Posted tagged ‘Sandwalk’

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.