Integrity and Interest: Writing About Science for the Public

This semester, I did something I’ve been wanting to do for a year or so — I took a science writing course at my university. It seemed only natural, because it’s a mix of two of my favourite things to do. But the class was an eyeopener not just in the way that science could be written about for the public, but also the potential pitfalls that science writers and newspapers could fall into.

Those pitfalls can sometimes make scientists despair of the entire field of journalism. My cousin and I had a pretty strong argument about this at first, where he claimed that newspapers were a terrible way to be introduced to any new research and that a scientific paper was the only way to go. He also pointed out, quite rightly, that even papers as respectable as The New York Times are selective in their stories and in the presentation of the new research. It’s far more interesting to say that the latest in artificial intelligence has produced an android capable of conversation, but the reality might just be that a piece of software has been painstakingly coded with stock phrases that it is capable of sorting through and responding with.

One of my assignments for this course that I took was, in fact, to analyze a bunch of news articles published around the same time and based off the same news release, and the variety of reporting was astonishing. While the original article had stated that certain techniques of criminology were used to track sharks’ hunting patterns, many newspapers chose to publish that news as “Sharks Are Ocean’s Serial Killers.” The backlash from scientists, already quite tired of the Jaws prejudice, was immediate and sharp, and  I doubt that this is a unique situation.

But my cousin’s objections were, I thought, not quite fair to the journalists. So many of them really don’t have specialized degrees in some scientific field, yes. But if all scientists could effectively and engagingly communicate with the public, there would be no need for science journalism. The field is necessary simple because, caught up in their own work and enthusiasm, it’s been difficult for many experts in the field to spend the time crafting articles and essays that  draw the enthusiasm of the public.

So what’s the happy medium in this case? Is it really justifiable to spend four paragraphs explaining the standard model of subatomic particles before talking about how the Large Hadron Collider functions? Wouldn’t that discourage the average reader from continuing, when all they want to do is be told how this science will help them in the future?

But that’s another point that needs to be debated: what the average reader really is capable of. It’s tempting to think that we can respect the intelligence of the public (and, you know, be lazy at the same time) and not really spend time explaining the methodology and background of the experiment in question, but the truth of the matter is often that people — especially those in the United States — aren’t really comfortable with deep science. Health issues, for instance, and evolution, or even technology news are all things that the public has been exposed to over a long period of time. Much less so string theory. Newspapers, with their word limits and financial considerations, can’t honestly be blamed for prizing the understanding and continued support of the average reader over the completeness of the science.

Something my cousin mentioned is actually very valid in this situation. He said his main opposition to this kind of incomplete coverage of the science was that the taxpayer has a right to be completely informed about where their money is going. It’s their right to know that the government spending on, say, biofuel-producing algae was actually coming up with any discernible results that could help reduce their dependency on oil sometime in the future.

So here are the things that, both from experience and from this conversation, that I wish were better represented in science articles:

Explanations. If you’re going to talk about how there’s a new candidate  for gene therapy, then it only makes sense to talk about what gene therapy is in the first place — how “correct genes” can fundamentally change our DNA by entering our cells, piggybacked on a virus. That kind of explanation is even more crucial for more abstract physics ideas, but that’s where they’re also the toughest to execute.

Relevance. Gene therapy is directly relevant to us. But why the hell are we building a many-mile long particle accelerator that will use up a ridiculous amount of money, space and time? For instance, you could explain that the LHC’s purpose is to figure out if our current theory of the fundamental laws of physics holds — and if that theory could be further refined, perhaps we could manipulate them even more to our advantage.

Context. All right, so gene therapy sounds great  — but the greatest justice that can be done to something born in the scientific field is to rigorously contest it. What is its history? Does it have any past failures, and what can they teach us? What are, in comparison, its successes?

Caution. I sometimes think the nicest things about science articles is the sense of hope — not necessarily that everything will be cured or solved or rectified one day, but that everything will be understood. That nice thing is a double-edged sword, however. “Any minute now,” some articles seem to be saying, “we’ll be getting robot butlers. You just watch.” And that’s why qualifiers and uncertainty phrases are so very important — “scientists believe that this…”; “researchers are hopeful that in the future…”

One of the parting shots by my cousin was the fact that, since I am a  nominal member of the scientific community, it should be my responsibility to make sure that I served as an example by only referring people to respectable scientific publications. I dispute that, because I don’t think it’s doing anyone a huge favour by directing them to something totally incomprehensible, but I’d like to contribute to the general process of understanding.

This is why science writing is such a challenge and a burden at the same time. You’ve somehow got to inform, educate, caution and rejoice all in the same breath.

That challenge, really, is what attracts me to the field.

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