More on Richard Dawkins’ Peculiar View of Science Writing.

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.

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15 Comments on “More on Richard Dawkins’ Peculiar View of Science Writing.”

  1. Ah yes, that same attitude is behind the oft-expressed opinion that “The best way to improve science writing is to only have it be done by actual scientists.” Not that we shouldn’t continually strive to improve science writing, but the lack of respect for an entire field can be disheartening. And irritating. :)

  2. steppen wolf Says:

    I think this is the usual “science attitude” (so to speak) coming out: if there is something to be done, I will do it myself, lest someone else worse than me do it. Where “worse than me” really means everybody else.

    I think it is also part of the training that scientists do not learn that, often, there will be people out there able to perform a task (including a complex task) much better than you, because they have actually spent longer at training on it and because…psst, maybe they are better than you at it.

    Communicating science is one of those. There are a few scientists who are excellent communicators when it comes to explaining science to the laymen, but a lot of them have never acquired that skill – either because they were not interested, or because they did not have the time/will to train it. In which case, it is great to have people who are good at writing AND interested in science, willing to bring that out of the ivory tower.

    Plus, a lot of writers actually went through canonical (grad school or more) science training.

    This snobbery hurts science and scientists. I am surprised, I would have thought that he would be the first to understand that. Apparently not.

  3. When the US, for example, is at such a pivotal time with pseudoscience and evolution denialism carrying the day, we can use all the science writers and scientist writers we can.

    I was reminded of this fact when walking down the hall in another science department in my new U: a prof had posted in their office window an advertisement with information cards for MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing with a gentleman named Levenson listed as one of the program faculty. Very impressive credentials, this fellow – I then realized that he was indeed one and the same with the aforementioned “science writer and film maker of a quarter of a century of effort.”

    Please feel free to correct my punctuation and run-on sentences.

    I look forward to the expansion of this post – I hold the view that too rigorously separating us undermines our goal to increase public understanding of and support for science.

  4. Tom Says:

    Expansion! Are you mad, sir. At 1200 words the post above is expanded enough, I would say.

    In fact — I do intend to write the promised sequel — coming early next week. Thanks for the kind comments, Abel. It’s the kind of statement that always makes me look over my shoulder to see who you’re talking about.

  5. petp Says:

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

    Well, Dawkins is clear in his goal. If you don’t like his collection, do your own.

    Your criticism is disingenuous to say the best.

  6. petp, can I try something on you? Suppose you criticized a piece of writing using a quote from that piece of writing. Would that make you disingenuous? I’d say that your argument falls to itself.

    So, while I think you have a point you want to make, it’s not that Tom’s being disingenuous. Maybe you think it’s illegitimate to criticize someone for doing exactly what he set out to do, as Dawkins did. I personally think that even stated goals are legitimately subject to criticism.

  7. [...] Breach…Dawkins/Moran edition 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 [...]

  8. Blake Stacey Says:

    You have succeeded in convincing me that I am unable to detect British arrogance. I passed over that remark with the mere thought, “Oh, OK, this will be a book made from stuff scientists have written. Carry on, then.” Given that in the very same introduction Dawkins mentions an anthology edited on the opposite principle, I didn’t see a reason to conclude that he loathes the journalistic profession.

    I’d suggest that there’s a difference between journalists who write about many things including science and the Carl Zimmers of the world who focus on scientific topics; all else being equal, my guess is that aggravating errors like the BBC’s perpetual silly season are more likely to occur in the former category. Furthermore, a dedicated science journalist who focuses on one field — biology, let’s say — might have just as many difficulties with parochialism as a biologist. It’s a possibility, which I haven’t gathered the evidence to evaluate. To me, “excursions into science by professional writers” sounds like a reference to wire-service reports put out by reporters covering this news genre and that, not the writings of expositors who concentrate on science.

    Since I managed to read Dawkins’s stated goal in a completely different fashion, I’m not sure I can communicate very well about the matter, so I should probably shut up now.

  9. Tom Says:

    Hey Blake

    Maybe it’s because I’m half English (mum’s side). ;)

    I won’t try to defend Auntie Beeb. There is a category of story in the business called “too good to check.” Real editors spike ‘em. Ratings warriors do not.

    I guess my problem w. Professor Dawkins is that he didn’t make the distinction you do between the city hall reporter told to cover a press conference at the U and one of the many excellent reporters and writers for whom science is their dedicated beat. (I know Carl, like him, and admire his work — but there are others out there.)

    And as for your suggestion that dedicated science reporters can suffer from parochialism — sure. That’s what seems to have happened to NASA coverage in the pre- Challenger days, for a prominent example. But I think the problem is more acute for those who specialize as narrowly as much of science demands these days.

  10. Pete Cockerell Says:

    You’re either a fool or just trolling. Or perhaps you suffer from some bizarre writers’ hypersensitivity. The book is an anthology of writing by scientists. It says as much on the blurb on the back. Dawkins emphasized it in the introduction, followed shortly by a nod to anthologies of the other kind: professional writers writing about science. There’s not a scintilla of a hint of an implication that he somehow disdains non-scientists writing about science.

    Oh, actually I get it. Knocking Dawkins is pretty much the standard way to get attention nowadays. Maybe what you’re really suffering from is writers’ envy. Either way, your article just makes you sound like a chump.

  11. Larry Moran Says:

    steppen wolf says,

    I think it is also part of the training that scientists do not learn that, often, there will be people out there able to perform a task (including a complex task) much better than you, because they have actually spent longer at training on it and because…psst, maybe they are better than you at it.

    Communicating science is one of those. There are a few scientists who are excellent communicators when it comes to explaining science to the laymen, but a lot of them have never acquired that skill – either because they were not interested, or because they did not have the time/will to train it. In which case, it is great to have people who are good at writing AND interested in science, willing to bring that out of the ivory tower.

    I don’t think anyone disagrees with the sentiment expressed here. The average science journalist is much better at writing than the vast majority of scientists.

    But, are science journalists much better at “communicating science” to non-scientists? That’s the important issue in this debate. Why is it important? Because the essence of “communicating science” is not how well you write but what you write about. If the information being communicated is inaccurate or misleading then it is not, in my opinion, good communication.

    Unfortunately, we seem to be in an era where how you say it is valued over what you are saying. This is bad for science. Much of what passes for science writing these days is far below the minimum level of accuracy that I expect of a good science writer. You need only look at the press releases issued every day to recognize this.

    If that doesn’t convince you then think about the latest article you read in a newspaper or magazine. Pick those that are close to your area of expertise. How many times have you put down such an article and said, “Wow, that science writer did an excellent job of communicating the current consensus in the field”?

    I read hundreds of articles on various aspects of evolution and biochemistry every years. I say “wow” only a few times a year.

    I know why the problem exists. It’s because science writers don’t have time to learn the subject in enough depth to sort out the BS from the facts. I don’t have a solution to the problem. What I’m trying to do is to first get everyone to recognize that there’s a problem.

    So far, it isn’t working. Most people seem to think that a well-written science article must be accurate. They know how to tell the difference between a well-written article and one that is badly written. They don’t know how to tell the difference between information that is scientifically accurate and information that is not so they assume it must be accurate. That’s a bad assumption.

  12. [...] 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 [...]

  13. Hello, excellent posts on the Dawkins anthology.
    In fact, I have seen very few thorough reviews of this book, so it’s good to see an alternative view. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the selection, I myself had three major reservations

    1. It is clearly an anthology of science writing by scientists only , and therefore should have been marketed and labelled as such – it’s more than a little unfair to call this an ‘anthology of science writing’

    2. I didn’t find the chapters/categories helped the book. In fact, the classicification of writings into chapters seemed arbitrary in many cases – there are many ways to break up the selection that would have been much better

    3. The omission of Dawkin’s own work seemed to me to be a false modesty – at the very least, excerpts from ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ and ‘The Selfish Gene’ would have been a serious addition to the book. Worse, the introduction gave very little clue as to what constitutes ‘good science writing’….Cormac

  14. It is really good.

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