Writing for all…

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.

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A question of balance…

Giving equal attention to “all sides” can misrepresent the prevailing scientific consensus.

One of the major issues that is often debated in science journalism is one of balance. It is an issue raised to public awareness by a pamphlet produced by Chris Mooney entitled, ‘Blinded By Science: How ‘Balanced’ Coverage Lets the Scientific Fringe Hijack Reality’ (Columbia Journalism Review, November 2004). In it he asserted:

…the journalistic norm of “balance” has no parallel in the scientific world and, when artificially grafted onto that world, can lead reporters to distort or misrepresent what’s known, to create controversies where none actually exist, or to fall prey to the ploys of interest groups who demand equal treatment for their “scientific” claims.

A journalist may try to find a compromise or objective ‘truth’ by combining numerous sources and affording them equal opportunity to give their opinions, and allow the reader to make up their mind. The question is, how well does this journalistic system of ‘objectivity’ serve a science journalist when reporting on science topics.

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Hogwash in science writing

I hate political correctness in scientific papers. It’s especially insulting given the readership of such articles. I especially hate the use of the term “sacrificed” or the one in the current paper I’m reading “euthanised” to describe the killing of test animals as part of an experiment. In the latter it was the killing of test chickens to look at the results of antibiotic trials on their gut flora. However, perhaps “killing” has it’s own connotations, but it’s semantically different from “murdered”. Perhaps “rendered dead” is the way to go?

I’m reminded of an excellent, if wax-lyrical, 1955 Nature article by John Baker entitled English Style in Scientific Papers. It was popularly received as it was one of those moments where someone sticks their head up and pull no punches when telling everyone that they’re behaving doltishly. His subject was the grandiloquence and foibles that “are the enemies of good English” and hinder the effective communication of science. [Those with subscriptions can see an online copy via an Editorial and recent reprint in the Journal of Biological Chemistry Classics series:l article via link].
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