Science written

So, as a blog head, one of my main aims is to practice my writing, and to try and keep the ability to write in a way that anyone can understand. While I may not always be able to explain a concept as well as I’d like to, I think I manage to at least write without too much abstruse technical language or jargon. The keyword here is obfuscation.

A surprising number of scientists are guilty of obfuscating their work. On occasion, it becomes so confusing that even high ranking scientists in their own field have trouble decoding their twisted rhetoric. Perhaps they feel good about writing things that other people can’t understand. Perhaps they’re trying to cover up the fact that they haven’t actually done very much. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that they could be doing the best science in the world — but if no one can understand what they’re saying, how is anyone going to know? Congratulations! You have helped the human race achieve absolutely nothing!

All of this is discussed rather interestingly in this post.

So a few months ago now, I posted a couple of surveys to Livejournal communities to try and get some idea of what people think about ‘Popular Science’ writing. The results were certainly enlightening.
The communities involved were Livejournal communities for scientists and book lovers — the intention being to get opinions from both scientists and general readers. Incidentally, this would count as a ‘small study’ so it isn’t exactly a full cross-section of the population. All percentages can be taken to mean ‘of participants’.

Do you read popular science?

For a start, the majority of people do read popular science, with 40% of scientists and 50% of general readers reading it regularly. 10% of scientists stated not reading pop sci, with the main reason being that they were too busy. Others gave the reason that it was either not informative enough, containing inaccuracies or simply not interesting. The only book reader to give a reason was simply not interested in science.

What do you like about popular science?

Scientists who read pop sci mainly do so because it’s an accessible way to read about other fields, learn new things and find out practical relevance — liking mainly the fact that it’s interesting, to the point, and you don’t need to be an expert. A couple of scientists pointed out quite enthusiastically that science writing can spur an interest in science from the general public, as well as inspiring children. Book readers too, like pop sci because they’re interested in the subjects written about. They find the accessibility and understandability of it attractive, with one participant stating “I like to get a better understanding of the world without feeling like I’m reading a textbook.”

In a nutshell, a number of readers out there are saying ‘I want you to amaze me.”

…and what don’t you like?

One participant, a cognitive neuroscientist, summarised the opinion of some scientists quite well, saying “I tend to find that popular presentations of stuff in my field are oversimplifying to the point of error, which makes me very cynical about what I’m seeing in other fields. In my own field, I know what the issues are, what can go wrong, what might be swept under a rug when there’s a claim that X is true; in other fields, I don’t have that critical sense, and that makes me nervous when trying to read about their findings.”

Two things certainly stand out more than anything else, in the eyes of the scientists. Pop science writing is often dumbed down and simplified to the point of inaccuracy. Indeed, a couple of book readers were in agreement. Dislikes cited by both parties also include the writer being biased, dryness in the writing and general obfuscation (such as jargon). Poor writing and frankly bad journalism are big turn-offs for pop science readers.

The other major dislike from the scientists is sensationalism. Scientists, after all, are a cynical breed. On the subject of writing style, another scientist said, “We act like it’s a binary: for [scientists or non-scientists]. But it isn’t; it’s a spectrum. I fear that people who might be interested in science would get discouraged if they read something too advanced, but simplistic writing will alienate the real science buffs. It’s a quandary with few good solutions.”

One scientist had something else to say on the subject; “Not enough chemistry! Science for the general public is mostly biology/psychology/cosmology.” While I may have a personal bias towards chemistry, the point is a valid one. Certain topics tend to dominate the limelight, while others are left largely in the background.

On specific subjects

I must note, that a large complaint came from the scientists because I didn’t have enough biological categories to choose from in this question. The tricky subjects of evolution, biotechnology and genetics interest many scientists and book readers alike. Both sides are also interested in prehistory/palaeontology and archaeology/ancient civillisations and astronomy (with scientists being slightly more interested in astrobiology, while book readers are more interested in cosmology and the nature of the universe).

Overwhelmingly though, both sides have another thing in common — both are interested in ‘Miscellaneous Interesting Things’. From personal experience, it has to be said that the best pop sci books I’ve read myself are certainly those that throw in enough random facts to keep you interested!

On the portrayal of modern science

Several scientists believe that ‘For science to work, people need to know what it’s about.’ This is certainly true, and book readers seem to agree. Both sides also feel that there’s plenty of misinformation out there, but the gems are worth looking for. The two main gripes are then, that science writing can be patronising at times, and that a lot is simply inaccessible.

In regards to this, a book reader said, “I read science in the news and am disappointed sometimes by what they choose to portray. A small study does not yield field-changing results for example, but you would have to know that, and the article would have to describe the sample size, for you to tell if the news is statistically significant.”

On a final note, a couple of book readers believe that science fiction is an important contributor to the knowledge of science in popular culture, with a few believing that sci fi is much better when it contains real science. The general agreement though, is that a compelling storyline is the most important part.

To summarise the results, it’s extremely interesting that both groups feel the same way about a number of issues. Is science writing really patronising? Dumbed-down? Inaccurate? Dry? Well, evidently it can be! What’s going wrong here? Everyone wants the same thing of science writing, and everyone has the same complaints. Surely it should be easy to satisfy everyone then, right? Well, it’s sadly not that trivial, but we can at least all make an effort.

For a start, the authors need to be sure they have their facts straight. As one participant says, “I hate that so many journalists get the science wrong, not because they tried and failed, but because they’re not even trying.” The most important things are probably to write with personality, to be interesting, and to explain things as if you were talking about them to a friend, over a beer — not as if you were speaking to a young child. Remember, people are reading what you write because they want to be entertained as well as educated.

Scientists, while they might be a cynical bunch, should all share one thing in common — we have a passion for learning things, and a passion for teaching those things to others. Writing is, after all, fundamentally about communication. In all honesty, I believe that keeping a blog is an excellent way to remain mindful of that.

Keep writing, people. There’s a big audience out there, and they’re thirsty for knowledge!

EDIT — By the way, whenever you’re reading this blog, feel free to pick up on any ways I can improve my own writing. To ask any less would be nothing short of hypocritical.

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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