I’m excited about something

People have asked me what I think really defines a good science writer and I’ve always struggled for a concise answer.

I can get at elements of it.

Like I’ve known for a while that a good science writer must be capable of truly understanding what it is that she’s writing about. And quickly. Misrepresented science is an epidemic and a great curse on modern society. I’ve written about this before. This isn’t new. It boils down to a respect of what constitutes science.

Here’s another one. A good science writer must possess genuine interest. In the subject matter and in her audience. This means a keen sense of just what is drivel and what is worth reporting. The worst science writing I’ve read are basically rephrased press releases. A study comes out saying X. A story runs saying X with a couple of quotes from researchers saying X. I’ve definitely written some stories like this this summer, so I’m not excusing myself from having generated “bad science writing”. But I don’t consider myself a bad science writer. It’s not all I write. If it’s all you write as a science writer, I can safely conclude you’re not really interested in science.

And of course I’m leaving out the obvious. You have to be able to communicate. You have to be able to put two sentences together. I don’t think that needs much elaboration but it does unfortunately exclude many of my former classmates who more than satisfy the first criterion.

I’m excited, though, because I realized today that it’s more than that. I’ve been known to try to articulate the need for a science background, any kind of science background, in science beat journalists. Maybe you didn’t major in science but you should have been immersed in a scientific environment, I like to say, maybe you’ve engaged in scientific dialogue, have conducted a scientific investigation of your own. What I mean is, you have to know what it’s like to DO a study–conceive of it, defend it, carry it through from beginning to end–not just write about it. Why? Why why why….

That’s what I realized. Because what’s most valuable about a science journalist, and this is more important, more pressing than anything I’ve listed so far, is her judgment. In fact it encompasses most of what I mentioned above (with the exception of writing talent). Judgment guides your reporting angle, your scientific acumen. But no, broader, it guides your interpretation of facts. The public relies on science journalists not just to repeat what scientists are saying in layman’s terms, but to interpret. What does this mean? There are 12 studies, three say this, four say the other, and five say something else altogether. If all you do is relate this information (3 here, 4 there, 5 the other place), you have failed as a science journalist. If all you do is list party A says X, party B says NOT-X, you’ve missed an opportunity to do a great service to your readers. This might be controversial so I have to be specific about what I mean.

You, by the act of choosing sources, choosing quotes, not just that but choosing where they go, who speaks first, who gets the last word, in writing the lede the nutgraph and all the word that follow, you are a participant in the dialogue and there’s simply no way around it. Your fingerprints are all over this piece of information that the public receives. Maybe it’s a touchy issue and you want to be objective. There’s no such thing. Say you give both sides equal weight, equal time, make no attempt to weave a narrative. There, you’ve made a statement. The statement is that there is no sense to be made of the data. At least not yet. If this is true, fine. But you have spoken. You may be less culpable in the eyes of the public, whom you have ultimately confused, because everyone can find something to agree with, but if there is actually sense to be made and you made no attempt you have failed.

I think what having a scientific background provides you is the experience, intuition, confidence, that informs good reporting. There are 12 studies. But it’s not that 3 say this and 4 say the other thing. It’s that there’s a lack of consensus. Why a lack of consensus? A scientist knows that there’s not more than one version of the truth. A scientist knows that a careful look at one’s own research often reveal design flaws, uncontrolled variables, bugs in the code (in my case), overlooked explanations. A scientist knows that two studies that appear be showing contradictory results may actually corroborate each other, or in some way be testing independent things. Someone who has debugged their own work knows how to drive at the truth, knows that there even is one, and that it is attainable. This person will know where to look, will follow her own intuition toward the real underlying uncertainties, where the real story is, perhaps.

Global warming. Are scientists just trying to trick us? Are they working toward some nefarious agenda? Are some scientists good and others evil? Is that why they don’t agree?

No, it’s because there’s not enough information. Nobody can say for sure what will happen. But they’ve been so pressed, so squeezed, so harassed for a definitive answer, and so assaulted if the answer is not what the listener wants, that these scientists have been forced to become more like politicians. Wary of the consequences of their science perhaps more than the science.

I don’t think it’s necessary to present your own opinion to have that come across clearly. You let the facts speak. An objective writer doesn’t stand squarely in the middle, she stands as close as she can to the truth. And you do as much research as you need to know where that is.

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One thought on “I’m excited about something

  1. John says:

    I think one thing you’re saying that I really like is:

    A lot of writers give both sides of an issue equal time, under the pretense of “not being biased”. But it actually does create a bias: it enforces the position that both sides are equally correct.

    This approach is at least somewhat warranted. People are accustomed to making value judgments on the basis of comparing one opinion to another.

    It seems egregious when applied to issues of scientific fact, however. Referring to your upcoming article: does it really compute for a doctor to testify in court, that the probability of a disease is 1 in 10 million? What I object to is the word ‘testify’ – a truly objective judge (or journalist) should be permitted to verify a mathematical equation for himself!

    Here’s something else I think is interesting. Joe Economist is building a model of customers at the shopping mall. Since he doesn’t know if more Men or Women frequent the mall, Joe decides not to factor that in. After all, he doesn’t want to make any wrong assumptions. Problem: Joe actually is claiming to know the exact breakdown of genders, he’s just assuming that it’s 50-50. Why not 51-49, Joe?

    Just an example to show that even scientists can be guilty of passing judgment specifically by trying not to.

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