Archive for May 2008

Quote for the Day — Weekend E. B. White edition

May 31, 2008

“Proposition: The duty of a democracy is to know then what it knows now.”

– E. B. White.

White is now probably mostly known as the author of glorious children’s books — Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan for three — but in the day he was recognized for the brilliant essayist he was. To get a sample, check out the collection, One Man’s Meat, still in print more than half a century after it was first published, is both a delight and, quietly, surreptiticiously, one of the best guides to writing well I know.

The quote above comes from that collection, an essay called “Compost.” It was written, White tells us, four days into the battle for France in 1940. It is at once his meditation on what could, should, one hoped had been done to prevent matters from ever getting to that pass, and an homage to one of true laureates of American literature, Don Marquis.

It’s a tricky, complex essay, seemingly a grab bag of occasional thoughts, actually a very carefully composed whole. White could really write.

Like all writing worth reading, there is a bite inside the apparently simple prose and argument, one that leaps out now: to intervene, to preempt or not. It’s a great piece. Seek it out.

And by the way — if anyone thinks that the author of Charlotte’s Web isn’t tough enough for such stuff, consider this quote from the same essay. White was moved to write the piece, he says, when he joined a club called “Friends of the Land,” — to celebrate which event he proposes to drag his chair up to his compost heap to give him a place to go “whenever I feel sociable and friendly to the land.”

A couple of paragraphs down, he shifts focus:

So great is the importance attached to news from abroad even my club intends to have foreign correspondents. I should imagine today would be a discouraging day for the northern France correspondent of Friends of the Land. The organic matter now being added to French soil is of a most embarrassing nature. Until we quit composting our young men we shall not get far with a program of conservation.

Oh yes.

Image: Anonymous, photograph of World War I military graves in the Alsóvárosi cemetery in Pápa, Hungary. Licensed under a Gnu Free Documentation License version 1.2 or later. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

So I Lied: One truly last thought on Dawkins…

May 29, 2008

…actually, a couple.

First — Blake Stacey has written an excellent, detailed and generous review of what’s actually in Richard Dawkins’ The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing. Stacey and I disagree as to the liklihood that Dawkins dissed non-scientist writers about science, and we agree that Dawkins’ selection is a bit narrow. But both issues aside, I certainly concur that Dawkins’ collection is eminently worth reading. Stacey tells you why.

Second — I’ll use this excuse to promote two other examples of popular science anthologizing that I don’t think got enough notice, and that do respond to (among other things) Larry Moran’s demand for accuracy.

One is Alan Lightman’s The Discoveries, subtitled “Great Breakthroughs in 20th Century Science.” and the other is Marcia Bartusiaks Archives of the Universe: 100 Discoveries That Transformed Our Understanding of the Cosmos.

Both authors use variations of the same basic approach: they take the original papers, provide an extensive introduction to each one, and allow their readers to experience for themselves the actual science (or at least the formal presentation of it) that forms the architecture of our modern understanding of the material world (or the cosmic part of it, in Marcia’s case).

I have quibbles — for example I told Alan that he should have included Wegener’s plate tectonics work in his collection, to which he replied that he did the work and he got to choose, which is true.]

But such really are quibbles. These are exceptional collections — one by a physicist, one by a physics-literate science writer (i.e. both sides of the street some of us have been arguing about). They are true guides for the reader: the real stuff combined with well written and on point apparatus to allow non-specialists to gather what’s going on in the technical material. I recommend them both.

Logrolling alert: Alan and Marcia are both my colleagues in the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing.


Bad Word Play — no excuse edition

May 29, 2008

Prompted by the start of mowing season in Massachusetts:

That feeling of unholy pleasure at the disastrous state of your neigbor’s lawn:


Image:  Christian Gottlob Hammer, 1811.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Dawkins Derangement Syndrome? J. Rosenhouse edition.

May 29, 2008

I promise that this is the last post (for a while at least) on this subject, but Jason Rosenhouse over at Evolutionblog has waded into the great “did Dawkins diss sience writers” debate of 2008, inspiring a vigorous comment thread in the process. So this is to respond to a few of Jason’s and his readers’ points about this post that seems to have riled some folks up rather more than I think is warranted.

Jason – and some of his readers – seem to think two things that I want to push back against.

The first is that my problem with Dawkins’ book is that it is exclusively a book of science writing by scientists.

That’s not so. I got no problem with Dawkins’ editorial choices. (Or rather – not with this aspect of them –see below and this post.) I think a collection of great writing by notable scientists is a wonderful thing, and, as I wrote in the post linked above, Dawkins framed this work in an intriguing and to my mind mostly successful structural conceit.

What I continue to have difficulty with is the presentation of the book as a synoptic view of science writing full stop. It’s called The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing after all. I don’t know about the rest of you, but that sounds like a pretty canonical claim to me – and that assertion of a canon that omits so much science writing even from the field of possibility is both annoying and, I’ve argued, misleading.

Others – Jason and many commentators here and on his blog — don’t see the book as making this kind of global claim. I think it is implicit (actually, pretty explicit) in the title, and nothing in Dawkins’ introduction dispelled that impression.

That said: I don’t disagree with those who have pointed out that the book’s jacket copy and Dawkins himself makes it clear what potential readers are getting. I just think that this observation misses the (my) point.

The second suggestion Jason and his readers make is that I suffer from Dawkins Derangement Syndrome. Jason himself seems to think that the mere mention of Richard Dawkins’ name is enough to drive me “completely out of [my] mind.”

I should thank Jason for paying me the compliment of putting me in the class of “otherwise intelligent people.” But I still have to contradict him on the underlying suggestion that Dawkins makes me crazy. Consider what I wrote in the first post I wrote about Oxford collection (the one that all those so deeply upset that I would criticize the great man seem not to have read).

There I say:

It is, as you might expect, a very nicely put together book, complete with the obligatory butterfly and double helix on the cover. It is handsomely designed, nicely printed; someone who likes books as objects took care over the work.

It is also, as you would certainly expect, full of smart interesting stuff, with an interesting structural conceit, breaking down the world of science writing to questions of what scientists study, who they are, what they think (sadly not what is to my mind the more important question: how they think), and what delights them.

All good so far, you might say, and you’d be right.

To be as clear as I can be:  I greatly admire Dawkins, of course – I know no serious science writer who does not.

I prize the copies of his books that he was kind enough to sign for me, and though I cannot claim to have any real personal connection to him, I did spend one enjoyable and informative afternoon and evening with him in the context of a television interview I produced a few years ago.

There were just three of us at dinner, which makes it possible for me to confirm the comment by one of Jason’s readers to the effect that Professor Dawkins is in person cordial, gracious and a fascinating conversational partner.

Pretty deranged, eh?

At the same time, I would value science blog-reading community’s response to what I do think is the more substantive of my complaints with Dawkins’ choices for the contents of this collection. That was the substance of the post quoted above, in which I complain that the book’s presentation is exceptionally narrow, and a bit conventional as well.

Again, folks: I made this point first because I thought it was the more important one for the community to consider. Do y’all disagree?

There. I’m done, I hope. I do want to think a bit more about Larry Moran’s real complaint – which is that popular science journalism gets a lot wrong. I’ll follow that up as soon as I can, for while I think he has a point, I think the problem runs both deeper and broader than he implies.

Image:  William Hogarth, “The Interior of Bedlam,” from The Rake’s Progress, 1763.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Once More Unto The Breach…Dawkins/Moran edition

May 27, 2008

My posts on what I see as flaws in Richard Dawkins’ selection criteria for The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing seem to have sparked a bit of a debate on these here intertubes — at least I go away for a quiet, ‘net-less holiday weekend and find that Larry Moran over at Sandwalk wants to defend Dawkins’ decision to include only scientist-writers, and not non-scientifically trained science writers in his canon.

So, time to have at it again. I usually enjoy Moran in his role as the village curmudgeon, but this time out, I think he has fallen into that worst of all possible states, that of being not even wrong.

Here’s his argument in the short form. He writes, “the top three criteria for good science writing are: 1) accuracy, 2) accuracy, and 3) accuracy. Everything else is much less important.”

Style and readibilty help, he concedes, and those are the attributes that science writers aim to bring to the table, but such non-scientists screw up so often as a general rule, according to Moran (those who don’t he dismisses as merely “the obvious counter-examples”) that whatever virtues they may possess are irrelevant.

Just to get the inevitable out of the way…It would take a much better man than I am to refrain from pointing out that Professor Moran mentions me five times in his post, using two different spellings for my surname, neither of them correct.

There…I feel better.

Of course, Moran’s minor errors here do not speak to the force of his larger argument.

But I think that this larger claim falls apart on only slightly deeper inspection.

He has failed, in my view, to notice that scientists and science writers each suffer from characteristic defects in their science writing; those that define the aspirations of the genre are those, from either camp, that surmount those defects.

I agree with Moran on one thing. Accuracy — perhaps better, conceptual understanding — is what non-scientists have to watch out for first, last and always. The little mistakes matter, because they undermine faith in everything else said; bigger issues come from a lack of quantitative understanding, or simply missing the point of a story because one doesn’t know how a given story relates to a discipline or a line of research and so on. There are a multitude of ways to mess up.

Having been trained, and even better, having produced original work in a field goes a long way to helping one avoid such errors. Among those of us who write about fields we cannot claim as our own, none of us, so far as I know, is perfect. Certainly, I still wake up over mistakes made in magazines long since become mulch twenty years ago an more — and no, I won’t tell you what they were.

But scientists who would write for the public have their own paths to error. I’d point to three that I’ve noticed over the decades; I’m sure others can think of more.

First: Parochialism. In its mild form, this is simply a partial rendering of a story, born of the particular place a given scientist-popularizer occupies in a field. As a weak trope, it’s mostly harmless (w. apologies to D. Adams, of course). For example, if one read just a single very popular book, one might glean the notion that string theory, for example, is a more nearly realized body of work than its critics would argue. No real damage is done here.

But pushed, and real misinformation gets produced, a picture of a given state of research that is genuinely misleading. Think James Watson and the role of Rosalind Franklin, as depicted in that model of scientist writing, The Double Helix. (I confess to a personal grudge here, as I have a family connection to Franklin.)

Next: Unjustified claims of expertise. Scientists are not experts in science, really. They are experts in particular disciplines, or now, more commonly, subdisciplines. They know a lot, as a class, about general issues in science beyond their own fields of research — a lot being defined as much more than lay people. But a lot in this sense does not equate to real, independent mastery of most of science, including a lot about which one might opine.

Older, highly honored scientists are prone to this assumption of greater and greater breadth of knowledge — think Jim Watson again and race/intelligence for example — but certainly younger, overbold folks can fall into the same trap. This is probably the extreme example.

BTW, I meant it when I said that I enjoy — really value — Moran as bullshit filterer. This post captures attributes of both parochialism — in the case Moran skewers, believing that your shiny new tool, evolutionary psychology is really, really powerful — and misplaced faith in one’s own ability to make claims about fields you don’t actually know very much about. Bad science, as Moran says, and bad science writing, from whatever source it issues.

Last: I don’t have a good name for this one. The empathetic difficulty, perhaps. The public audience for science ain’t dumb, just ignorant. (Nod to the best line Sissie Spacek had in this movie.) One of the things we spend a fair amount of time teaching our science writing grad students at MIT is the need to be willing to seem — or be — a little thick, to make sure that they really, really understand what a scientist is telling them, even when put into language that those without deep prior knowledge of a field can grasp.

This is very hard to do. The best science writers bring to their stories an endless willingness to be as dumb as they need to be to get to the bottom of the ideas they are trying to express. Many scientists have great difficulty doing the same, for it means working their way back through hard won concepts and mental shorthand to get to an account that does justice to its subject and service to its audience.

This gets to the bottom line: Moran’s argument is, in the end, simply off the point. Badly written accurate popular science won’t get read, so it doesn’t matter. That’s it.

But pace Moran, well written, conceptually sound science writing by non-scientists is not merely counter-exemplary to his view of science writing in general; it represents the best of a difficult field, just as do the fairly rare, but delightful instances of a beautifully written, deep and personally informed account of some aspect of science from within, by a practitioner of the craft.

All of which is why I see Dawkins attempt to wall off science writing from science writers to be quixotic at best, and a diminishing of his project. In the end, even Dawkins could not bring it off. If you look closely at his list of contributors, as opposed to his broad and bold claims in the editor’s introduction, you will find that he does in fact acknowledge that he has let just a few mere writers into his gated garden. From such small beginnings may mighty oaks grow.

Image: “ScriptoriumMonk at Work,” illustration from William Blades: Pentateuch of Printing with a Chapter on Judge, 1891.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

How to Think: Public Policy edition.

May 27, 2008

One of the running strands of this blog is the notion that the public’s interest in science is at least as much in the ways scientists think as it is in the particular discoveries that emerge over time. Not that the latter are unimportant — far from it: they are rather the currency with which science buys and holds the attention of the culture that supports it.

But to take a recent example, the uncovering of a fossil animal intermediate between a fish and a land-living creature was the fact that got Neil Shubin’sYour Inner Fish off and rolling. But the real story Shubin told, excellently (despite this snark), was the process by which Shubin and others put themselves in a position to anticipate and appreciate the significance of that fossil.

It’s that old chestnut: “The King died; the Queen died…” is a list of facts. “The King died; the Queen died of grief…” is a story. The story to be told by science writing is one that allows its reader to enter into the means of discovery, ideally in ways that such a reader can use, even if she or he never confronts a limbed fish.

More specifically, I’ve emphasized a couple of attributes of science that need to get more play in our broader culture — empiricism (rigorous observation and experiment) and abstraction, by which I usually mean some kind of quantitative analysis.

Then along comes my younger brother, Leo. He’s a senior civil servant for a California county, running a huge budget. On the side he teaches a course in public policy at a local college.

This year, a student’s question prompted him to put what he hoped his class had learned into capsule form — and in a few words it captures what I’ve been trying to say in too many more, lo these many months. He wants his students to impose as much discipline as possible on what they think we know. It should not be limited to those few fortunate enough to learn from him. Here’s his valedictory to this year’s class:

1. When people are talking about public policy issues, always remember the question—what is the underlying problem or opportunity they are proposing to address? How are people modeling the problem in their minds (often unstated)– – as to what are the problem’s causes and what could various interventions hope to achieve? Once you state the underlying assumptions out loud, do they make sense; are they reasonable? So often we jump to a particular solution and advocate it without stepping back to think whether there might be other ways to address the same issue

2. Quantify wherever possible so that you think about how big the problem really is and how much difference you can expect from the different approaches people may take. If you have no way of measuring the problem, you are unlikely to be able to prove to people tackling it is worth the effort, and no way of judging the success of any pilot programs you might have a chance to implement.

3. Clarify the trade-offs between doing nothing and the various alternatives. Whether a public policy approach is worth doing can’t be answered without comparing it to something else. You need clear criteria and to compare approaches against each other as to how well they meet your criteria. Just advocating a course of action by itself is not convincing unless you can compare the outcomes to doing nothing or other alternatives.

Amen and Amen. Here endeth the lesson.

Image: Edward Hopper, “The El Station,” 1908. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

More on Richard Dawkins’ Peculiar View of Science Writing.

May 22, 2008

In a recent post, I complained about the deeply conventional-wisdom cast to Richard Dawkins’ selections for The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing.

Now I want to get to the point where the current incumbent of Oxford’s Simonyi Professorship in the Public Understanding of Science makes it personal.

In his introduction, he writes

“This is a collection of good writing by professional scientists, not excursions into science by professional writers.”

Ah, that exquisite tone of disdain with which so many properly educated Englishmen and women seem to acquire as part of their birthright. Scientists are capable of good writing; writers may merely make their excursions into science, as befits those who travel steerage in the oceans of the intellect.

Now, obviously, the editor of an anthology gets to make whatever decisions they want. Read the various Best American….series of collections of science writing (and much else), and you’ll see the difference in character year over year as different editors take on the annual task — I’d guess with systematic variation depending on whether the editor that year is more a writer than a scientist or the other way round.

But one thing you expect — or at least I do — is some editorial rationale for the choices, and some grasp of the actual landscape you are, or claim to be covering. Remember that Dawkins is editing a collection that asserts its grasp of “Modern Science Writing.”

Speaking as a science writer and film maker of a quarter of a century of effort, some of it at least not entirely risible, when Dawkins asserts that the world of science writing excellent enough to be beatified by the Oxford University Press is wholly the province of professional researchers with the capacity to achieve “good” writing — he’s talking rot, pure nonesense

To illustrate the silliness here: Dawkins himself is, at this point in his career, much more writer than scientist. He certainly trained as a biologist, and went a considerable distance into a professional career as one, but he has been essentially a full time communicator of science, a popularizer and polemicist, for decades.

He’s brilliant at it, of course — don’t think that this attack is aimed at his own claim to be included in someone else’s more sophisticated survey of the best of modern science writing. It would have to be.

But one could make the argument that if he meant that modern science writing was best understood as writing for the public by working scientists, then much of his own writing more recent than The Selfish Gene could be excluded from consideration. The absurdity of excluding the later Dawkins from a collection of good science writing is, I hope, obvious to everyone reading this.

That of course gets to one of the real points to be made about Dawkins blinkered view of who can — or should write about science. If you take seriously the method of induction (as Isaac Newton, for one expressed it in Opticks) then the existence of several articles and (my favorite) Richard Preston’s first book, First Light would provide the required contrary evidence to shatter Dawkins’ position.

So would — and this is nothing like an exhaustive list, just some of the folks I’ve read with pleasure, pulled out of my head quickly enough to suit a blog post — Jonathan Weiner, again with a wealth of choices, not least The Beak of the Finch. And if Weiner’s work did not convince, you could go on to Deborah Blum’s Love at Goon Park. I’m reasonably proud of some of my own work for that matter — but better leave that to others to weigh or nay.

And so on and on and on; I haven’t mentioned any of the Brits I admire, nor any of the novelists who express elements of the experience of science. (For one example: the scene in Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, in which he captures the extraordinary difficulty of making the mental shift from pre-modern understanding to modern science through a narration of an evening at one of the Royal Society’s earlly meetings.

At times, Dawkins himself seems to realize the problem he’s created for himself with his view of science writing as scientist’s writing. Roughly half way into the book, he complains “I have long thought that science should inspire great poetry, but scientists have published disappointingly few poems.”

Even so, Dawkins chose to shoehorn into the collection at least one bit of verse from a one-of-us background, a dreadful offering from Julian Huxley on the topic of God and Man. If ever there was a “don’t try this at home” moment in modern letters, here it is. Dawkins would have done a kindness to a man he once admired greatly by passing over what he says is the best of Huxley’s poetry in discreet silence.

And that’s my point. Dawkins is right. Science has inspired good poetry — by professional poets. I often quote Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” as a cautionary tale, but however much I think Whitman misses his target, it is still good poetry inspired by science.

And if you want to travel down a wonderful thread at John Wilkin’s place, see just for a few examples, the one at number 20, or the wonderfully rich reference to Tycho Brahe at 29 — and/or you could check out this blog’s nod to national poetry month. Some of it is slight, some richer — but it’s there, if only one’s blinkers let one see it.

So here’s one point to be made about Dawkins view of science writing: by asserting (or at least, strongly implying) that only scientists can usefully write about science (at least, usefully enough for Oxford), he has forced himself into a corner where he has to pick inferior stuff, rather than go outside the chapter-house for better.

More broadly, Dawkins’ collection, however grandly titled, is easily ignored — or rather, read for the interesting material it does contain, rather than pilloried for all that it does not. I suppose I need not get too shirty. My work and that of the best of my colleagues is its own defense. Either you find it useful, engaging, intellectually and aesthetically stimulating – or you don’t, in which case, go read something else.

But – and I’ll expand on this in another post, as this is already too long — scientists’ dismissal of non-scientists’ writing about science is not confined to Richard Dawkins, to the detriment of our public culture.

The short form:

For every genuine example — many written by Dawkins himself – 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.

To be continued….

Image: Frontspiece to Voltaire’s Elémens de la philosophie de Neuton, 1738. I do hope the rhetorical point of the image is as blunt as a cudgel to the head.* Source: Wikimedia Commons.

*A little piqued, me? Naah…couldn’t be.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,679 other followers