A recent post over at Pharyngula, and the associated comment thread, has gotten me thinking about science writing vs. popular-science writing. It's an odd and schizophrenic topic.
Some points now, that I'll write down for later expansion. Please feel free to clog the comments with suggestions about this topic. This is a little messy and poorly formatted; I wanted to get it out there and have people thinking about this as quickly as possible. Of course, given my traffic levels, that's probably a faint hope. Oh well.
From the second article cited by Pharyngula:
As they hump, so too do they evolve, assuring their offspring get only the best of genes.
This annoys me, because it implies that individuals can evolve. NO, only populations evolve.
Comment #1 (Unhappy Writer)
I fail to understand why science writing must be dull and, in this case, poorly structured.
It makes science writing so much harder to read!
Being 'dull' is a subjective measure. Science writing often comes across as 'dull' because it must be precise - the adverbs and adjectives that PZ mentions getting tossed are almost always highly imprecise words - they make 'spin' far too easy.
Comment #5 (cory)
The pervasive use of the passive voice in scientific writing makes my brain hurt. My advisor and I used to argue about this all the time, with him "passivating" everything I wrote and me trying to sneak back in with real writing.
My experience has been that the passive voice in scientific writing is slowly disappearing, replaced by active voice. The good precision-based reason for this, as explained to me, is that writing in passive voice ("PCR was conducted in multiplex reactions for each set of four loci") implies the magic little lab-elves came and did your work for you - which is obviously very much not true! Active voice, to round out the example: "We conducted PCR in multiplex reactions for each set of four loci". It's not difficult, and is often easier to read and understand.
Comment #7 (grendelkhan)
I wonder why scientists are still, as a group, so leery of writing for a popular audience. Doesn't the training process select for an ability to communicate clearly?
The training does not select for an ability to communicate clearly - it's training, so very little selection is involved, at least at later (graduate school) stages, rather it's a process of improvement. The training is geared specifically at clear communication in science writing - which I will argue is very distinct from popular writing. Yes, there is a great deal of overlap between the two styles, particularly in things like basic grammar and organisation and flow, but much of the practice writing that occupies an undergraduate science degree is designed to beat out popular styles and conventions and substitute clear, precise (and, unfortunately, often dry) language.
PZ will make the point in a later comment that one good reason that scientists, "as a group", are leery of popular writing is that there is no motivation for it - one's career as a scientist is not (usually) helped by popular writing.
Comment #9 (William)
Just a quick addendum to the discussion of why scientific writing is so dry, which I think is important enough to deserve a mention: precision! Scientists have to be very careful about the claims they're making, and a loose description of their results can easily imply interpretations not supported by the data. We may be enthused about possibilities for our results, but we (unlike purveyors of woo) have to respect the truth and not take things further than we can support.
I agree completely.
Comment #10 (PZ Myers)
Yes -- the scientific style is well-honed and efficient, and I think we'd all be very upset if PubMed filled up with enthusiastic abstracts loaded with adjectives and pop-culture references. The current style is good for communicating precisely and with brevity to our peers, and I would hope we don't change it.
I'm just saying that when we aren't talking to our peers, we need to be aware of a necessary change in style. What works for fellow experts in our disciplines is a complete turn-off to someone on the outside.
Comment #10 (PZ Myers)
That's something I also mentioned in the Thursday discussion: there is virtually no professional reward for public outreach. I think that's changing -- I've gotten some positive feedback from my peers -- but it's still a simple fact of life that talking to a few hundred laypeople about the importance of a whole scientific discipline has almost no weight in a CV compared to speaking to a handful of your peers at a poster session. It's right that there is a lot of resistance to changing that -- I would hesitate to recommend any changes to tenure and promotion policy along those lines myself -- but there ought to be mechanisms in place to value popularization in addition to (definitely not in place of) traditional scholarship.
Comment #17 (Ian Menzies)
"there is virtually no professional reward for public outreach."
So which rich benefactor, ideally one who is otherwise facing the ravages of history, should we pester to create the "public outreach" version of the Nobel? Does the Gates foundation have enough left over to create such a prize? Is there already a "Carl Sagan" award that needs to get a boost in award level and publicity?
An interesting idea, and probably useful - but rare awards are not going to motivate normal working scientists to popularize their work beyond their disciplines - what's needed for that is some kind of recognition scheme that impacts a majority of working scientists, they way peer- and tenure-review processes do.
Comment #20 (Mona Albano)
Actually, that wasn't at all bad as far as science writing goes. It had "We found" and "Blah should determine X" and so on. I do wonder, sometimes, why scientists can't translate "We found a positive relationship between body size and total number of eggs produced, as well as body size and number of eggs per egg mass." into "We found that the larger the snail, the more eggs it produced and the more eggs were in each egg mass." They have stopped at formal, slightly mathematical language. They could take one more step into standard English, retaining only technical terms where needed, without losing precision. In our minds, I think we translate "a positive relationship" into "bigger snail... more eggs." At least I do.
Something in that bugs me, but I'm not sure yet. A voice at the back of my head is insisting that "a positive relationship" actually does convey more information than "bigger snail...more eggs". Something to do with not being restricted in which direction one moves on a graph. This might require its own dedicated post to sort out, with illustrations. That would definately count as "procrastination".
Comment #23 covers an interesting tangent, about science and policy. I've had very interesting conversations about that, so I'm writing this down now to serve as post-it note on the subject.
OK, I've got to get working, now, and I'll come back to this later.