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.
This entry was posted in academia, Imported from Livejournal and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Science written

  1. invaderxan says:

    Oh, I wouldn’t worry… I used to be a horrible writer and a wuss for criticism too. Keeping a blog has really helped my writing, and I’m my own worst critic these days! :P

  2. orthoflame says:

    Heh, cool indeed. I needed an upper division writing class for my degree, so I picked a Scientific Writing course. Let’s just say the instructor made me realize I’m a horrible writer and a wuss for criticism, at least for scientific papers. I rather liked the lenient deadlines we had for submitting our papers, though.
    Yeah, I also hate it when you spend hours and hours trying to understand a paper and later find out it’s useless. That happened to me waaay too often when I needed to cite journal articles for my Biomech class’ lab reports. D:

  3. invaderxan says:

    lol… Yeah, actual names and technical terms are a notable exception. :)
    In pop sci though, I guess you’d expect the author to then try and explain it in easier language after using the tech language.
    I usually try and ask myself ‘what exactly am I doing and what exactly am I looking for?’

  4. invaderxan says:

    Wow. Thanks for all the feedback! :)
    To be honest, I was inspired from an early age — notably by two people. Patrick Moore and David Attenborough. I grew up with both of them on TV, and their conversational tone never fails to be inspiring. It definitely helps that they’re both fascinated by everything they talk about too!
    I think another balance writers have trouble finding is that which lies between dryness and sensationalism. There’s an art to enthusiasm, it would seem…

  5. invaderxan says:

    Norbert Wiener… I know that name. Thanks for reminding me! :)
    The world, I think, needs more Professors like that guy. He speaks a lot of sense!
    For anything short of a paper or a thesis, I think a conversational tone is definitely the best way to go. It puts people at ease without condescending or seeming like a know-it-all. Lots of people just have trouble finding the balance, I guess…

  6. invaderxan says:

    I do enjoy the Nature editorials! Their blogs (like The Skeptical Chymist) are also very well written.
    To be honest, I don’t find New Scientist all that bad. Well… Their blogs and their magazine articles are pretty good (and I only normally read the space articles). The news can definitely be a bit OTT though.
    Thanks for the pointers though. I’ll make sure I take a look… :)

  7. As I was telling my labmate the other day,
    “Really, there are only so many ways you articulate ‘fluorescence excitation spectroscopy’ and actually have people get exactly what you mean.”

  8. invaderxan says:

    Why thank you. :)
    You had a scientific writing instructor? How cool is that!
    Clear an concise. Definitely. I’ve had to decypher papers in the past, only to find out that they didn’t actually tell me anything I didn’t already know! Man, that was frustrating… ;)

  9. invaderxan says:

    Yeah, it’s so ingrained into some people, isn’t it? I guess people need to learn how to speak authoritatively without being overly technical about it…
    That said, I’ll probably be not much better when I come to write my first few papers! :P

  10. invaderxan says:

    Definitely!
    The trouble is that a lot of scientists tend to ramble. I really enjoyed James Lovelock’s Gaia books, but they’re quite difficult reading at times. He has a habit of going off on a tangent — with a lot of detail.
    For the record, as authors go, I quite enjoyed John Gribbin’s writing style…

  11. invaderxan says:

    Glad you enjoyed it! And I’m even more glad you found it useful. :)
    It just seemed like a good thing to do…
    I think it’s safe to say that most writers like to spoon feed their audiences. It’s nice to know that audiences are knowledgeable enough to not like that!

  12. helen99 says:

    > Do you read popular science?
    Yes… In 1982 I got a degree in physics with a lot of courses in astronomy, but I’d consider myself more “general” than “science”. I didn’t stay in the field, but rather got a job as a tech writer.
    > Others gave the reason that it was either not informative
    > enough, containing inaccuracies or simply not interesting.
    I’ve actually found this to be true. Some popular science writing is good and some of it is abysmal. That on the abysmal side is often sensationalistic and written with the idea of selling magazines or reflecting popular political opinions rather than reporting experiments, data, and results.
    > What do you like about popular science?
    > 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.
    I think this is true. Some of my childhood inspirations were my science magazine subscription and astronomy field guides.
    > “I tend to find that popular presentations of stuff in my
    > field are oversimplifying to the point of error
    I’ve seen this, and it’s damaging. For example, I saw an article about the problem of pellagic plastic deposits in the ocean. This very serious problem does require immediate attention, but the article omitted the experimental setup, the area covered, and the data, and then misrepresented the actual experimental results so they appeared more sensational. That diminishes the credibility of the experiments. I had to spend some time digging to find the actual experiment and results, which only vaguely resembled the popular article.
    > 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.
    That’s accurate.
    > The other major dislike from the scientists is sensationalism.
    Yes, and not only scientists — I also dislike sensationalism. Just give me the experiment and the results.
    > Scientists, after all, are a cynical breed.
    Apparently so are tech writers.
    > 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.”
    We tend to prefer to read interesting science fiction rather than put up with pop magazine drivel. A well-written science article can be fascinating, though.
    > 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.
    Yes! Any article describing the results of an experiment needs to talk about the experiment itself and not hype the results beyond what they are just to create “interesting” fabrications.

  13. underwr1tten says:

    A few things, because I have also been thinking quite a bit about the topics in your post. I recently read Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings and I think it is both tremendously pertinent to your concerns, and a delightful example of relatively well-written and clear popular science writing. I wholeheartedly recommend it.
    I also LOVE that quote you have by the cognitive neuroscientist, because I actually had to stop reading what I had been told was a very good book on emergence (Emergence by Steven Johnson) for the reasons s/he relates, and I had a difficult time articulating it effectively. :(
    One of my favorite professors (interestingly, he is also a cognitive scientist) has wonderful writing advice on his website. Admittedly, it is philosophy-oriented, but I think it can be applied to any writing. An example: “Many areas of academia, I understand, want students’ papers to convey a certain “scientific” or “professional” image.  I don’t care much about this. I certainly don’t have any strong expectations that you ought to write with a certain style.  As long as you aim at being both convincing and clear, write any way you are happy with. (Overly wordy, jargon laden, writing, that uses all the big words the writer knows, is almost definitely NOT writing as clearly as possible though.  Use simple language as much as practicable.)  Lists of points are not acceptable for a paper, however.
    Personally, I like to imagine a conversation with the reader when I write.  My aim is to speak convincingly to this person, and to engage them and their critical faculties in exploring an interesting problem or question with me.  To do this, I find a slightly informal, “chatty” writing style suits me best.  I certainly don’t mind using contractions (“don’t”, “you’re”, “haven’t” etc.), as I do when I speak.  Perhaps this sort of style isn’t one you’re comfortable with, though.  Find one that is.” more here. I am positive he won’t mind my linking to this, because like you, he is fighting the good fight against poor communication! I will try to contribute my editing skills as much as possible :)

  14. What I don’t like about popular science writing is when they over-hype things. New Scientist is especially guilty of this. I tend to read the editor’s summaries of papers published in Nature to get an idea of what’s going on in other fields. Other good things are Physics World, Nobel Intent articles on ArsTechnica, and popular science books written by someone working in the field. Those don’t make me cringe like New Scientist does!

  15. orthoflame says:

    Firstly, great entry you have here.
    I remember obfuscation being a bit pet peeve for my Scientific Writing instructor. He not only encouraged us to edit jargon and insignificant things from our own papers and papers we’d have to workshop, but he even had a few lectures and in-class exercises dedicated to wean us off of the trend.
    I’m just an undergrad right now, but I think clear, concise writing is the way to go, no matter what level you’re writing for. Some papers I’ve read do a really good job with this, while others might as well establish a new language. As for popular science, I like using it to get a general gist of topics I’m unfamiliar with. . I don’t think it should be discarded right off the bat.

  16. A surprising number of scientists are guilty of obfuscating their work.
    Don’t forget too that many science students don’t start off writing in a obfuscating manner, but are trained to do so by their graduate advisors, thus perpetuating the problem.
    Thankfully, I think my graduate advisor is not guilty of this, although he’s had to train me to not write like I’m reading essays written by J. Caesar or Cicero. ;)

  17. I really like this post.
    Though I’m just a student now, I tend to collect and enjoy various science related magazines, books and the like, but I have noticed a lot of things that were pointed out – sometimes the reading experience just isn’t all that pleasant if you’re trying to decipher what the author is saying. I’ve wondered on the occasion I wasn’t intelligent enough to understand what they were trying to get across, but then again I’ve compared multiple books on the same subject and found that that was not the case – it was moreso the author’s writing style and skill (or lack there of.)
    I hope more scientists (and writers of non-fiction) take this into account.

  18. pax_athena says:

    I really liked this entry :D Some things I would have expected, like some scientists not reading popular books because they seem oversimplified to them – that is in fact the feeling I have rather often. Others not, especially that the general readers and scientists are so alike in many aspects…
    Should I ever come into position to write for general public (what I actually really hope) I’ll certainly take things you mentioned into account!

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