This post is about why should anyone bother to write about science, to ‘do’ science writing.
But really I’m interested in two other things here, consider this post a conversation starter. Firstly, you, the reader, why do you read about science? Or if you don’t, what would it take for you to do so? (Also, how did you get here?) And secondly, science writers, why do you think science writing is important? Why should people write about science?
What do I mean by science writing? Firstly, I guess it applies equally well to ‘science communication’ in general, but I want to focus on science writing here. Not actual scientific papers and journals, I’m more thinking of anything that takes that kind of information in one end and squirts out something more accessible to a non-specialist at the other end. It can be anything along the spectrum from blogging and social media to magazines and newspapers. Whatever. Let’s not get too bogged down in defining it, just whatever you think of as science writing.
So, why write about science?
There is an anecdote – skip ahead if you’ve heard it – attributed to a nameless “onetime editor of New Scientist”, who when asked “what is your philosophy at New Scientist?” He answered “our philosophy at the New Scientist is this: Science is interesting; if you don’t agree, you can fuck off.” Except don’t. Please come back, I want to show these bone eating worms…no, honestly, I promise you it’s interesting. You’ll love it. They’re covered in snot, and have harems of dwarf males….
I think science is interesting, and I also think it can be entertaining, worthy of your precious time. I love reading about discoveries in all the fields of science, I loved doing it, and I love writing about it. For me, that’s one reason why I want you to be interested in science. I would very much like to make a living from doing this at some point; writing about science for a general audience. The more of you who are interested, the more likely I am to be able to do that, so it’d be just swell if I could take ten minutes of your time to tell you something about weird animals that don’t have sex and steal DNA instead, or geese flying through the ‘death zone’….
But, for me, the interesting and the entertaining are only a part of the reason for writing about science. Science embedded in our culture. I don’t just mean technologies arising from scientific discoveries, like the internet or smartphones. The very people who ‘do science’ live among you. They look like you, they share the same interests, they listen to classical music, or hip-hop, or Norwegian death metal. They cook, they get drunk, they’ve never touched a drop, they’re recovering alcoholics. They have shitty days, they sulk, they laugh and they cry. And they have families and cats and dogs. They are as different from everyone else, and as similar to everyone else, as you and I are.
Science writing can be an opportunity to help show this, to demystify and humanise scientists, to tell the story of the people doing science, stripping away the stereotypes of the bearded white male in an ink-stained lab coat*, and revealing the true diversity of scientists.
To an extent, maybe it’s true that science writing is a kind of PR for science, but I think that’s just fine. So long as science writing sticks to the facts – as science itself should – and doesn’t embellish or mislead. Science shouldn’t be arcane and eldritch – especially publically funded science in my opinion – it, and its discoveries, are one of the glories of the human intellect; let’s show that to everyone and anyone with the time, or will, to listen. Maybe they’ll tell others, and maybe they’ll become interested too.
But I think there is a further purpose to science writing, and an important one. As I mentioned above, science is embedded in our societies and culture, it influences decisions made about how we live our lives, decisions we make (quitting smoking anyone?). It also influences decisions made by others (i.e. politicians) on our behalf; big decisions, based on science, or scientific information and data.
As Bertrand Russell Says:
The discoveries of modern science have put into the hands of governments unprecedented powers both for good and for evil. […] And, in democratic countries, it is not only statesmen, but the general public, to whom some degree of scientific understanding is necessary.
If we divorce science from our culture/s, if it is not in some way accessible to non-scientists, then that is anti-democratic. If a public is fully ignorant of science, its general processes and how it works, they cannot hope to properly evaluate new technologies like synthetic biology, nano-technology or stem cells and their potential impacts (good and bad) or the political decisions made about them. (See also: the baloney detection kit)
It could also lead to being misled or manipulated by special interest groups (including governments) with impressive and persuasive rhetoric, but ulterior motives, for which the facts don’t actually stack up. Or it could be simply through sensationalised (mis-)reporting in mass media. Huge doubt and scepticism can easily be created where little, or none, is warranted, with profound effects for society both in the short (e.g MMR) and longer term (e.g. Climate change).
To this end, it’s also important that science writing helps explain that science is an on-going process, we have degrees of confidence in its discoveries, sometimes very high ones, and the ‘balance’ of the available information must be presented truly. The darling theories of science are tested, methods are improved, and errors can be identified and expunged, this self-correction is where sciences power lies. Being wrong in science is progress, not a personal insult to be avoided at all costs, as it apparently is in politics. In short, science is beaten against the anvil of reality, and as Richard Feynman once said:
It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.
So, there you have it, some of my idle thoughts on ‘why write about science’. It’s not really a comprehensive list or exploration, just some things which came to mind. So, I’d love to hear what other writers think, and also those of you who read but don’t write about science think. And all those in-between…
During writing this post, it occurred to me that, since I have put some of my science writing cards on the table, that here might be a good place to solidify some guidelines – for my own science writing – that have been floating around vaguely in the back of my mind, into solid text. Something like an Oath, maybe…
My Science Writing ‘Oaths':
1) I promise to get things right, to fact check, and not mislead
2) I promise to write as honestly as possible, without hidden agenda or motive
3) When I screw up, I promise to be honest and to correct things as soon as possible
4) You’re an intelligent human being, so I promise to never over simplify and ‘dumb-down’
5) I promise to make my writing as accessible and engaging to as many people as I am able
6) I promise to never uncritically toe the line of any institution, organisation, press release, or individual
7) To scientists, I promise to never misrepresent your work (see also 3)
8) I promise to get better (like, seriously…)
9) I promise to be as entertaining and informative as I can, and to not waste your time
Anyone got any others they think should be added?
Ok, we’re nearly done now, over to you…
So, finally, and thanks for bearing with this long post, why do you read about science? And why do you think science writing is important, assuming you do?
Top image: Original by Nic McPhee http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicmcphee/2756494307/ I put a question mark on it. Creative, eh?
Middle image: Drunkard Scientist, err, me…
Bottom image: Corey Seehus, Brain Cells Inc, USA http://www.flickr.com/photos/gehealthcare/4253571779/ Modified by me.
*Though, annoyingly, I am a white male with a beard and my labcoat often had pen marks on the pocket…