Science Bloggers vs. Science Writers Round 2: It’s Just A Theory dept.

This may be a true blogospheric case of a day late and a dollar short, but I’d like to pursue a few more threads drawn from the kerfluffle Bora set off with this post.  I want to get into the meat of what Bora wrote — especially in two areas, but before I get there I wanted to take a swipe at what I see as a dangerously mistaken notion put forward by one of Bora’s sciblings in the intitial wave of responses to the initial post.

This is what Ed Yong had to say in an otherwise smart piece that offered some good advice to scientists confronting the media:

…the majority of journalists are not seekers of the truth; they serve at the all-important altar of “The Story” and the ultimate goal of The Story is to keep the reader/listener/viewer entranced with it from opening word to final syllable. It’s entertainment…

There is a critical error in this passage, and it is one that I have seen repeated again and again by scientists (and others, to be sure) for whom the complexity of their own work blinds them to the technical hurdles faced in other fields.  (That this happens within science before it even makes its way out to confound science/rest-of-the-world interactions is the point made by Greg Laden in the post on which I blogged below.)

The error lies with the claim that the goal of communicating in story-form is “entertainment.”  This has essentially the same affect for a writer as saying that evolution is “only a theory” has for anyone who knows anything about that the science of life.

Entertainment occurs in the presence of a well-made story, certainly, but that pleasure derives from success at the primary goal of story:  engagement.  Ed has it right in the sentence before:  the function of story form is to enable the author to hold a reader’s attention to the end of what he or she is trying to say — and to do so in a way that will enable that audience to understand and remember whatever it was the writer was trying to communicate.

Not to go all evolutionary psychology on y’all (though that is a tale-telling discipline as ever was) but story structure is something that human beings seem to rely on to frame meaning and to construct memory.  I’m not versed enough in the neuroscience to pull up chapter and verse here, (but see, e.g., some of Jonah Lehrer’s writing for a variety approaches to connect brain function and human culture)  but it is clear anthropologically that stories are the ways human beings have organized their knowledge for a very long time.

None of this is remotely new, nor I suspect, any surprise to scientists reading this; science is, pace Ed, (and perhaps Bora?) a culture deeply steeped in story telling from the informal  level of conjecture in the lab or seminar up to and including (some but not all) of its most formal communication.  A couple of examples:

Albert Einstein’s first relativity paper, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Objects,” begins with a little story: consider this, Albert writes, this little mystery.  According to what we now say we know, if a magnet moves through a conductor, an electric field is formed that produces a current in the wire.  If, on the other hand, the conductor moves while the magnet remains at rest, no field is formed, “while in the conductor an electromotive force will arise, to which in itself there does not correspond any energy, but which ….gives rise to electrical currents.” (Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, vol. 2, English translation, p. 140.)

This little anecdote is a story in itself, of the “Let me tell you something strange” variety, almost a tall-tale.  It is also what the screenwriting types call the inciting incident — a mystery or a problem to be solved through a series of narrative incidents, the sequence of mathematical derivations that Einstein pursues to reach his extraordinary narrative (and physical) conclusions.

Charles Darwin explicitly framed his great work, The Origin of Species, as an argument and nothing like  a novel, but it is an essay permeated with stories from the descent of fancy pigeons from the rock dove, to the narrative of sedimentation that underpins the assertion that the geological record is imperfect, to the hypothetical narrative here, just a few pages before the fabled “tangled bank” scene:

When we no longer look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship, as at something wholly beyond his comprehension; when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a history; when we contemplate every complex structure and instinct as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor, nearly in the same way as when we look at any great mechanical invention as the summing up of the labour, the experience, the reason, and even the blunders of numerous workmen; when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting, Ispeak from experience, will the study of natural history become!

Last, I promise):  I’ll be publishing this June my account of Isaac Newton’s work at the Royal Mint, chasing counterfeiters and helping to create the modern financial world (thanks, Isaac).  Along the way, I read Principia, and while no one has ever accused Newton of ripping prose style, I found that when you read that book as a book, and not as a series of demonstrations, Book Three, “The System of the World,” has a narrative structure that is integral to the argument Newton was trying to make:  that his new mechanics extended through the entire universe, to its infinite, and to human senses inaccessible, extent.  He did so by the way he organized that last section — which takes on the recognizable form of an epic journey.

But all that, of course, was then.  What about now?  Modern scientific communication is a highly formalized and artificial genre, of course.  No one reading this has to be told that. But story still creeps in, as it must, given the way people tell themselves stories about what they do as the ideas frozen into papers take shape.  The issue is not the data, but, as in the dispute with which Bora led off his original post, in the interpretation of whatever has been measured or observed.  For interpretation, read story, as in what story does my experiment tell me?; as in, who has the better story here?  Darwin again:

Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual.

Is Darwin an entertainer?  Well, yes he is, if you have a certain cast of mind.  But is that pleasure, the thrill at a well turned thought, leading you just where the writer wants you to go, his primary ambition and accomplishment?

One last thought.  The real conflict between science writers and their scientist-sources does not seem to me to be the question of accuracy.  It really lies in the fact that writers and their subjects disagree on who owns the story being told.   For scientists acting as sources, it ain’t theirs.

That gets to the meat of what Bora was arguing, that the emergence of the blogosphere and of the communications technology behind it in principle will eliminate much or all of the need for intermediaries like science writers.  I think he’s wrong, mostly, and I’ll take that up in another piece.  But in the meantime, I’ll leave you with an anecdote that illustrates the underlying tension.  A few years ago I wrote a piece that became a cover story for Discover on some of the issues raised in the race to construct the next generation of extremely large optical telescopes.

In that piece I focused on one instrument, the Giant Magellan Telescope, for two reasons.  The first was that the GMT group had decided to start building their hardware long before they had the full sum in hand to construct the entire observatory — and I could use the casting of the first of seven mirror segments as my path into the subject.  The second was that my story was not simply about building big ‘scopes, but focused instead on the questions raised around the choices of dozens of people working on that and other similar projects to commit enormous chunks of their careers to such an uncertain goal.  Think LHC, think the James Webb Space Telescope, think, even, of the human genome project at its inception, think of the GMT’s competitor project, the Thirty Meter Telescope or TMT.

And that’s where the problem emerged.  I conveyed that theme through the stories of a half dozen different people working on the GMT, and those mini-stories occupied most of my account.  I did interview both Richard Ellis, of Caltech, and Jerry Nelson of the University of California, Santa Cruz, the two leaders of the TMT project.  I told them both up front that the emphasis of my article would lie with their rivals, but that I wanted to make sure to include enough of what they had to say so that my readers would know that there was more than one project striving after the same goal.

And that’s what I wrote.  And Richard and Jerry were both upset, and for good reason from their perspective, and they told me so very clearly.

That good reason:  there was and remains a public and private competition between the two projects for funding, in which a sense of inevitability, of unchecked progress, was very important.  An article that featured one project much more than the other was an advantage to one side, (and the TMT people were already aggrieved after Dennis Overbye published his New York Times account of the GMT mirror casting without any significant mention of the TMT folks.)

But I wrote back that, in effect, they had no cause for complaint — for two reasons.  One was that I had a story I was trying to tell, and it was about one aspect of life in science, not simply about one machine or another; I may or may not have succeeded in telling that story, but that I didn’t tell a different story hardly seemed (or seems) to me an adequate critique.

The other was that I am interested and have been for a long time in the interplay between instruments and discovery, especially in astronomy, and I planned to keep on covering what is a truly remarkable story of transformational technology unwrapping the universe.  I had every intention of doing a TMT story as soon as there was (a) enough time passed to allow the market for big telescope stories by Tom Levenson to recover, and (b) there was some kind of a hook to hang on which to hang the piece.

I haven’t written that piece yet.  Partly, I’ve been busy; new job, new book, kids, life, twelve inches of snow to shovel last weekend, all of the above. And partly, this brutal fact:  there are many more good stories to tell in the world than I or anyone has time to write.  If I or any writer get a rocket from some source about the wreckage they’ve made of some story, I don’t say I’ll never write about that person’s work again.  But I’m human enough to hesitate to pick up the phone to call up such an aggrieved soul.  Other things come along, other pebbles on the shore catch the light and grab my magpie’s interest.

The moral:  if you are upset that the story you would have told was not, and you do not choose to write it yourself, then think about how you might want to convey your disappointments and your hopes to the offending story-teller.  And as for me, this new-year’s resolution.  I’ll give Jerry a call this January and find out how goes the TMT.  (Better than the GMT, I think, given that Gordon Moore’s foundation decided to give the California-based project a ton of bucks that the GMT consortium has yet to match.)

Images:  Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Portrait of Jean and Geneviève Caillebotte,” 1895. Source:  The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.

Jan Matejko, “The Astronomer Copernicus in Conversation with God,” 1872.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Uncategorized, science writing, words mattter, astronomy, Isaac Newton, journalism, blogospheric tail chasing, good public communication of science, Darwin, Self-aggrandizement, Journalism and its discontents, Einstein, good writing, science process

One Comment on “Science Bloggers vs. Science Writers Round 2: It’s Just A Theory dept.”

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