Saturday, February 17, 2007

Popularizing Science

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)
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.


Unknown said...

Interesting thoughts, most of which i agree with. As the author of comment #23, and someone really interested in the translation of science into policy and the public arena, I would, of course, love to see your post-it note expanded! So I guess you've got me hooked into keeping an eye on your blog now... :-)

TheBrummell said...

As the author of comment #23...

Of course, the one commenter I forget to credit by name shows up first. Sorry about that.

So I guess you've got me hooked into keeping an eye on your blog now...

MWA-HA-HAHAHAHAHA-HA! All part of my nefarious plans!

Seriously, thanks for commenting.

I need to sort out my thoughts on science communcation before I tackle science and policy. Most of my interest and (weak) knowledge of science and policy stems from conversations I've had with a professor of Geography here at the university of Guelph (who also happens to be a long-time family friend). I should contact him and get permission before I post my garbled re-interpretations of his thoughts here.

Once I get a few more of these essays marked and behind me, I'll try to pull something together here.

Carlo said...

My Ph.D. work has turned me into a hyper-purist. Throwing drafts of manuscripts around the lab(s) has made me realize how easily people get misled as to your meaning when you are not dry and somewhat redundant.

It's very difficult to decide how far one can go in terms of 'layperson speak' before the original meaning of a result becomes misconstrued.

Case in point, there was a recent CNN article with a title like "Scientists Uncover Alzheimer's Gene'. The paper showed that 22% of victims of Alzheimer's had a particular mutation in this gene... I wouldn't call that 'the' Alzheimer's gene.

It's a toss-up between public interest and public understanding. You should read SJ Gould's 'The Mismeasure of Man'. In it, he argues that science can be presented in toto with proper explanation and still remain interesting to any reader. Based on all of Gould's books that I've read, I'm quite convinced that he was right.

I don't think we should be playing to the lowest common denominator of societal desire to understand. If it's gotta be a little detailed, that's the way its gotta be.

Anonymous said...


You are BRILLIANT, and wonderful to read! but then.. you had me at "The answer is 42."


TheBrummell said...

Thanks, Zaxy, but I think you may have me (and potentially any residual brilliance I may possess) confused with another: it was not I who posted the excellent point about 42 over on the World's Fair.

In any case, thanks for stopping by.