Science writing — and YOU!

Chris at Mixing Memory has a stern warning to would-be science writers: Beware! Danger ahead!

He offers several pieces of advice on how to write about science, which I’ll try to summarize here:

1. Read before you write

2. Don’t trust popular-press accounts of science

3. Don’t trust books, especially books written for a general audience

4. Don’t use popular press accounts of science to make political arguments

5. Consult an expert before publishing — even before publishing a blog post

As a layperson who’s recently started a science blog, I find the advice fascinating. Of course, I’d like to assume he’s not referring to writing like mine. For the most part I try to stay away from political arguments in Cognitive Daily. However, Cognitive Daily does attempt to be something like a “popular press account of science.” I suppose some readers might choose to rely on it as a crutch instead of reading the original articles. It’s certainly not what I intend for them to do, but it’s possible.

That said, I do have some qualms with number 3 and number 5 above. I realize that Chris’s context for making these points was a few rather unfortunate blog posts making tenuous arguments based on scant research, but I think books do have an important place in science. It can be a problem when people read The Blank Slate and think they “know” psychology. I see books like Pinker’s and, say, Mind Wide Open as simply jumping off points, ways of getting into a topic. Yes, I’d prefer it if popular science books gave their readers some sort of warning before they left the firm ground of research and went on to wild speculation, but even in Pinker’s case, I think, for the most part, he does offer a warning. Most people are simply unprepared to take note of when he leaps off of solid ground. In short, people are unprepared to read science critically.

It would be better if people thought of books like Pinker’s as starting points, rather than ending points, and this is an area where I think blogs can help. I’m not talking about political rant-style blogs, where Word Munger sometimes descends (though I don’t usually bring science into the mix). I’m talking about real science blogs, like Chris’s, and Pharyngula, or many others, where readers are invited to discuss science, not just imbibe it like a Rush Limbaugh broadcast. I do think it’s important for people, especially scientists, to read before they write, but I also think people shouldn’t be afraid to tackle science in their writing. Yes, that might mean that a lot of ignorance gets disseminated, but I think if blogs are used as places to further discussion on science, there’s a chance that more laypeople will eventually see the general wisdom of Chris’s points.

So I don’t think people need to “consult an expert” before they make a blog post. They do need to be prepared for expert criticism after they post, though. The messy part of all this is when you start to get laypeople criticizing laypeople. The world of blogs is not the same thing as the peer-reviewed journal system, but it does allow a lot more people to get involved in the conversation. Ultimately, messiness and all, I think that’s a good thing.

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