Tag Archives: science journalism

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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