Yes, scientists should write about science

A couple of people I know linked to this fierce blogpost by a philosopher of science claiming that science journalism is inherently corrupt:

Training scientists to be science communicators, as some insist we should do, merely makes them less active scientists, and they will remain unable to communicate science unless they, too, fall into the drama trap and modify attitudes. Facts are not dramatic. All the actual drama is in how people respond to facts, and that is no longer science, nor even science policy, but simple politics.

This has a number of implications. The most obvious is that we should not expect journalism nor popular publishing to do much to actually educate the lay public. The reason why textbooks and monographs are dry is that they do attempt to cover facts, and the different (actual) ideas and approaches, in order to initiate a critical analysis in the reader. You don’t do this with a breathless Dan Brown style of writing. So if we want a better informed populace, and it is vital that we have one, there is only one way to do it: teach the science to students in a non-partisan fashion, and stop making up drama, which is to say, conflict, where there is none. Evolution is not controversial in science, nor global warming, tobacco causing cancer, and the overuse of pesticides and fertilisers causing massive ecological damage. These are facts in any sense of the word, philosophical debates about factitude notwithstanding. All else is obfuscation for political drama.

Two responses:

  • Facts are not dramatic;  but there is drama in the experience of passing from not knowing a fact to knowing it.  One great advantage that writers about math have over writers about the other sciences is that we can enact the mathematics — not an account of the mathematics, but the mathematics itself — right there on the page.  I have taught the proof of the infinitude of primes to undergraduates many times, and it is not dry — when you haven’t seen it before, it’s kind of mindblowing.  No Dan Brown hoo-hah required.
  • Tobacco causing cancer is not controversial now, but it was certainly controversial within the memory of many people still now living.  The process by which we passed from “controversial” to “not controversial” is a scientific one (though of course a political one too.)  Talking about that process isn’t obfuscation — it’s a lesson in how we make new facts.


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9 thoughts on “Yes, scientists should write about science

  1. I agree with everything you wrote, but also one more thing. In many ways, science is science communication. Our first audience is ourselves. It’s no joke that “writing it down” is often a key step in understanding. And anyone who’s tried to write a textbook or expository article realizes that true clarity requires true understanding. I’ve done huge amounts of research in order to write a paragraph here or there in a book. Because I wanted to make it clear to others, which first meant making it clear to me.

  2. Jason Starr says:

    Public discourse is different from scientific discourse. Much “established truth” within science is controversial to the layperson: any mathematician who doubts this should discuss with a layperson whether 0.9999… is different from 1.0000… Journalists often exacerbate this problem rather than improve it. Scientists should be very careful about how they participate in public discourse, and I think that is Wilkins’s main point. I agree that there is drama and story even in a technical seminar. I also think scientists should do more to engage the public in science. However, I certainly agree with Wilkins that scientists should proceed cautiously and skeptically, just as they usually do.

  3. Brian Conrad says:

    Jason, when you ask such people to multiplying both sides of the equation “.333….. = 1/3″ by 3, and then (if they resist the evident conclusion) discuss how to interpret what the equation “.333…. = 1/3″ actually means then doesn’t that do the trick? Or perhaps they just declare it all to be some kind of magic trick. (I agree with your comments, by the way.)

  4. JSE says:

    A good student will respond to that argument, not by becoming more sure that 0.999… = 1, but rather by becoming less sure that 0.333… = 1/3.

  5. Why shouldn’t journalists seek to educate the public along with a narrative? Some of my favorite human interest works educated me about certain involved facts.

  6. Thanks for the linkage. I was not suggesting that science journalism cannot motivate or even educate, but that it will not replace education (of the kind you do when teaching the infinitude of primes) as a way to inform the public. It is of marginal value as a way to ensure that we know enough science as a population, largely because the media industry is not there to inform, nor does the media audience wish to be informed as such. They wish to be entertained. I respond to some of these criticisms in the subsequent post.

  7. Nick says:

    I know he wants to put aside philosophical discussions of ‘factitude,’ but your second criticism illustrates why you can’t do that. A ‘fact’ is something like: ’1.4 ppm from sample 3 collected 7/15/2012′. When science creates a theory to connect separate facts, and even predict future facts, there will be a tension because a scientific theory is a different kind of knowledge than the specific experience.

    The idea that ‘smoking causes lung cancer’ is not the same kind of knowledge as ’695 out of 1053 smokers in the study, from city A, with demographic distribution B, were diagnosed with lung cancer by the lead doctor on our study during the period observed.’ The latter is a fact, the former is a scientific theory. The trip from facts to scientific theories to noncontroversial statements of knowledge (e.g., ‘smoking is bad for you’) is not an easy one. While scientists obviously move knowledge from the first to the second, all sorts of people (with different levels of qualifications and motives) move knowledge from the second to the third – unlike your assertion, the movement to make that noncontroversial in society at large was a cultural, not a scientific process.

    In an ideal world, the average Joe would convince his friend to give up smoking because he understands the biological and epidemiological studies that support the scientific theory that smoking causes lung cancer. But people don’t have time for that. So the layer of teachers (in the broader sense, they can be writers, politicians, activists, whatever) that puts these scientific theories in the broader culture – in an accessible, if imperfect, way – are very important.

    On one hand, it might be nice if the scientists (who know the theories best) were disseminating that information in order to avoid confusion, on the other hand, they might not have the right skill set to do that. Further, a scientist qua scientist should want to stay as far away from creating the culture, because it contributes to the general sense that scientists are just another special interest trying to carve out their piece, rather than heirs to the greatest tradition yet known for understanding and explaining our natural world.

  8. [...] was a comment I made in response to a post from mathematician and science writer Jordan [...]

  9. Steve Morris says:

    The choice is:
    1. Scientists talk to the public about science.
    2. They don’t.
    Seems like a no-brainer to me.

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