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.