Science Writing: Funny? Yes. But Also Another Side?

Is an AAAS Science Careers blog post a witty and insightful commentary on science writing and science journalism? Or is it the other ‘incite-ful’ and a bit ‘snarky’ notwithstanding its comedic value?

Nothing wrong with having some good old-fashioned fun at the expense of science writers.

Why, after all, should they have a lock on the good times of poking fun at scientists’ inabilities to adequately communicate? And of the public’s inabilities to adequately comprehend and their need for “dumbing down”?

With such thoughts perhaps in mind, writer/scientist Adam Ruben brings wit and humor to the subject of science writing in a recent “The Unwritten Rules of Journalism” published at AAAS’ Science Careers blog. But it ends up that not every science writer sees just humor in the effort.

“Science writers appear to obey a collection of unwritten rules when trying to convey science to a mainstream audience, Ruben writes. Some examples:

  • “Start your article with a personal anecdote, even if it’s narcissistic or tangential to the rest of the piece.”
  • “Put the reader at ease by discussing at length the small details of the day you met the scientist. Did you have coffee? Who ordered what? These elements are just as important as the details of the scientific discovery …. In your story, use one sentence, such as: ‘Dr. Anderson, who showed up 5 minutes late and ordered a medium cappuccino, discovered something about cystic fibrosis. Or maybe anthrax. But definitely cappuccino.’”
  • “Relate the research to readers’ everyday lives …. If you truly find yourself unable to determine the relevance of the research, do what the researchers themselves do when asked to write a grant application: Pretend it’s about cancer.”
  • “Don’t think of what you’re doing as ‘dumbing down’ science. It is, but don’t think of it that way.”
  • “All science is boring except when you can spin it as a harbinger of things to come …. Remember, the word ‘potential’ is your magic passport to write about whatever crap you want to.”
  • “You are required to use one of the following adjectives when describing a new scientific result: ‘breakthrough,’ ‘landmark,’ ‘game-changing,’ ‘innovative,’ or ‘revolutionary.’”
  • “Always probe scientists, forcing them to unwittingly reveal more than they’re comfortable revealing. Remember, the most interesting application for any scientific discovery is the one that makes the scientists shudder the most.”
  • “Enabling the equation ‘one dissenter = controversy,’ include in your article the views of at least one dissenter. Think scientists have settled whether Earth is round? Think again … Controversy! Now you can write, ‘Scientists continue to argue whether the Earth is round.’”
  • “Give your article a dramatic note of doom by switching tone halfway through and writing, ‘But not everyone is thrilled with the results.’ Controversy!”

Finally, Ruben concluded, “always — always — a cutesy ending.”

It all can add up to science stories being a bit formulaic, he concedes. That’s obvious when “you read an article about a bold new advance that promises to cure something or fix something or spell certain doom — and then you realize you’re reading an article that’s 20 years old and none of those things happened.”

In Reply: ‘Make Me Feel Something, Please’

Good fun, for sure, but also an opportunity for one science journalist, Soren Wheeler, a senior producer at radiolab, to fire-back. And with gusto and some good points of his own.

“Tell a story, be visual and concrete, connect to the reader’s everyday life, use clear, simple language,” Wheeler wrote … “all things that good science writers do.”

Commenting on what he considered a “snarky” Ruben point about science writers putting units of measure into terms non-scientists can understand, Wheeler wrote: “Um … well, yeah. Those exact words are probably in my job description.”

He dismissed what he saw as elitism in the guise of humor and what he saw as a hint of “a very dangerous thought: Some people can understand science and others simply can’t …. The people I want to reach are not dumb, they just don’t think about these things all day long. So putting things in terms of something people can understand? Nothing could be closer to the core of what I do, what I love doing.”

No champion himself of “more irrelevant anecdotes or cutesy endings,” he pleaded to other science writers: “Please don’t stop doing all those stupid things …. If science journalists don’t go beyond covering the facts and actually make people feel something, we have failed.”

Science competes “with worldviews that scare us, excite us, and pull on our heartstrings,” he wrote. He said he fully supports fair and accurate reporting, “but if we don’t make people feel something, science coverage becomes a list of facts that most people will ignore.”

Wheeler credits Ruben for being “a good writer” and for writing a “clever” column. But “in the end, the piece amounts to little more than a cheap thrill for smug scientists, an empty chuckle for less smug ones, and a righteous anger trip for at least one science writer.”

Editor’s Note: A hat-tip to veteran science writer Charlie Petit and the MIT Knight Science Tracker for flagging these posts.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: bud@yaleclimateconnections.org).
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