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5Jun 2012

Will Scientists Ever Get Science Writing?

Deborah Blum

It's usually coffee that jolts me into alertness in the morning. But today, it was a guest post on that excellent science blog network, The Last Word on Nothing. Although alertness doesn't quite describe it - call it foot-tapping, steaming exasperation instead. Anyway, I was definitely awake.

The post is great, by the way. Titled, "Make Me Feel Something, Please", it's by Soren Wheeler, senior producer at RadioLab, and like everyone there, he knows how to make a compelling point. It's his point that had me sitting up straight in my chair. He was writing about a recent column in the Science magazine publication, Science Careers.

This is how Wheeler starts his post:

A couple of days ago I was sitting at work when my wife emailed me an article by Adam Ruben. He’s a scientist who writes a humor column for Science. This one was about science journalism. I thought: Hey, I’m a science journalist, I like funny things, should be good. But a few paragraphs in, after a snicker or two, something odd happened: a slow creeping bile of righteous indignation worked its way out of my stomach and into my chest. By the end of the piece, I was in a huff.

As I'm still fuming myself, I think it's safe to say that I had exactly the same reaction.  If you want some better sense of why, let me just give you a couple of examples from Ruben's post, called The Unwritten Rules of Science Journalism.

He leads off with this statement: In reality, journalists make mistakes. And nowhere is the problem more prevalent than in science journalism. He goes on to blame shoddy science reporting on what he describes as the profession's unwritten rules. As this is - haha, a humor column - he makes up a list of rules that lead to bad journalism. Among them:

* Relate the research to readers' everyday lives.

* Remember that ordinary people cannot understand units of measurement.  Therefore, you should always explain measurements in relation to familiar objects...

And perhaps, most telling in his list:

* Don't think of what you're doing as dumbing down science. It is, but don't think of it that way.

As Wheeler says in response, "And here's the real rub: this smells elitist to me, even if it wasn't meant that way. The implication is that if you need those things to get it, you don't really deserve to get it."

I've always loathed the condescending phrase "dumbing it down." I still remember some years ago serving on a NASA communications advisory committee and getting in an across-the-table argument with scientists about the implied attitude. Because the fact is that every profession, not just science,  has its jargon and internal lingo that needs translation for those living outside the charmed circle.

And the importance of writing in terms of familiar objects and everyday lives is the essential  message - that science is about our world and ourselves.  That it's useful to all of us. Ruben also complains about the way science journalists humanize scientists. "Be sure and describe the scientist physically in vivid detail," he writes sarcastically. "Scientists love that."

And here again he gets it entirely wrong. First, we science journalists don't - or shouldn't - write just to make our sources happy. Our mission is instead to make our readers understand research  - and sometimes even enjoy it. And one of the things they need to understand is that science is a human enterprise - at its core,  however smart, however complex, still just human beings trying to understand and better navigate the universe around us. And if we science journalists fail to convey that - then, yes, we are doing our jobs badly.

Of course, this isn't a new argument. It belongs to a long-standing tension between journalists and researchers over how to tell stories of science. I brought some of this up a couple years ago in a post called "The Trouble With Scientists", the title of which will tell you that my take is distinctly different from Ruben's.

I do want to acknowledge that, in the midst of the snark,  he makes some fair points about the ways that stories can be over-hyped.  But mostly he misses his opportunity. And also shows his ignorance of what science journalism does well.  Just to quote Wheeler - who says this so much better than I do here anyway - one more time:

The people I want to reach are not dumb, they just don't think about these things all day long. So putting things in terms of something people can understand? Nothing could be closer to the core of what I do, what I love doing.


--- Deborah Blum

UPDATE: This story really got us Trackers going. You'll find Charlie Petit's take  here as well.





I don't want you to think, Jim, that I don't get Dr. Ruben's point (he's right that science writing is far too often formulaic and takes the easy way out). And I do appreciate that he's a talented satirist. I usually love pieces that make fun of journalism (linked to one from The Guardian in an earlier comment) because they can be helpful in making us think about what we do and because they're just funny. But it's the "dumbing down" line you quote that I think divides me - and the other critics - from your perspective on this. Throughout my career, I've heard scientists refuse to work with journalists, talk to members of the general public (even school classes), share their work, because they didn't want it to be "dumbed down." It was better than that, it was above the comprehension of these "lesser" audiences, it was what Wheeler called in his piece, the suggestion of elitism. As far as I'm concerned, journalism is ever fair game. But readers who are struggling to connect with science, maybe less so. And that was the underlying message that bothered me. Hope this makes sense. Best, Deborah

Deborah, thanks for the note. I understand, and I too think it's healthy to discuss these things, so I guess I can feel good that the piece at least accomplished that. No hard feelings, certainly.

But, for what it's worth--and I do not intend to provoke a debate here--I'm not sure Adam's piece was judged fairly on these blogs. I continue to believe that it's a much better piece--with more heft and more valid points--than people here have given it credit for. And whatever you think about the substance ...

>>Don’t think of what you’re doing as “dumbing down” science. It is, but don’t think of it that way.<<

... I think that's a great line.


Jim Austin, Editor
Science Careers

Jim -

I like editors who stand up for their writers! And I appreciate you taking the time to write in support of the piece. Like Charles Quoi, I don't see this as a defensive response to the piece but rather a discussion of what matters in science communication by a lot of people who care about that. And I think such discussions are healthy things. You'll be interested to know that the piece prompted a similar discussion among members of EUSJA (the European Union Science Journalists Association), which was very similar to this one. I heard about it from an Italian science journalist, who said: "We discussed the issue on the Facebook group of EUSJA and I was much less diplomatic than you...)

Jim, no worries. Was just responding to comments regarding "sensitivity." I generally hate that as a defense for humor, although I admit it can be a valid criticism. To me, sensitivity can imply that a criticism shouldn't have been made in the first place, i.e. "just shut up about it already."

Charles, no one has said or implied that you aren't free to criticize. You certainly are.

Jim Austin, Editor
Science Careers

Of course writers of any kind can't always be blamed for how their words are interpreted. However, they should also own their words and admit when they left themselves open to criticism.

Ruben made blanket generalizations about science journalists and science journalism. He didn't say "some science journalists," he only said "science journalists." Maybe it wouldn't have been "funny" if he added in the qualification, but at the same time, he opened himself up to criticism over it.

Humor is subjective. If someone said, "Maybe women don't deserve to make as much as men after all. Ha ha, only kidding!" I suppose some might find it funny, and I suppose hecklers might be considered sensitive for speaking out about such attempts at humor. But just as Ruben has the freedom to say his piece, we certainly have the freedom to heckle him en masse as desired. You can't claim the freedom to say something and not expect others to claim their freedom to call that person out on it.

Please see my reply to Charlie's post --

-- (and Charlie's very gracious response).

Jim Austin, Editor
Science Careers

I think this article is all about interpretation, and from the comments on here and Twitter, science journalists seem inclined to take a rather sensitive one.

Being neither a scientist nor a science journalist, I saw the article as a satirical pop at how SOME people approach science journalism. Certainly not an advocation of the methods or philosophies mentioned. And neither was it a dig at all science journalists.

The piece wasn’t intended to make a statement at all - Ruben’s tongue is firmly in his cheek. And by assuming his position on science journalism is more polar or considered than it is, I think some journalism commenters are showing their hand in terms of how they view scientists (particularly their involvement in communication). But a situation of mutual disrespect is not what anyone should be aiming for.

In any case, while the humour may not appeal to everyone, this article was clearly not intended as a debate-starter, and isn’t really worthy of being one. As my grandmother would have said, "Take it with a pinch of salt."

It's not that he's insulting to science journalists particularly, John. It's that he's insulting to readers of science journalism. Of course, if he'd been funnier, maybe he'd have pulled it off anyway. But that's another issue.

Boy, I don't know. I don't moderate these comments but clearly this one got through. Maybe a glitch?

C'mon folks--it was simply a poor (i.e. not funny) column. I work at Science and didn't like it much either--and had a friendly debate about it with the editor of Science Careers--but the angst and critiquing is way overboard and shows perhaps that the column did hit the mark too often. The dumbed down comment was to me one of the slightly amusing lines (and yes, think of them as punch lines not thoughtful criticism". Imagine if he had written about the banking industry's subprime fiascos and said "Don't think of it as robbing the poor. It is, but don't think of it that way." I'm with Dan V. on this one. Besides, the worse thing to let a comedian know is that she/he has gotten you riled. I bet this column is getting more traffic than most of his.

Just curious why a comment I submitted several hours ago has not yet been moderated and posted, yet a number of posts since then have appeared. Did I inadvertently violate some rule or etiquette?

Soren, sure I can see you feeling that way, particularly given how RadioLab relies on the narrative voice, which the piece may be seen as critiquing. I just don't feel much of a burn from this one, as pointless criticism goes.

Honestly I've laughed at these same things myself. But two things got me: the first was the "dumbed down" comment. That just always gets me, because i really think there is an unsaid elitist judgement there that speaks to why kids turn off to science around 5th grade. And second, I was put off because it was an attack not on science writers or particular pieces of science writing, but on the TECHNIQUES of science writing. Now, of course, some of the things on Adam's list were not things I'd do. But my concern was that many of them are EXACTLY what we should all be doing more and doing better. It's easy to knock on them because they are often used poorly (often on top of poor reporting and poor writing). There are already too many voices saying we need to be serious, factual, critical ... and of course we do, but we also need to be playful and evocative and full of emotion. And I felt like that was getting stepped on rather roughly with no caveat or appreciation for the challenge of getting people to engage with science in a meaningful way.

Point, Dan. And I don't mind people making fun of journalists (we so often deserve it). Loved Martin Robbins' piece in The Guardian for instance:

But the end target in this piece seemed to be the lay audience, who needs to have micrograms per liter explained or connects with science better if it relates to everyday life. And we really don't need to push those guys any farther away than they already are.

Great responses by Soren Wheeler, Deborah Blum and Charlie Petit. Also, Maryn McKenna's comment was funny when I first saw it on twitter and funny the second time around.

It looks like the answer to that question in the headline is no, following the tradition for science papers. I don't think Adam Ruben's article is very helpful, since I agree with Deborah Blum's and Seth Borenstein's concerns that some scientists might take it seriously. It wasn't consistently funny enough to clearly be seen as comedy, though this line hit home a little: "So be sure to describe the scientist physically in vivid detail. Scientists love that.”

You could consider asking Science to run a response or rebuttal by someone, or by several of you. You already have some excellent material which wouldn't need much adapting, I would think.

In responding to Jim Handman's comment about scientists who have been burned, my preference is to (1) explain the often deceptive challenges in science communication and science journalism and (2) remind scientists that journalists aren't the only people who make mistakes - the stories Retraction Watch finds are likely just the tip of the iceberg - and (3) explain that one bad experience with a science writer doesn't mean the next one will be bad.

Yep, scientists should do lit reviews on journalists, much as (good) journalists do on scientists.

It’s good to see thoughtful conversation developing from this piece. But before anyone says, no, I don’t think that was the intent of the Rosen piece, so I don’t think he gets no credit for any good things that might emerge from this work.

Maybe I'm too thick-skinned, but I found this fellow's piece amusing. People are allowed to resent reporters, after all. (Who doesn't?) Every corner of reporting contains classic power struggles over how reality is perceived and presented, with blinkered perceptions on all sides. Scientists wouldn't be human if they didn't mind a bunch of rambunctious folks, ones fundamentally not on their side, endlessly describing their work in unfamiliar fashion.

So, the piece is one view of how one group of people outside reporting might misunderstand this thing we do, probably because it is so simple that they simply cannot countenance it. If there is a real problem, it is the lack of technical sophistication in the reporting enterprise and among the public, which makes "science reporting" necessary in the first place. As well, the sort of naive cynicism that characterizes the majority (sadly) view of news reporting today is at work here. But mostly, it just seems like a goof.


Yep, scientists should do lit reviews on journalists, much as (good) journalists do on scientists.

It's good to see thoughtful conversation developing from this piece. But before anyone says, no, I don't think that was the intent of the Rosen piece, so I don't think he gets no credit for any good things that might emerge from this work.

As someone who has been a sought-after popularizer of (cancer) science as part of my day job for 20 years, and now in retirement is actively writing a blog on cancer research that is aimed 100% at the non-scientist ( I think I have learned many things over the years about how to really effectively communicate with the public. And I take it very serioisy indeed.

And so I can see how lots of people may have been offended and chagrined by the original Ruben post.

I have a different view, and maybe I am too naive for my own good, but I read that post a week or so ago and took it to be 100% tongue-in-cheek. I have read other of Ruben's material and found it to be irreverent and usually pretty funny. But I never took much, if any, of it seriously.

Maybe I need to go back and re-read carefully, but I took that piece, and most other of what he writes to be part of his stand-up schtick. In fact, if you go to his own website, he lists himself as a comedian first, and a scientist down the list.

Maybe I'm naive, but I took that all as sarcasm and comedy. You may think it funny or not, but I doubt (hope???) he meant it to be taken seriously.

Michael Wosnick

Thanks for this post, Deborah. I was terminally annoyed by the original piece as well. I guess I have to take the author' word that he was attempting humor, that's the only evidence I have to go on.

These are great suggestions from Seth. Journalists (good ones, anyway) do check out scientists before conducting an interview. And the internet makes it very easy for scientists to do the same. Most decent science writers I know do homework in advance and will often ask for links, articles, etc. before the interview. Which is another tip off. I've been interviewed a lot regarding books I've written and I usually set some minimum standards for what I hope for - these key facts, these things spelled right, these concepts explained clearly and imperfect as it is, it's one of the best ways we have so far for reaching a science wary public and I think it's worth the trouble.

This is probably not the best forum for this (and perhaps Science could make amends providing such help). But here's some general guidelines. If you have the time, google us and see what we've written. In general, if a person is a full-time science writer with established media (AP, NYTimes, WashPost, Reuters, MSNBC etc.) then they are professionals who understand and do well (though there are exceptions). If a person is more a politics or general assignment reporter, then it's a harder call because there's no expertise. And also consider who the person reports for and it's track record. There are science and environmental journalism societies and awards. And finally just ask. I'd send you my clips and resume if you wanted. Talk to us and trust your judgement. We're generally smart people who want to do well, despite what Ruben writes.

As a scientist who studies a hot-button issue (and has seen a wealth of poor coverage on it), I suppose my biggest question is how to tell the difference between a journalist who is going to do a good, responsible job of covering an issue versus one of the types Jim mentions.

For those who I imagine will defend the Ruben piece with "It was meant to be funny" -- freedom of expression does not confer immunity from criticism.

Yes, that's one of my concerns. That the tone of the piece basically reinforces all the wrong stereotypes. Of both journalists and scientists.

No one - certainly not me - would argue that science journalism always well done or smart( or even always done by trained science journalists, as you are likely to find here). So I see your point, Jim. My point was that the tone of his particular post, rather than actually encouraging correction, was basically disdainful and, I think, likely to encourage that sense of elitism among scientists that does none of us any good. Other than that, of course, I really liked it.

And thanks for cracking me up, Maryn. Perfect ending to the story.

The thing is - that the folks that read and contribute to this blog are not the problem, and not whom Ruben is talking about.

As the ranks of specialized science journalists have been demolished in recent years (sadly chronicled by this blog) - most science reporting in the mainstream media (newspapers and broadcast) is by general assignment reporters who have no idea what they are writing about. It is not their fault - they don't have the training, education or knowledge about science.

So I'm sorry to say that I daily see and read horrific examples of what Ruben is talking about.

I also conduct journalism workshops for scientists are Canadian universities, and at every single session, a scientist stands up and asks why they should trust a journalist, since they have been so badly burned in the past. Misquoted, distorted, hyped, mangled, misinterpreted. The examples are legend.

So I think we can't be smug or complacent about how most science is reported. I think there are issues here that need to be addressed.

Thank you. I thought it was just me that was offended and needed to relocate my obviously misplaced sense of humor. It has no basis with reality, evidence or facts. But it's humor so it's OK, right? Still hurts because some of the media-shy scientists we deal with might think it's true. Just keep telling myself. It's just a joke. It's just a joke.

Thank you Deborah (and Soren). And thanks also for providing the opportunity to answer Ruben's hypothetical, "If you ever come to interview me about my research...":

Not f*cking likely.

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