Books: 'Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex' by Mary Roach

A few years ago, I read Mary Roach's first book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and absolutely loved it! One of the best popular science books I have read in a long time - informative, eye-opening, thought-provoking and funny. Somehow I missed finding time to read her second (Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife - I guess just not a topic I care much about), but when her third book came out, with such a provocative title as Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, I could not resist.

And I was not disappointed. It is informative, eye-opening, thought-provoking and funny. The language we use to talk about sex (and death) is so rich, and so full of thinly (or thickly) veiled allusions, that playing with that language is easy. Puns and double-entendres come off effortlessly and yet never seem to grow old. And the effect of interspersing serious discussion of science with what amounts to, essentially, Kindergarten humor, makes the humor effective. I guess it is the effect of surprise. The same humor in a different context (or outside of any context) may not be as effective or funny. The book made me laugh out loud on many occasions, startling the other B-767 passengers on the trans-Atlantic flight a couple of weeks ago (if it was B-777, as American Airlines promised, I would have slept, but the smaller airplane made that impossible, so I read about sex instead).

I should not point out any specific examples of research described in the book - there's so much of it - as I don't want to take the wind out of Scicurious' sails: she uses the book as a starting point for many of her Friday Weird Science posts.

And I will not even attempt to write a real book review (see the review by Scicurious and the series of posts on The Intersection for more details. Also check out Greta Christina and Dr.Joan for different takes).

Instead, I will mention something that I kept noticing over and over again in each chapter. An obsession of mine, or a case of a person with a hammer seeing nails everywhere, you decide.

On one hand, the history of science shows a trajectory of ever improving standards of research, more and more stringent criteria for statistics and drawing conclusions from the data, more and more stringent ethical criteria for the use of animal and human subjects in research, etc. As the time goes on, the results of scientific research are becoming more and more reliable (far from 100%, of course, but a huge improvement over Aristotle, Galen or the Ancient Chinese who could write down their wildest ideas with authoritative flair).

On the other hand, the language of science has become, over time, more and more technical and unintelligible to a lay reader. The ancient 'scientific' and 'medical' scripts, the books of 300 years ago, the Letters to the Academy of 200 years ago, the early scientific papers of 100 years ago - all of those were readable and understandable by everyone who could read. Of course, in the past, only the most educated sliver of the society was literate. Today, most people are literate (ignoring some geographical difference in the rates of literacy for the moment). But even the most educated sliver of the society, unless they are experts in the same scientific field, cannot understand a scientific paper.

Thus, as the science gets ever more reliable through history, it also becomes less and less understandable to an educated lay reader. Why is that so?

In the past, the educated lay reader was the intended audience for the scientific and medical writings. Today, the intended audience are colleagues. The papers are hidden behind paywalls and accessible only to people in big First World research institutions where the libraries have sufficient funds to pay for journal subscriptions. The communication to the lay audience is relegated to the non-experts: the media (which does an awful job of it) and science writers (who often do a great job, but their audience is severely limited to self-selected science aficionados).

I have been wondering for a while now (see the end of this post for an early example - and we had an entire session on the topic at ScienceOnline'09) if Open Access and the new metrics (that include media/blog coverage, downloads and bookmarks - all requiring that as many people as possible can understand the paper itself) will prompt authors of scientific papers to write keeping broader audiences in mind. Even if the "Materials and Methods" and "Results" sections need to remain technical, perhaps the Abstract, Introduction and Discussion (and in more and more journals also the "Author's Summary") will become more readable? At least the titles should be clear - and sometimes funny.

Last week I asked (on Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook - but FriendFeed, again, proved to be the best platform for this kind of inquiry) for examples of witty, normal-language titles of scientific papers. You can see some responses here and everyone reminded me of NCBI ROFL, the blog that specializes in finding wacky papers with wacky titles. Many, but certainly not all, of such titles indeed cover the science of sex.

Do you see this trend towards abandoning unreadable scientese (at least in titles) happening now or in the near future? Is it more likely to happen in OA journals? Do you have good examples?

In the meantime, watch Mary Roach - see why humor is an important aspect of science communication to lay audiences:


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I hate scientific language - it's boring and an obstacle to understanding. If we can explain things in a clear way, then we should.

In mild defense of scientific language, sometimes you need to develop a specialized vocabulary to cover a domain with precision and concision. At the extreme, you have specialized languages like mathematics. You can express "F=ma" in English, but conveying all the concepts and relationships that are summed up in that equation will take a lot of prose.

Now, scientific language can certainly be needlessly obfuscatory. But sometimes it's actually necessary.

Of course, that goes without saying, which is why I insisted that such language has to be used in the meaty parts of the paper - the Materials and Methods and Results (not to mention raw data in Supplementary Materials). Those parts are targeting colleagues. The rest of the paper does not need to be obfuscatory, though.