Writing for all…

by Jim Caryl

Who are the best people to communicate science? Is it the actual scientists producing the science? Is it other scientists who are not directly involved in the science? Is it journalists or science writers? I would argue that it is largely irrelevant; the best people to communicate science are those who are interested in it.

If you would have asked me the same question 10 years ago, I might have answered differently. I might have suggested that it is best that scientists communicate science and that journalists leave well alone, but then these would be the words of a recent graduate, cock-sure and arrogantly entering into their chosen field with the kind of bravado that I still see in every newly minted graduate. In any case, 10 years ago we were dealing with the height of the MMR-autism fallacy that demonstrated precisely the wrong way to go about reporting science. As we get older though, we mellow as we start to see the bigger picture; amusingly it is this attitude that is probably responsible for so many teenage tirades against their parents, the teenager believing that the parents don’t take anything seriously, and the parents, having seen it all before, have the benefit of perspective.

When discussing science writing, we should probably clarify what we mean: science writing is an interpretation of science intended for a general audience. If the intention is to communicate science widely, and to a non-specialist target audience, then I don’t believe it is necessary for the person doing the writing to be the scientist behind the work, or even a specialist in the area, as would be necessary were they communicating the discovery in a scholarly journal. Whether the writer is a scientist or a science writer, the aim is to effectively communicate the science, make it relevant and generally understandable.

It’s true to say that not all scientists are capable writers, and even if they are, they have day jobs that severely limit the amount of time they can spend writing for a general audience (this is my excuse). The science blogger Inversesquare has commented via his blog that:

For every genuine example … of scientists’ writing about science that is both smart and elegant, there are at least two phenomena that ensure such writing is not enough: all that great work performed by researchers who do not possess Dawkins’ ability to convey its meaning to a broad audience; and the fact that much of the best of science writing crosses disciplinary boundaries in ways that are difficult for expert practitioners within disciplines to express themselves.

He was at this time speaking about Richard Dawkin’s ‘Oxford book of modern science writing‘. I would agree with the first point, there is a lot of great science out there, and thus much of it would fail to see the light of day were it not for science writers. However, I don’t agree with the latter point; if a scientist has broad interests and an ability to write, there is no reason why they should have any more problems expressing themselves than would a science writer.

Richard Dawkin’s was invited to put together the above anthology of science writing, but in a task that would otherwise be overwhelming, he chose to narrow the field to one that paid tribute to scientist science writers. As the Oxford University Press (OUP) states on the book blurb:

[The Oxford book of modern science writing] is a celebration of the finest writing by scientists for a wider audience – revealing that many of the best scientists have displayed as much imagination and skill with the pen as they have in the laboratory.

I choose to interpret the book from the perspective of it being a piece of work lauding those scientists whom, in addition to making sound scientific contributions to society, have made memorable literary contributions to the field of science writing. I don’t believe that the OUP’s publishing of this book enshrines the premise that, in their opinion, science writing belongs solely to scientists. In fact, another book published by OUP, ‘A field guide for science writers‘, succinctly describes some of the tools any good science writer needs: “how to use statistics, how to weigh the merits of conflicting studies in scientific literature, how to report about risk. And, untimately, how to write.” [Sic; a rather inappropriate place to leave a typo OUP!]

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