Posted tagged ‘Expertise’

Do you need to be a scientist to be a science writer?…Dennis Overbye edition.

July 19, 2008

This question came up in the midst of a little blog kerfluffle I inadvertently ignited when I had the temerity to criticize Richard Dawkins’ criteria for inclusion in his anthology, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing. See my posts: here, here, and here, and some of the responses here, and here, if you care about such inside baseball.

Now The New York Times physics and cosmology reporter Dennis Overbye has weighed in on the matter in his recent “talk to the newsroom” Q & A with readers. Check it out — it’s a good read, as are his two books. (Full disclosure — Dennis and I go way back; I was a cub reporter at Discover when he was writing there back in the early 1980s, and he and I collaborated on one article, I think, back then; we’ve since connected through a mutual interest in Einstein.)

The whole session is interesting, but this early exchange caught my eye, especially given the identity of the questioner:

Becoming a Science Reporter

Q. Do you think a degree in the sciences is necessary to be a science reporter? Is it most important in generating story ideas or in translating “geek speak” into language that most readers understand? Does your editor also have a degree in science?

I love reading Science Times and pounce on the stories when they come across the wire — as do others on the copy desk of The Roanoke (Va.) Times.

Thanks for taking the time to answer readers’ questions!

— Mary J. Lewis, copy editor, The Roanoke Times

A. Ah, an easy one.

The first thing you need to be a science reporter is a sense of humor because things will sound weird and then they will get even weirder. You are just going to sound foolish and you might as well get used to it. Luckily the scientists will not mind foolish questions for a few reasons. First of all, they are used to thinking of themselves as pretty smart and the people questioning them as, umm, not so smart. Secondly, being the kind of people who could stay up all night obsessing about an anomalous result in an experiment or an equation that didn’t quite work out, they can recognize and appreciate a similar ruthless determination to understand on the part of someone who is interviewing or photographing them. I’ve seen photographers coax sober minded physicists into rearranging their furniture and assuming all kinds of cockeyed poses — all in the name of getting the “right picture.”

Finally, there really isn’t any such thing as a silly question in science, where the best people often are those who are free enough to think up a really outlandish question. Einstein said his success was due to the fact that he kept asking a child’s questions when he was an adult. I am reminded of what Niels Bohr once said, “We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question which divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.”

What does this have to do with your question? If you know too much going in as a journalist, it might serve you well, but not your readers, for whom you are the surrogate. I do see more and more people in my field who have Ph.D.s, but I don’t think it is the degree that makes them good, rather it’s the ability to be inquisitive, to learn on the spot, to size up people and to get them to talk.

The higher you go in science, the more you know about less and less, which is hardly a good prescription for a reporter, unless you have the prerequisite skills anyway. One of my colleagues, Jim Glanz, has a Ph.D. in physics from Princeton, but it didn’t stand in his way and now he is the Baghdad bureau chief. A random survey of my colleagues on a sleepy afternoon turned up college degrees in rhetoric, English literature, general liberal arts, and then law, as well as journalism, biochemistry and physics.

None of my editors have a degree in science, although they might have taken some courses. One of my former editors, Cornelia Dean, now a reporter, wound up in the science department after someone saw her with a copy of Scientific American. So you can learn a lot from reading, a concept we’re fond of here at the newspaper.


Image: John White Alexander: The Printing Press [showing Johannes Gutenberg] (from the cycle “The Evolution of the Book”). Photographer: Andreas Praefcke. Location: Library of Congress (Jefferson Building), Washington, D.C. 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.