There is something about Richard Dawkins that seems to drive otherwise intelligent people completely out of their minds. Dawkins writes a book called The Selfish Gene, and some scholarly critics actually go after him on the grounds that genes can not be selfish. Then he wrote The God Delusion, a badly needed bit of pushback against the seemingly endless flood of religious ignorance, bigotry and violence, and some critics thought the really important thing to note was Dawkins’ lack of respect for the ontological argument, or the fact that he did not discuss the views of Wittgenstein.
Now here comes his latest book: The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, an edited anthology of essays by scientists. Clearly we will have to trump up some new horror for which to go after him.
The book itself is an attractively produced volume of a little over four hundred pages. It contains just over eighty items, most of them excerpts from longer works. The entries are divided into four main sections, entitled, What Scientists Study, Who Scientists Are, What Scientists Think and What Scientists Delight In. Plainly this is a book about science and scientists, as opposed to a book about, say, the impact of science on culture. My impression is that many of the entries are devoted to explaining some potentially confusing aspect of science.
I have only read a few of the entries thus far. Several others I recognize from past reading. Based on this small sample, I am looking forward to plowing through the whole thing. One especially noteworthy point is that Dawkins has included entries from people with whom he differs greatly in outlook. For example, there are entries from Paul Davies, Fred Hoyle and Freeman Dyson. Rather gracious of Dawkins, especially given his reputation for militant dogmatism.
So what is the controversy? Well, in his brief introduction Dawkins writes this:
This is a collection of good writing by professional scientists, not excursions into science by professional writers.
Seemed innocent enough to me; just a simple statement of fact about the sort of anthology Dawkins chose to produce. But Thomas Levenson of the Inverse Square Blog saw something sinister here:
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.
In case you think Levenson is just being snarky here, that he can’t possibly infer from that one sentence that Dawkins’ holds the views attributed to him, then think again:
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
See what I mean about Dawkins driving people out of their minds?
Levenson needs to be more careful when throwing around words like rot and nonsense. Nothing Dawkins wrote, and no editorial decisions he made, imply that he thinks that only scientists are capable of good science writing. I have never discussed this matter with Dawkins, but I feel I am on entirely safe ground in saying that he does not, in fact, believe this.
Why did Dawkins choose to include only professional scientists (stretching the definition a bit in the case of Martin Gardner and Daniel Dennett, but we shall leave that aside)? You will have to ask him that. I suspect the reason was simply that professional scientists are rarely given a platform for showing their best face, and Dawkins chose to use this anthology as one small counter to this tendency. Certainly there is precisely zero reason to look for any darker motive than that.
Alas, the silliness did not stop there. John Wilkins noticed Levenson’s post and said this about it:
Inverse Square Blog has some critical, and I think correct, things to say about scientists like Dawkins who think good science writing can only be done by scientists; which is the inverse of the claim discussed by Pharyngula that only science communicators can write about science. Neither is correct. Let a thousand flowers blossom! (Emphasis in original)
I love the bit about putting “only” in italics. It gives the impression that Wilkins is about to brandish a single instance of good science writing by a non-scientist, thereby dramtically disproving the claim. At any rate, when I left a comment pointing out to John that this is a rather expansive reading of Dawkins’ statement he replied with this:
Jason, perhaps it seems inadvertent, or that it just happened that scientific writers are all scientists in that book, but the mere fact that only scientists were chosen is, I think, telling. Only a few scientists are writers on the order of Ed Wilson or Frans de Waal. Most cannot write to save their lives. Generally, the best scientific writing is done by those who make their living that way – Carl Zimmer being the obvious local identity, but David Quammen is an equally good example.
But maybe you are right and it is best not to make too much of it. (Emphasis in original)
If Wilkins is right that most scientists can’t write to save their lives (I’m not sure of the basis for that remark) then that is all the more reason to showcase and preserve the rare good examples of writing by scientists, as Dawkins has now done.
There is no “it” to make much of here. And it was not inavertent that only scientists were chosen for representation in the book, as Dawkins’ makes clear. So I’m not sure what Wilkins has in mind with that opening sentence. As for what it is that Dawkins’ editorial decisions are telling of, I’m afraid I’m completely in the dark.
Then here comes Larry Moran to contribute some silliness from the other direction:
I maintain that the top three criteria for good science writing are: 1) accuracy, 2) accuracy, and 3) accuracy. Everything else is much less important. Scientists tend to score high in accuracy when they write about science, especially if it’s their field. (There are many exceptions.)
Professional science journalists tend to score high in other categories such as readability and style. These are very important features of good science writing and no scientist can be considered a good science writer without being a good writer as well as a good scientist.
What about the non-professional who writes a good story that is not scientifically accurate? Can such a person be awarded kudos for good science writing? If the awards are handed out by other journalists, and not by scientists, is accuracy of information going to count for very much?
Accuracy is the only important criterion for good science writing? Wow.
Accurate writing is what you get from textbooks (many exceptions of course). There is also nothing in the world more boring than a science textbook (with fewer exceptions this time). Accuracy is certainly a necessary condition for good science writing, but it is very far from sufficient.
As for the rest of Moran’s musings, things are not as simple as he makes out. What if you had a beautiful piece of science writing that makes a few minor errors, but also presents an important aspect of science in a form that is comprehensible and engaging to nonscientists? Should I rank that lower than an unreadable and jargon-filled competitor that is nonetheless scrupulously accurate?
I’m also not sure how the conversation went from being about science writing to being about some sort of competition between scientists and science journalists. There are many other sorts of science writing that do not fit into either of those categories. For example, the man who in my view gets the nod as the finest science writer ever is Isaac Asimov. He was not a professional scientist (with the excpetion of a few years at the start of his career) and definitely was not a journalist. Yet he produced literally a few hundred of the clearest and most engaging expositions of science ever to be published in book form.
Time to wrap this up. Here in America, during the nineties, the expression “Clinton hatred” made the rounds among politically-minded people. That was replaced by “Bush hatred” with the turn of the milennium. (The difference between them, of course, is that Clinton hatred is a sign of mental illness, while Bush hatred is a sign of mental health.)
I think we might need to coin the term “Dawkins hatred.” Levenson’s vituperative response to Dawkins’ innocuous statement (and Wilkins’ inexplicable endorsement of that response) is so out of proportion to the provocation that some non-rational factor simply must be at play here.