Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Science writing and the "human bit"

This article on Last Word On Nothing by Cassandra Willyard brought about a fascinating debate – at least if you’re a science writer or have an interest in that business. Some have criticized it as irredeemably philistine for a science writer – honestly, to not know Hubble refers to a telescope! (Well, many things bear Hubble’s name, so I really don’t see that as so deplorable.) This is shallow criticism – what surely matters is how well a writer does the job she does, not what gaps might exist in her knowledge that never come to light unless she admits to them. Know your limits, is the only corollary of that.

Indeed, it makes me think it would be fun to know what areas of science hold no charms for other science writers. No doubt everyone’s blind spots would horrify some others. I long struggled to work up any enthusiasm for human origins. What? How could I not be interested in where we came from? Well, it seemed to me we kind of know where we came from, and roughly when, give or take a million years. We evolved from more primitive hominids. The rest is just detail, right?

Oddly, it is only now that the detail has become so messy – what with Homos floresiensis and naledi and so forth – that I’ve become engaged. Perhaps there’s nothing quite so appealing as blithe complacency undermined. I can’t say I yet care enough to fret about where each branch of the hominid tree should divide, but it’s fun to see all these revelations tumble out, not least because of the drama of some of the new discoveries.

My heartbeat doesn’t race for much of particle and fundamental physics either. I suspect this is for more partisan, and more dishonourable, reasons: particle physics has somehow managed to nab all the glamour and public attention, to the point that most people think this is what all of physics is, whereas my own former field of condensed matter physics, which has a larger community, never gets a look in. Meanwhile, particle physicists take the great ideas from CMP (like symmetry breaking) and then claim they invented them. You can see how bitter and twisted I am. So I was rather indifferent about the Higgs – an indifference I know some condensed matter physicists shared.

Some other fields I want to stick up for merely because they’re the underdogs – cell biology and biophysics, say, in the face of genetic hegemony.

So if a science writer admits to being unmoved by space science, it really doesn’t seem occasion to get all affronted. I edited an awful lot of astronomy papers at Nature that made my eyes glaze, often because they seemed to be (like some of those fossil and protein structure papers) a catalogue of arbitrary specifics. (Though don’t worry, I do love a good protein structure.)

Where I’m more unsure about Cassandra’s article is in the discussion of “the human element”. I suppose this is because it sends a chill wind down my spine. If the only way for science communication to connect with a broad public is by telling human stories, then I’m done for. I’m just not that interested in doing that (as you might have noticed).

That’s not to say that one shouldn’t make the most of a human element when it’s there. If there’s a way of telling a science story through personalities, it’s generally worth taking. “I might not be interested in gravitational waves, but I am interested in science as a process”, Cassandra writes. “Humanize the process, and you’ll hook me every time.”

Fair enough. But what if there is no human element to speak of? Every science writer will tell you that for every researcher who dreamed from childhood of cracking the problem they have finally conquered, there are ten or perhaps a hundred who came to a problem just because it was a natural extension of what they worked on for their PhD – or because it was a hot topic at the time. And for every colourful maverick or quirky underdog, there are lots of scientists who are perfectly lovely people but really have nothing that distinguishes them from the crowd. It’s always good to ask what drew a researcher to the topic, but often the answers aren’t terribly edifying. And there’s only so many times you’re going to be able to tell a story about gravitational waves as a tale of grit and persistence of a few visionaries in the face of scepticism about whether the method would work.

I quickly grew to hate that brand of science writing popular in the early 1990s in which “Jed Raven, a sandy-haired Texan with a charm that would melt glaciers, strode into the lab and boomed ‘Let’s go to work, people!’” Chances are, in retrospect, that Jed Raven was probably harassing his female postdocs. But honestly, I couldn’t give a toss about how Jed grew up collecting beetles or learning to herd steers or whatever they call them in Texas.

The idea that a science story can be told only if you find the human angle is deadly, but probably quite widespread. Unless you happen to strike lucky, it is likely to make whole areas of science hard to write about at all: health, field anthropology and astronomy will probably do well, inorganic chemistry not so much.

But Cassandra is right to imply that there is sometimes a presumption in science writing (including my own) that this stuff is inherently so interesting that you don’t need a narrative attached – you don’t even need to relate it beyond its own terms. It’s easy to be far too complacent about that. As Tim Radford wisely once said, above every hack’s desk should hang the sign: “No one has to read this crap.”

So what’s the alternative to “the human angle”? I’ll paraphrase Cassandra for the way I see it:
“I might not be interested in X, but I am interested in elegant, beautiful writing. Write well, and you’ll hook me every time.”


Unknown said...

(Unrelated to homunculus (Your website is not reachable right now): Is this excerpt from your Atlantic brain in a jar article a result of typesetting errors?

Uploading the contents of a brain will need a computer memory of about 1018 bits, performing around 1016 logic operations a second, Merkle calculates. That’s perfectly imaginable with the current rate of technological advance.

A basic 1977 Atari had memory of 1024 bits.

Jayarava said...

I suppose how one chooses to write is partly temperament and partly how you think about your audience. If you are writing for science buffs who need no convincing, whose values are already aligned with yours, then your style of clear prose explaining facts is ideal (that's what I like reading too).

But on the whole that kind of writing doesn't change minds. If you are writing for the wider public, many of whom are sceptical and who don't share your values, then you need to take a different approach. An author needs to reach out to such an audience, to make connections for people who don't understand, don't have enough background to think critically about the subject, and who don't value the kind of knowledge we write about.

BTW, this reflects my understanding of the evolutionary psychology of belief, the neuroscience of decision making, and experimental psychology of reasoning. I would cite, for example, various recent works by Justin L. Barrett, Robin Dunbar, Antonio Damasio, Hugo Mercier, and Dan Sperber.

In other words there is science that is relevant to how we choose to write, especially if we aim to persuade people. But ironically few of us who write about science ever make an effort to understand the science of communicating effectively.

And then we wonder why, for example, evolution is still a controversial subject.

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