Once More Unto The 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 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.

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5 Comments on “Once More Unto The Breach…Dawkins/Moran edition”

  1. Michelle S Says:

    Interesting post, and one I’m glad you put together. I’ve just sent it to a friend (recently graduated double-major CS and EE) who’s been complaining of late about the ridiculous headlines that appear on science articles in major newspapers, in particular. I can’t argue with him about that; I was particularly peeved when the recent stories about global warming as related to hurricanes were topped with headlines like “Global Warming Decreases Hurricane Risk,” even when the actual article explained very clearly that that was not the case. We got into an interesting discussion where I tried to explain the myriad difficulties of producing a piece of science writing that 1) accurately covers the topic, 2) is engaging to read, and 3) isn’t overblown. Of course, this led into the disconnect between scientists and writers, writers and editors, writers and uber-level editors who know nothing about the topic at hand until the article lands on their desks, etc. Such a mess, and one that’s hard to justify. I, too, believe that accuracy is far and away the most important thing to consider when putting an article together–while interviewing, writing, and editing–but we also have to balance it with a way of getting someone to actually READ the story, otherwise it’s all for naught.

    One thing that does concern me a LOT is the number of scientists who have thanked me during interviews for “trying to get things right” or for my “commitment to correctness,” etc etc. This has happened repeatedly–in fact, no exaggeration, it’s happened with the last four scientists I’ve interviewed, and many more spread out prior to that. Which leads me to wonder: are there really that many science writers out there who DON’T care about getting things right, or are they just giving that impression mistakenly somehow? I sure hope it’s the latter. I feel ridiculous for being thanked for doing my job.

  2. Paul Says:

    I found that some of the best science writing comes from both sides of the spectrum. A good example are the collections of The Best American Science and Nature writing that come out each year and guest edited. All are accessible and, as far as I know accurate, informative and rarely boring.

    The average person does not what to read a science book filled with equations and the detailed experimentation of the number of scientists working on a specific subject. They want to read a book that can convey complicated ideas in a way that is easy to understand while not leaving anything out. At the same time they don’t want to be bored.

  3. Blake Stacey Says:

    I’m still trying to figure out what the fuss is about. Yes, the selection of topics could have been more diverse, but that applies equally well to an anthology of scientist-writers or one of talented science journalists. As Paul points out, the writings of currently active expositors are already being anthologized (Dawkins even edited a volume of them in 2003, which included the likes of Timothy Ferris). Surely a collection of writings by scientists themselves, spread over a wider timespan and therefore less tied to issues-of-the-day, has value of its own. And if we wanted to understand the flaws of science writing done by scientists — parochialism, empathetic difficulties and so forth — shouldn’t we have examples to work from?

    Would the book be less objectionable if it had merely been titled The Oxford Book of Science Writing by Scientists? That’s not a rhetorical question; I’m genuinely confused here.

  4. Tom Says:

    Blake: I don’t dispute that a volume of scientist’s writings has value. And the answer to your question is yes: if Dawkins/Oxford had been explicit that this was intended to be a picture of science by scientists, that would have been fine. What got my goat was the claim that science writing full stop is the province of scientists and not the rest of us.

    And, not to repeat what I’ve already gone on too long about, the reason for my pique actually has little to do with injured pride. Rather, it doesn’t seem to me that the story or the public — or scientists themselves — are well served by a pure insider’s look at science. Science writers do — or should — bring more to the table than writing skill alone.

    I do agree with Paul: there are plenty of places to find collections of recent science writing. Omitting the best of them from a synoptic view of how science has reaached the public over the last century seemed and seems to me to be an error.

  5. Blake Stacey Says:

    OK, I’m starting to see your argument more clearly now. Thanks.

    What got my goat was the claim that science writing full stop is the province of scientists and not the rest of us.

    Like I said on another thread, I failed to pick up that message. (Hooray for the variety of ways that human brains can parse the written word!) If I had read it, I would have been upset by it.

    Rather, it doesn’t seem to me that the story or the public — or scientists themselves — are well served by a pure insider’s look at science.

    Carrying this a bit further, one might say that the public would be poorly served by a biologist’s view of physics, or vice versa (parochialism again).

    Science writers do — or should — bring more to the table than writing skill alone.

    Agreed, at least on the should part. I lack the experience to know how often they do, and I suspect that the “evidence” I do possess has been skewed by sampling bias, so I shouldn’t try to judge. Furthermore, I’ve had formal training in one field of science (physics), so I’m probably not the right person to ask how an “interested outsider” would view any particular book. A lifetime of bibliophilia compounded by life in academia makes it impossible for me to see any single book, even one with “The Oxford” on it, as the totality of anything!

    So, now that we’re all agreed that restricting science writing to one class of professionals is a bad thing — never mind how badly this book or that sins in that regard — how do we fix the problem? Can we somehow boost the legitimacy and the visibility of The Open Laboratory, the annual science-blogging anthology? (I helped edit the 2007 edition, which probably counts against it right there.) Does anybody here have the connections and the wherewithal to pull together A Century of Outstanding Science Journalism and get it into Barnes-and-Borders-A-Million?

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