The original posed question was. “How should science writers approach writing for the public?” The first part of the most amazing science writers discussion ever went viral so here is the last half, enjoy and bookmark.
Amazing Science Writers Discussion Continued
Answer 12- “An understanding of how scientific research is done and why research in model systems is important should be communicated more actively than is currently the case.”
I totally agree. Yesterday, I took part in the Malls of Science teaching children how to make balsawood gliders as part of Science. Chemistry and Biology were also represented as we scientists provided hands-on science activities for the general public for 6 hours. Although the public may be ignorant of scientific processes, if you reach out to them in an activity like ours, they become interested and are willing to learn.
Answer 13- What’s with this “us” and “them” mentality? Is there such a thing as a “general public”? As well as the wonders and benefits, people (scientists included) need to be conscious of the pitfalls and dangers.
Answer 14- Interesting you should ask. I hadn’t thought so until people asked me what I do. When I was working in science and I mentioned that I was a chemist and what I did (in simple terms), people with non-science backgrounds assumed I was much smarter than them and that was a barrier in itself leading to alienation. The them and us. Now that I’m in the field of technology commercialization if I want to avoid overwhelming people I say that I “take new products to market” and just focus it down to the marketing/business aspect. Interesting paradigm.
Answer 15- Interesting indeed. That’s quite a transition. Do you feel that your science background is a help or a hindrance in your new field and has changing fields changed the way you communicate science when you have to?
Answer 16- The science is definitely a plus. The technologies I’m commercializing are in mining, ICT, environmental, power, materials. All science based. A lot of my time is spent translating technical into business, working with people from both sides so the science innovation is focused and works towards what customers want and provides the commercial outcomes investors want to see. The scientist/innovator, customer and investor all have different communication needs.
Answer 17- Spot on! Helping kids to understand science as an adventure and voyage of discovery is the way to go. I recall a hands-on demo I did for second and third graders in which I brought a test tube full of DNA, showed them how it precipitated in slimy long strings and let them touch it: “Wow, it’s gooey!” said one young boy. He loved it. Then we talked about chromosomes and genes and enacted DNA recombination through a kind of line dance in which each youngster was a gene of their choice. The kids loved it, and they learned a little bit at least.
Answer 18- Previous speakers, yes, very interesting, I never thought science was alienating –probably because everyone in my family is a scientist (except me.) Growing up I always thought every kid went listened to bedtime stories about volcanoes and black holes. I had to fight my way out of a science career very hard. But you are right, people tend to think you’re very smart if you write about science, meanwhile, I think one just has to be very curious – and pique your readers’ curiosity too.
Answer 19- I grew up in a science household too with lots of curiosity and many of my friends are scientists/engineers, so I hadn’t really experienced it that much until my children went to school and I started interacting with other parents from non-science backgrounds. However if you’ve ever had your haircut and asked what do you do for a living, mentioning that you were a surface scientist in a nuclear organization was a good conversation killer. So I adapt my description for the audience.
Answer 20- What a great discussion, to me science writing is alienated in a similar way to the “us and them mentality” we’ve been discussing here. Your comment about how it brings us closer to the world around us fit into a simple step to take to lessen the alienation of science writing. Science writing is often confused with technical writing, and a fine line can be drawn in some cases; but, the best science writing does not writing about science at all. It uses science to write interesting things about the world around us.
Answer 21- A Guardian blog, argues that good science writing is constrained in ways that force science journalists into the “balanced article” approach, that ‘good’ writing “should be neutral, that their job is simply to report what has been said without passing judgment on it or challenging it in any way”. They argue that this enervates science reporting and that science writers should, at times, take a position. Well worth reading http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2010/sep/28/science-journalism-spoof
Answer 22-Great source, I am proud to see an article going viral covering the major issues with science journalism. I truly believe that the more we (no more us and them) are able to embrace science the better off society will be.
Answer 23- Great conversation everyone! I’d like to add something to your statement about using science to write interesting things about the world around us. I think that could be a way to blend the “they and us” mentality and encourage greater science literacy, but maybe we can take it a step further and deeper. Maybe we can use technical writing and just make it more interesting writing. Technical writing is often lists and uses even more complex language to describe and analyze something already fairly detailed. What if science journalists used more literary skills to write technically. Has anyone read “am I making myself clear” by Cornelia Dean, a NYT science editor? It’s excellent!
Answer 24- It’s an interesting question. My perspective comes from taking long way around: started in policy and news, then into retail books, then into publishing, then into science, then into science writing.
There’s a reasonably large submarket interested in science, and they’ll buy and read it, though they’ll want to buy/read more than they actually do. That’s not the problem.
The problem is there’s too much science, and at this point science writing’s covered by four outlets:
* Promotable/TV-friendly scientists writing about their own disciplines;
* Not-promotable-enough scientist-bloggers writing to each other, more or less within disciplinary lines;
* Science writers who’re nearly as specialized as the scientists are (as they must be in order to keep up with the fields);
* Carl Zimmer.
(1) and (4) do okay. The rest have a hell of a time, and for good reason: the average nonscientist reader hasn’t got time to go narrow and deep into anything that’s not his own work. (And it still is mostly “his”.) I’m rewatching Cosmos now with my daughter, and I’m struck by how much more specialized and rigid even the most popular scientist-presenters have to be now. Sagan was all over the map — astronomy, genetics, biochemistry, evolution, physics, history — you know, he behaved like the very smart, loony, genuinely interdisciplinary scientists he played with (and married) in the 1960s. Even Neil DeGrasse Tyson doesn’t get away with that kind of range now, in part because he’s constrained by his position as chief promoter of the Hayden Planetarium and astronomy generally.
The politics and money drive the intensely narrow specialization, and the writers (unless they’re smart synthesizers who can compete with the credentialed stars) really have to follow them. And I’m damned if I can see where the markets are for that. It’s a great public service to do it. Someday, if the text lasts, it’ll be important. But the audiences today and maybe forever are small, I think, for groups 2-3.
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