What with one thing and another, I didn’t watch this week’s Bloggingheads Science Saturday– Kate’s parents were visiting, and then there was the Snowpocalypse, and I have book edits to finish, and I don’t enjoy the John Horgan/ George Johnson pairing all that much. Apparently, I really missed out, because three-quarters of the way through, Johnson uncorks a rant about a past episode featuring Ed Yong and Abbie Smith, where they said something about science journalism that he took the wrong way. This has, predictably enough, turned into yet another blogospheric kerfuffle. I believe Brian’s post on the matter comes late enough to include links to everything.

I don’t remember what Ed and Abbie said well enough to say whether Johnson’s version of what they were saying had any validity. I tend to think not, based on his performance, but I think I can understand a little of the reason behind the rant.

Johnson accuses Abbie of wanting science journalists to be nothing but scribes taking down and regurgitating what scientists say, they way they want it said. This does not appear to be an accurate rendition of what she actually said, but the general sentiment is common enough. Anybody who talks to scientists about the media has probably heard disparaging remarks aplenty, and people who are in the media writing about scientists have heard it all a hundred times over.

That’s what drives Johnson’s rant. He took a relatively innocuous conversation, and projected onto it slurs that he’s probably heard and read a thousand times, and went from there. He sees himself as defending the honor of his chosen profession from scientists who underrate the amount of skill involved.

And he’s not entirely wrong. Lots of people who do science for a living look down on people who merely write about science for a living, as if they’re a lower order– “Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, write for a popular audience.” That may not be Abbie’s actual attitude, but you don’t have to spend a lot of time in the science blogosphere to run across people who take that view.

Here’s the thing, though: writing for a general audience is really hard. And lots of scientists suck at it.

Trust me on this– I’m neck-deep in the third draft of my popular-audience book about science. Calling the process to this point “grueling” would be an understatement. I’ve had to rip huge chunks of material out, and radically re-write whole chapters twice– even my first attempt at a re-write didn’t cut it.

I pride myself on being better than the average scientist at getting physics concepts across to a general audience, and I don’t think that’s unduly arrogant. And despite that, my first draft really didn’t work for the intended audience. It was loaded with unnecessary technical details, and caveats and qualifiers that anticipated objections that none of the target audience would ever raise. I had to go back and strip most of that out (some of them survive as footnotes in the current draft), to make the main points clearer.

So I understand why Johnson is indignant, as a general matter, if not in this specific case. What science writers do is extremely difficult, and it’s not something that any jackass with a web site can do. A lot of what gets passed off as “general audience” writing on science blogs is really pretty bad at the stated goal– I find many of the bio-oriented blogs on ScienceBlogs well nigh unreadable. I could probably figure out what they’re talking about– I do have a science Ph.D., after all– but not without a great deal of effort, and life is just too short.

(A lot of physics blogs are beyond unreadable, but at least they don’t pretend to be talking to non-specialists.)

Am I saying that no scientists can communicate directly with the public? No, absolutely not. What I’m saying is that being a scientist does not automatically make you the best person to judge how to communicate your work to the public. Good science writing is a skill that is every bit as specialized as any of the skills scientists need to have.

In some ways, this whole thing is pretty similar to the framing fracas back in April, and like that mess it’s not likely to go anywhere good. In both cases, though, most of the heat comes from one group of participants feeling that their area of expertise is being systematically undervalued, if not dismissed outright, by the other people in the discussion. Seen in that light, it’s not hard to understand why Johnson gets a little cranky.

Don’t get me wrong– I’m not defending his specific actions, which appear to be overreactions. In fact, I think his sneering at a particular post of Abbie’s was probably over the line. But as a general matter, I can understand why he would be a little touchy about scientists’ attitude toward science journalism.

I’d be interested to hear from some Real, Live, Science Writers on this, but Jennifer Ouellette and Carl Zimmer probably have too much sense to get sucked into this sucking quagmire of an argument.

Comments

  1. #1 MRW
    December 23, 2008

    Jennifer Ouellette chimed in on Laelaps (to note her agreement with the post there). I think she may have posted other places, as well.

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    December 23, 2008

    Yeah, I didn’t see her comment before I wrote this (the post was written last night, and scheduled for today). The comment at Bora’s post that she mentions is here.

  3. #3 Jamie Bowden
    December 23, 2008

    It’s a shame you’re probably right about Ms. Ouellette on this. I suspect it would make for a good read and get the perspective from that side across pretty clearly.

  4. #4 Sigmund
    December 23, 2008

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with you here.
    I don’t see a dismissive attitude towards science journalists per se from scientists, what I see is a dismissive attitude towards sloppy science writing. When non scientist science writers take the time to get their details correct – a prime example being Carl Zimmer – they are almost invariably praised by scientists. Likewise a scientist writing false information will be criticized.
    I think George Johnson fails to realize that being critical of inaccuracies is an inherent feature of the scientific method. Johnson describes a false dichotomy between professional level descriptions of science and simplified public level descriptions and seems to think that scientists can only do the former and should leave science journalists do the latter. Most of us scientists do realize that the general public doesn’t have the necessary educational background to understand quantum mechanics or molecular genetics and so talking about these subject does require some degree of dumbing down. However, there is a difference between simplification and being inaccurate and in order to get it correct you do need a grasp of the subject or at least be able to get and condense accurate information from an expert in the field. As Larry Moran described on Sandwalk, George Johnson’s attack on Abbie’s definition of epigenetics made it obvious that he doesn’t understand molecular biology yet he felt justified in sneering at her definition (one done for a scientific rather than public audience). It’s this sort of arrogant lack of humility from science journalists pontificating on subjects they don’t understand that annoys us scientists (in our ‘ratholes’, eh George?).

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    December 23, 2008

    I don’t see a dismissive attitude towards science journalists per se from scientists, what I see is a dismissive attitude towards sloppy science writing.

    Followed by:
    I think George Johnson fails to realize that being critical of inaccuracies is an inherent feature of the scientific method. Johnson describes a false dichotomy between professional level descriptions of science and simplified public level descriptions and seems to think that scientists can only do the former and should leave science journalists do the latter. Most of us scientists do realize that the general public doesn’t have the necessary educational background to understand quantum mechanics or molecular genetics and so talking about these subject does require some degree of dumbing down.

    In other news, it’d be a lot easier to appreciate the beauty of the forest without all these damn trees in the way…

    This is exactly the sort of dismissive attitude that I’m talking about. Good science writing is a lot more than just “dumbing down” professional explanations– it involves making judgments about what elements are really essential to understanding the problem, and casting the whole thing in a way that is not only comprehensible to a wider audience, but that will resonate with them.

    This takes a good deal of skill, and a long time to learn to do well. Waving it off as mere “dumbing down” is exactly the sort of thing that Johnson is ranting about.

    As Larry Moran described on Sandwalk, George Johnson’s attack on Abbie’s definition of epigenetics made it obvious that he doesn’t understand molecular biology yet he felt justified in sneering at her definition (one done for a scientific rather than public audience).

    This gets into the whole problem of what the audience really is for a blog. I suspect Johnson is looking at it as a public-audience piece on the grounds that anything published to the World Wide Web is available to, well, the whole world. Including members of the general public who are not professional biologists.

    It seems to me that a lot of bloggers are trying to have it both ways. When it comes to presentation style, they argue that a blog post isn’t a journal article, and blogging is an informal medium. But when somebody complains that their posts aren’t all that accessible, they turn around and claim to be writing for a scientific audience, not the general public (despite the whole World Wide Web thing).

    But this is an entirely different long and pointless argument.

  6. #6 Sigmund
    December 23, 2008

    Chad, you fail to address the one thing that science bloggers criticize SOME science journalists for, namely inaccuracy.
    Of course science journalism must be more than simplification/dumbing down (although it should be part of their job). I presumed that is fairly obvious and its a bit of a strawman argument to suggest that this is the main gripe scientists have with science journalists.
    Science journalists are free to take whatever slant they want towards their subject but when they get basic facts wrong or misrepresent a widely held consensus view of a topic then they should be prepared to face criticism for their actions.

  7. #7 HP
    December 23, 2008

    I’m a technical writer, which is not at all the same thing as a science writer, but it seems to me that there are some parallels that might shed some light on this “scientists vs journalists” dustup.

    I write documentation (“Help”) and training materials for a major CAE (aka finite element analysis or FEA) software package. I’m lucky in that I have a well-defined audience (mechanical engineering analysts — often with advanced degrees and many years’ experience) and I have well-defined sources (computer scientists, programmers, and software designers). But I am neither an engineer nor a computer scientist.

    In order to do my job (and by all accounts, I do it well), I don’t need to understand engineering or computer science — I need to understand engineers and computer scientists. (I am the soft, squishy middle between two very crunchy wafers.) What I try to do is to serve as an intermediary between the intent of the software designers and the needs of engineers. That is, I try to write material that helps engineers use the software to do their real jobs — that translates the software interface into into a tool engineers can use, rather than a burden to be overcome.

    So, in my case, I have a very well defined niche audience and very well defined sources. Part of the issue with science journalism, I think, is that the audience is so poorly defined. Who are science journalists writing for? They are certainly not writing for scientists, who have any number of places to go for information written for a scientific audience. As a science enthusiast, I can’t honestly say that mainstream science journalists are writing for an audience that includes me in it. I rarely read a piece of science journalism that doesn’t simply leave me wondering what’s really going on. Who are science journalists writing for, and what’s the purpose of science journalism? Is it to convey specific pieces of information (“news you can use”), or is it to generate enthusiasm and excitement about scientific research? And do science journalists have a clear conception of how these purposes differ, and what their purpose is for any given article? Or is it simply a practical question of having a deadline to meet, and so many column inches to fill, and no time to reflect?

    I wonder whether science journalists have a very clear conception of who their audience is. It seems to me that science journalism is aimed at an audience of disinterested “newspaper readers,” whoever that may be. Is the audience for science journalism literate? educated? engaged? Or is the goal of science journalism to keep Average Joe pleasantly occupied after he’s finished the front page and the editorials?

    I think this is indicative of a problem with journalism in general, in that there really is no “general audience” any more. News audiences have become fragmented in the same way that entertainment audiences have. Mass media in general is in trouble, because the mass market audience is so fragmented. When you try to write for a nonexistent general audience, you’re bound to leave everyone unsatisfied.

  8. #8 RPM
    December 23, 2008

    A lot of what gets passed off as “general audience” writing on science blogs is really pretty bad at the stated goal– I find many of the bio-oriented blogs on ScienceBlogs well nigh unreadable.

    Wait, so you allow for physics blogs that aren’t intended to be comprehended by a lay audience, but you assume that the biology blogs are aiming for the general public? I’m too lazy to tailor my writing to the uninitiated, but I never market myself as though I’m trying to do that.

  9. #9 Mike P
    December 23, 2008

    HP, I think your comment about the fragmented media is a good one, but I also think ultimately mass media will stick around for the simple reason that it’s a good business model. While specialized markets are much, much better information-providing models, they’re also much more difficult to keep financially afloat by virtue of their smaller, more targeted audiences. Especially in this day and age, when we want everything to be available for free on the internet, it’s difficult to imagine how many small-market publications will succeed long-term. I believe that Internet advertising is not a sustainable model for most websites. In economic turmoil, I think that most advertisers will tend to refocus their dollars toward larger, more diverse markets. There are exceptions, of course, as specialty markets have specialty advertising, but in a broad sense, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for big budget companies to advertise on smaller-scale publications. I think you can see where I’m going with this. I’m predicting a return to mass media (though not necessarily the “traditional” media; I think paper is deader than dead) in the near future, simply because it’s more financially lucrative. But I’ve been wrong before, I’ll probably be wrong again.

  10. #10 HP
    December 23, 2008

    Ooh, reading over my work, I just realized how meandering and unfocused my comment #7 is. And I call myself a good writer. Give me another four hours, though, and I could polish it up real nice.

    @ #8: Good catch! I must’ve skimmed over that “bio-oriented” comment on first read. As a non-scientist, I find the bio-oriented blogs much more understandable than the physics ones. PZ, in particular, when he takes a break from politics and atheism and rabble-rousing and puts up a post about developmental biology or gene expression or some such, is amazingly good at communicating to the lay reader. But unless physics is being communicated through the eyes of a sweet dog, I tend to look at it and think, “Something to do with lasers, apparently. Ooooh, shiny.”

    Again, though, this comes down to a question of audience. Even scientists are not a monolithic audience. Would it be fair to say, Chad, that your background as a SCIENTIST doesn’t really put you in a better position to understand a biology post than me, a wishy-washy humanities type?

  11. #11 tbell
    December 23, 2008

    It seems to me that there are a variety of ways to ‘get it wrong’ in science writing. The way a scientist, who might be a poor communicator, gets it wrong is to use too much jargon, to alternately over- and under-simplify, and sometimes by over-valuing their own perspective. So, in failing this way, they might leave confusion in a reader, or some false confidence. The ways a science-journalist can get it wrong seem broader, they might make the same mistakes as above, which would leave things a toss up. However, I feel that only a (poor) science journalist can get things so wrong, so backwards that the reader can end up believing a number of demonstrable non-truths that no scientist would ever find acceptable. And I agree with other commenters that it has something to do with (over)valuing a clear story than with appreciating the complex truth. And it’s this last type of ‘getting it wrong’ that scientist find the most intolerable. (To be fair, there are scientist who get it wrong in this fashion, and it’s almost always when they are writing outside their own field).

  12. #12 Chad Orzel
    December 23, 2008

    Sigmund (#6): Chad, you fail to address the one thing that science bloggers criticize SOME science journalists for, namely inaccuracy.

    That’s because I think that a lot of accuracy concerns are overblown. Yes, there are occasional examples of newspaper articles that are twisted around so badly as to give completely the wrong impression. But more often than not when I run across people yelling about “inaccuracy” in some media report, it’s not actually that big a deal. The omitted caveats and qualifiers that get scientists torqued off are often things that would only confuse the issue if they were left in.

    Again, as I said in the original post, I’m speaking from experience. There were a lot of points in the editing process for the book-in-progress when I got very worked up about my editor saying that something was confusing or seemed superfluous. When I calmed down and went back through it, though, she was almost always right.

    A scientist writing for a scientific audience is trained to try to anticipate every objection, even things that are really fiddly and technical, or just kind of far-fetched. We’re also supposed to describe our work in sufficient detail for our readers to be able to reproduce the experiment (though as people like Harry Collins have shown, there are limits to this). That leads us to reflexively put a lot of detail in our explanations, and to demand a lot of detail from other people’s articles.

    When writing for a non-technical audience, though, a lot of those details are just confusing and distracting. While it may seem inaccurate from a scientific perspective, leaving those details out is almost always better for getting the essential point across.

    RPM (#8): Wait, so you allow for physics blogs that aren’t intended to be comprehended by a lay audience, but you assume that the biology blogs are aiming for the general public? I’m too lazy to tailor my writing to the uninitiated, but I never market myself as though I’m trying to do that.

    When I wrote that, I was thinking of times when I’ve read posts that purport to provide a basic introduction to some subject (even “Basic Concepts” posts) that start throwing jargon terms around in the second sentence, without defining anything. Biologists are a lot more likely than physicists to assume that everybody knows what they’re talking about.

    It can be difficult to tell what’s intended for a wide audience and what isn’t, though. Which, I guess, illustrates the exact problem, here– I tend to default to thinking of blogs as intended for a general audience (otherwise, why bother putting them out there for anyone to read?). Other people tend to assume that they’re writing for other scientists, or at least a technically savvy subset of the public. Each group is probably disappointed in the other.

  13. #13 Sigmund
    December 23, 2008

    Chad, while I agree that certain claims of inaccuracy can be overblown (we have all experienced the nitpicky commentator that likes to show off by pointing out the rare case that doesn’t fit in with the vast majority) I don’t think its so easy to dismiss all or most criticisms of inaccuracy as being in some way frivolous. Science is a huge discipline. Nobody is an expert in ‘Science’ as it is really a collection of numerous specialities. You and I are both working scientists. If we both write a line or two about some cutting edge aspect of our own subjects I doubt (without studying up) we would know whether each others was an accurate statement or not.
    I have seen several incidences of fundamental inaccuracies (not just minor nitpicking points)in science journalism regarding my own field, transcriptional regulation, yet I seriously doubt that anyone outside that field would be able to realize the same. I have no reason to doubt the same applies to other areas where I have no expertise such as your own. For most scientists, writing about a scientific topic outside their area of interest is not an easy task and most will do their utmost to avoid writing something wrong (or stupid!). Should we excuse science journalists who fail to do the same?
    I really don’t think this is a straightforward scientist versus journalist battle. Even a good scientist will face the same reaction from scientists if he or she writes inaccurately on subjects outside their field of expertise whether or not they are good communicators. If however they write accurately, scientist or not, (look at Carl Zimmer again as an example or Stephen Hawkings occasional sections about biological evolution) then they won’t face these problems.

  14. #14 DrZZ
    December 23, 2008

    This does not appear to be an accurate rendition of what she actually said, but the general sentiment is common enough.

    then
    That’s because I think that a lot of accuracy concerns are overblown
    In all the comments by or defending journalists I have not seen one mention of accuracy being an important priority. I don’t know about other scientists, but for me it is by far and away the main reason I don’t want to put any effort into talking to journalists. I’ve had limited experience interacting with journalists, but in every single case it has been clear that accuracy has been way down on the list of things they are concerned with. Multiple times it has been very clear from the conversation that the story had already been written and the reporter was just fishing for something that can be made to fit, regardless of how misleading the result. In one case, I was sent the text of how they were going to quote me. Not only was it nowhere near a quote, it was essentially opposite of what I had said. When I pointed this out, I was informed that due to time constraints, it couldn’t be changed. When I responded that I didn’t want my name used, I got a scolding email from the editor complaining that I had agreed to speak on the record, as if that was equal to permission to make up anything they cared to. I just see a similar response here; if a scientist complains about accuracy, they are being too picky, or there isn’t enough time, or there isn’t enough space, or one of dozens of other excuses that make it completely clear that accuracy is way down the list of priorities. That may be the reality of the situation, but if so, I don’t see why I should waste my time participating and I also don’t see why I shouldn’t put my effort into alternatives where perhaps that isn’t the reality of the situation.

  15. #15 Jennifer Ouellette
    December 24, 2008

    I have written about this topic before, although not this particular kerfuffle. “Sucking quagmire” indeed. :) But I think Chad’s analysis matches my outlook on why George reacted the way he did. My comment over at Bora’s place is more in-depth and I wont reproduce it here.

  16. #16 Chad Orzel
    December 24, 2008

    Chad, while I agree that certain claims of inaccuracy can be overblown (we have all experienced the nitpicky commentator that likes to show off by pointing out the rare case that doesn’t fit in with the vast majority) I don’t think its so easy to dismiss all or most criticisms of inaccuracy as being in some way frivolous.

    I don’t agree. I see ten complaints of the form “This dumb journalist has left out a technical caveat that won’t matter to anyone but an expert in the field” for every genuine example of an inaccuracy that changes the meaning of the story.

    They tend to be presented as if they were giant message-changing mistakes, but when you look carefully, it’s usually not that big a deal.

    n all the comments by or defending journalists I have not seen one mention of accuracy being an important priority.

    To swipe a line from earlier in the discussion, I presumed that was fairly obvious.

    Of course accuracy is important. Journalists need to avoid making major factual errors in their stories, and when they make mistakes that genuinely change the meaning of the story, they need to be called on it.

    In my experience, though, those mistakes are not all that common. They stand out, because we tend to remember dramatic mistakes much more than unremarkable competence, but they’re a tiny fraction of the news stories about science that get written and published.

    The obsession with those mistakes, and the tendency to blame all journalists for the sins of a few, is what makes science writers who are good at their jobs so testy when the subject comes up. If I got Rusi Taleyarkhan and Jan Hendrik Schoen thrown in my face every time I said I was a physicist, I expect I would get a little snippy the next time somebody brought up the subject of scientific ethics.

  17. #17 Joomlatka
    December 24, 2008

    Very interesting.