The Intersection

After the Discovery Institute’s criticism of my credentials, it occurred to me that I’m hardly the only person to study the works of someone like Chuck Dickens in college, only to end up writing professionally about the works of someone like Chuck Darwin. For instance, here’s physics writer Jennifer Oulette, with two books under her belt that, if we universalize the Discovery Institute’s attack on me, she shouldn’t have written due to her background:

I’m a former English major turned science writer, through serendipitous accident: I stumbled into writing about physics, drifted further and further into the field, then woke up one day and exclaimed, “Hey! I’m a science writer!” It was a life-changing epiphany.

I bet there are lots of others out there like Oulette and myself. In fact, here’s another now: Tim Appenzeller, science editor of National Geographic. And here’s yet another: Our very own Carl Zimmer here at Scienceblogs.

The point is that, although it might seem counter-intuitive, studying English in college actually provides a great background for science writing. And why is that? Because it teaches you how to write.

So now I’m wondering: How many other English majors-turned-science writers are there out there? To all such people, this is my official call out. Come out of the closet and back me up….


  1. #1 Dave Munger
    September 19, 2006

    Me too! Though I’ve got a ways to go to reach the status of the folks you’ve pointed out…

  2. #2 John Farrell
    September 19, 2006

    Coming out of the closet! English and American Lit. (However, I did take a number of History of Science courses with the likes of Owen Gingerich, etc.)

    (in paperback, this October)…

  3. #3 John Fleck
    September 19, 2006

    Philosophy for me. Though, I confess, I did spend a good deal of academic time immersed in the history and philosophy of science. Dunno how that affects my grade on the Luskin Test. I don’t know any police reporters who were cops. I don’t know any education reporters who were teachers. I don’t know any city hall reporters who were urban planners. The journalists I know are, well, journalists – a profession built around the idea of visiting the worlds of others and bringing back and explaining their stories to a general audience.

  4. #4 mark
    September 19, 2006

    With his background in religion, Charles Darwin should not have written Origin of Species, but should have stuck to what he was an expert in, religion.

  5. #5 Bradley J. Fikes
    September 19, 2006

    I’m a health/science writer. Martin Gardner got me hooked on science.

  6. #6 Ben
    September 19, 2006

    Mignon Fogarty is another; in fact, she still dabbles in the English realm as well. (I happen to have seemingly gone the other way, starting in science and now having developed a second interest in English!)

  7. #7 razib
    September 19, 2006

    john horgan.

  8. #8 Fred Bortz
    September 19, 2006

    Not me, but I know some others. (See below.)

    Since I write mainly for young readers, my Ph.D. in Physics isn’t getting a full workout anymore. But when people ask me whether a science degree is necessary for what I do, I tell them no.

    What is necessary is an understanding of science and research, what it means to ask a compelling question, and what it takes to follow it. Science writing for nonspecialists also requires a sense of story and narrative, something that I have naturally and have honed professionally, but never trained for formally. I didn’t realize this until a reviewer commended my book Catastrophe! Great Engineering Failure–and Success ( ) for its narrative as well as its content, saying that it “reads like an adventure story from the first page to the last.”

    So science writing requires skills from both science and writing. How one gets them and in what order doesn’t matter to me, though most science writers, I suspect, developed many of their skills outside of a degree program.

    Chris clearly has the necessary qualities to be an outstanding science writer. I think I do, too. I know that Patricia Lauber does. When I am asked to cite a single science book for children, I refer to her Volcano! The Eruption and Healing of Mt. Saint Helens. Her credentials? She was an English major who discovered how much she liked science. She learned writing and research in college, but she learned science by applying those skills in a particular domain.

    Yay, Pat! Yay, Chris!

  9. #9 James Hrynyshyn
    September 19, 2006

    There are many paths to a common destination. Allow me to offer a counter-example:

    I started out with a journalism degree, but after more than a decade during which I wrote as much science as I could, I realized I really didn’t know what I was writing about, at least, not as well as I should. So I went back for another degree, this time in biology (marine biology to be exact, but the specialty is less important than the exposure to the practice of science). I’m not arguing by any means there aren’t plenty of outstanding science writers without science degrees — Chris offers several excellent examples. But I know in my case it helped a great deal to have sat through physiology, genetics and ecology courses.

    I did have to withdraw from making a full-time living for almost three years, but it was worth it. I understand far more now about science than did before. Plus, science labs are far more fun than liberal arts lectures.

  10. #10 Roger
    September 19, 2006

    Don’t forget those who go the other direction. I started out wanting to double major in biology and chemistry to become a geneticist. I ended up in religious studies and music.

  11. #11 Christopher
    September 19, 2006

    Hey, half this office has non-science degrees. (The other half dropped out of string theory programs or published in science journals before consumer mags, but it’s the marriage of the two that makes it works.)

  12. #12 Keanus
    September 19, 2006

    Being a reporter requires a great skepticism and the capacity to break down complex subjects into simple language. It doesn’t demand that one be a specialist in the field. In fact that may be a serious drawback IMHO.

    But that aside, Luskin’s fixation on credentials is not a good move on his part. As has been pointed out already, very few DI promoters have any credentials in the sciences, much less biology, including their famous list of 500 (or whatever the current number is) dissenters.

  13. #13 False Prophet
    September 20, 2006

    I can’t speak too much on journalism, but most of the journalism students at my grad school (we shared a faculty) seemed to come from humanities backgrounds.

    In my own profession, librarianship, I can attest that many science and medical librarians come from humanities and social science backgrounds. But that’s mainly because most librarians period come from liberal arts backgrounds. Partly because they encourage research and reading, but mostly because there’s not a lot of jobs out there for BAs. That said, some of my classmates at library school came from chemistry, computer science, agricultural science, and engineering.

  14. #14 Dark Tent
    September 21, 2006

    Most ironic of all in this case is that credentials are not even critical to the practice of science itself.

    As Richard Feynman once pointed out, in science it is not the person behind an idea that matters, but the idea itself — whether the idea or argument fits the facts and is logical. A thorough understanding of the relevant science is necessary, of course, but formal scientific training and degree(s) are not.

    The same is true of science writing. It is not whether the writer has a background in science that matters most, but whether they have an understanding of what they are writing about and are able to convey it to nonscientists in an understandable and interesting way.

  15. #15 Peter K. Anderson
    September 22, 2006

    To look at a particular area however, where ‘opinion’ has become disassociated from what the ‘material reality’ presented can actually do, journalistic endevour with ‘comprehension of that opinion’ is NOT sufficient without also the underpinning SCIENCE to notice the flaws…and report on such ALSO. To continue the example, there is nothing within the environment that can produce the ‘greenhouse effect’ as outlined by the ‘greenhouse theory’, which has become disassociated to any ‘reality’ present within the Climate that ‘our’ Environment can present. The supposed ‘ greenhouse climate remediations’ formed from within ‘greenhouse supposition’ can’t have any beneficial effect, there isn’t possible a ‘greenhouse based’ warming effect (with implementation of the ‘greenhouse theory’), and so supposed ‘greenhouse remediations’ can only then be seen as potentially DETRIMENTAL to the NATURAL persistence of ‘Natural events’ & NATURAL alterations as observed in their still irregular but otherwise reasonable & ‘GENTLE’ Natural style.

    The rise in median surface temperature is well seen, it is related to rematerialing of the surface by and within the production of Human habitat. This is so easily observed that the only method that the ‘greenhouse science platform’ can produce to counter this issue is to produce censorship and vilification of those whom point to this situation. It is clearly observed in the slides within those few outlines at link (**) below. There is little relevancy of ‘how much’ CO2 is present with regard to CLIMATE, Temperature is NOT even a valid indicator of ‘Climate involved’ processes, and measure of Temperature is not even showing ANY valid, RELIABLE & persistent link to measure of CO2.

    The ‘greenhouse platform’ efforts to discuss ‘paleo-periods’ & fabricated ‘future scenarios’ (from behind a ‘censorship fence’) rather than ‘Now’ with this ‘attitude’ well noticed by the public. ‘NOW’ is however what IS relevant in ‘Politics’ and the ‘greenhouse platform’ is only playing ‘scientists’ in the Political Arena… ‘Advocates’ in ‘white coats’ are still only Advocates & not ‘Scientists’…

    It is that the general public would hold greater ‘climate knowledge’ that the ‘few’ being platformed as ‘experts’, as there are not any such a ‘climate’ as these ‘few experts’ would opinion on. The public are not convinced of the ‘doom and woe’ propaganda as it is commonly seen for what it is, lobby propaganda & no number of politicians, actors or musicians will make any Movie to the ‘general betterment’ of ‘greenhouse opinion’ or ‘climate doom as reality’ to the public.

    The rise in median surface temperature is well seen, it is related to rematerialing of the surface by and within the production of Human habitat. This is so easily observed that the only method that the ‘greenhouse science platform’ can produce to counter this issue is to produce censorship and vilification of those whom point to this situation. It is clearly observed in the slides within those few outlines at link (**) below. Turbulent Process interactions of the (kilogram)x(10^24) Masses within the Ocean and Atmosphere will produce alterations to Turbulence within those materials WILL release (or uptake) vast amounts of Kinetic Energy, and that this will then be observed as a RISE (or DECLINE) in the measured Temperature of that System, with NO NEED for alteration of the RATE of overall ‘new’ Kinetic Energy induction even necessary. This is commonly known information.

    Also this current ‘warming climate period’ is only ONE of many within the last ~3 Million year ‘Primary Trough’ period tween the 60 or so ‘Glacial Age-like Events’ there in contained, and it could well be the last of this present ‘Period’ without any need to allude to ‘humanistic greenhouse alterations’ with the processes involved well beyond ‘human tinkering’ still & fortunately so. All Humanity has done is move where the Rain might fall, but it will still be falling…just elsewhere than ‘now’, see link ‘**’ below.

    Peter K. Anderson a.k.a. Hartlod(tm)

  16. #16 bernarda
    September 23, 2006

    You can add to your list James Gleick who wrote a wonderful biography of Richard Feynman and a book on chaos theory.