and scientists have identified some of the troubling trends in this way of conveying science to the public. For example: the fetishization of fMRI imaging and the “neuro” prefix; the shallow and overly visual obsession with astronomical objects; silly genetic reductionism; the bizarre neglect of fields like chemistry, linguistics, ecology, and geology; wild speculation about the adaptive functions of certain traits in organisms; the irresponsible coverage of irreplicable psychological studies; and just the general credulity towards phrases like “studies show” and “the data says.”

What is to be done? My solution is simple: Encourage the reader to think for him or her self.

If the public can internalize a generalist understanding of science, they would have a better chance of finding science interesting on its own terms—not just because they were told ad nauseam it was interesting. They would feel a heightened amazement for the depth of knowledge humanity has achieved, and a greater reverence for what we don’t know, or can’t know. Such a public would not take the claims of popular science for granted, or be so easily swayed by pseudoscience and scientific hyperbole. Like a tree with deep roots, it would take more than a lazy breeze to upheave it. As any grad student will tell you, the first target of skepticism should be your teacher.

Personally, thinking for myself about science is the only way I’ve been able to make sense of it. Self-discovery—that is, exploring, internalizing, and modulating ideas—is the iron-nickel core of Enlightenment education; it’s supposed to be the way human beings learn.

I’m not saying that the lay public should go pick up and consume the Feynman Lectures. I’m saying that they should be aware that oversimplifying in science is a problem, judge what they are reading appropriately, and be thoughtfully critical about what they are learning.

Science is a story about ideas—often abstract, often technical, often complex, often counterintuitive—and all the energy and profundity and drama of science comes from the interactions between these ideas. These should stay intact in responsible science communication, not glossed over.

One example of work that tries to convey this reality is the late David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. Its ambition is admirable and accessible: to describe a “set of mathematical achievements,” by the German mathematician Georg Cantor, which “are extremely abstract and technical,” and to show why they are “extremely profound and interesting, and beautiful.”

In an interview with The Believer, Wallace observed that in another, more conventional book, “the origin, motives, and contexts of Cantor’s actual achievement got little serious treatment…I think because [the author and his publisher] felt the math would be too dull for a mainstream audience…It managed at once to insult Cantor and his work, the reader, and the very possibility of writing honestly about technical stuff for a general audience.” It is mildly ironic that Wallace’s attempt to write “honestly about technical stuff” nevertheless entailed a raft of technical errors, but that comes with the ambitious project of forming and articulating your own ideas about a subject.

What I recommend to science writers is to be aggressively anti-simplistic, and to give the reader the benefit of the doubt. Don’t talk down to them. If they are reading science, there’s a good chance they’ll be willing to work to understand it. Give them that opportunity. With intellectual humility, journalists and science writers should begin where they expect their readers to: by thinking for themselves.

And what I recommend to readers is to form your own model of science. Doing so necessitates some understanding of philosophy and some familiarity with the culture and industry of science, warts and all. The effort’s worth it: It will lead you to the land between total skepticism and unshakable faith—the only place where any garden of ideas will grow.

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Trevor Quirk is a writer living in Salt Lake City. This article was adapted from a chapbook he recently published on the role of metaphor in communicating and conducting science. You can download it, for free, at his website.

The lead photograph is courtesy of Nic McPhee via Flickr.

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