Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Blogging About Science

My exasperated attempt to give potential science writers advice (written without the belief that a single science writer would actually read it) has received a lot of links, and a fair amount of comments, relative to 99.9% of the posts I write. Clearly I've struck a nerve. Some people agree with me, some disagree, some agree with the sentiment but disagree with the specifics, and some still think I believe there are no differences between men and women (sorry, slightly inside joke). Since it's gotten so much attention, I want to make a few things clear that I didn't express very well in the first post.
  1. If you write a podunk blog, like this one, that's only read by you, your mother, and the occasional Malaysian university student who is searching for "hot baked hedgehogs" on google, you probably don't need to follow my advice. You're not going to be contributing to the general misunderstanding of science, which afflicts this country like a stomach illness you might get from eating baked hedgehogs. The post was meant to apply to people with large readerships, and in particular, people who are seen as authorities (i.e., experts in other fields), because readers tend to believe what they say, no matter how deep down in their asses they had to reach to pull it out. If you're an expert in something (other than, say, basketweaving), and you have a moderate-sized blog, you should probably think carefully about how much you blog about scholarly topics that are largely outside of your knowledge base. Most importantly, if you're writing an article for a print publication (magazine, newspaper, or policy-influencing think-tank report), then you'd better do the damn research, and if the only excuse you have is, "It's hard and it takes a long time to read all of those papers," then you shouldn't be writing anything, anywhere, on any topic.
  2. Reading trade books (books about science, by scientists in the field, that are written for non-experts) is perfectly fine. I do it. It's a great way to be introduced to the work in a field to which you will probably never need to be anything more than introduced. Trade books are like intellectual casual sex -- they're relatively easy, you enjoy them, you learn something, and you don't have to worry about a long-term commitment to the field. But if you want to write about work in a field (under the circumstances described in 1.), then you've got to do more than just read a trade book or two. You've got to, at the very least, seek out different perspectives on the issues you're writing about. Very rarely in any science, but particularly in young disciplines like cognitive science, are there many issues about which a large majority of experts agree. If you're writing about science (again, under the circumstances described in 1.), it is incumbent upon you to seek out and pay attention to the evidence. That's what science is about: evidence. You don't have to find every paper ever written on the Stroop Effect to write about it (and if you have read every paper on the Stroop Effect, and there are tens of thousands of them, contact a therapist). However, as I said before, if you feel like it's too hard, or takes too much time, to research the available data on a particular topic, then don't write about it (one more time, see 1.).
  3. Science books written by journalists, people from fields other than the one about which they are writing, or (sorry about this) worst of all, philosophers, should never be relied upon if you are writing about a scientific topic (I won't say it again, but imagine there's a parenthetical note about a prime number less than 2 here). Again, they can be good reads, though I recommend reading books written by people in the field instead. If trade books are the intellectual equivalent of casual sex, then these are the intellectual equivalent of getting to second base. They'll almost always be incomplete, but if the book is well-written, you'll get a good feel (I couldn't resist that one) for the general direction of a field or sub-field.
  4. If you read it in Time, The New York Times, or some equivalent non-scientific popular publication, and don't want to do any further reading, ignore it. I mean that. You may disagree, but too often do these sorts of publications just get it wrong. For one, their writers tend to suffer from a gross misunderstanding of how science works, treating "objectivity" as roughly equivalent to "equal time," a strange mindset that Lindsay discussed so well in the recent Iron Blog battle. Biologists and climatologists are all too aware of this, as they get the worst of it in the form of endless references to intelligent design, creationism, the belief that evolution is "just a theory" (interestingly, the moon is also just a moon), or references to unscientific anti-global warming positions. Mostly though, these publications are not out to accurately represent science. They're out to increase their circulation.
  5. If you are writing for a widely-read publication (and that includes really big blogs), you'd be surprised how eager many scientists are to talk with you. In general, scientists are interested in the way the public views their field. For one, the public elects politicians, and politicians determine the amount of funding that various sciences get. Furthermore, scientists are most often fact-oriented, education-minded people, and thus they want the public to develop a good understanding of science, how it works, and what it's finding. If I were to write a particle physicist for help with a post on the Higg's boson, she might write me back with a book or paper suggestion, but if a journalist or even a big blogger writes her, she's likely to try to help, unless she's a year from her tenure review and hasn't published a thing since grad school. If she can't help, for whatever reason, she's likely to know someone who can. And there's no harm in asking.
  6. Yes, it's true, I don't like Steven Pinker's work, and I do like Ray Jackendoff's. But Pinker is a very good science writer. Read Foundations of Language for its really interesting chapter on the evolution of language, and read The Language Instinct for the nice prose.


Bora Zivkovic said...

OK, now that you cleared up some misunderstandings, I agree with you.

jinnderella said...

I agree with you MUCH more after reading that! ;)

Razib Khan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Razib Khan said...

jin, if presentation is so important, are we all then post-modernists? :)

Anonymous said...

Where do you place Scientific American, New Scientist, etc? I tend to place articles written by scientists between "trade book" and "journalistic book" and to place articles written by "science journalists" between "journalistic book" and "Time etc".
I agree about philosophers, for the most part, but it seems to me that a few philosophers, such as Nick Bostrom, warrant a different evaluation.

Anonymous said...


I concur that Pinker is a poor reader of philosophy and a bad popularizer. The only texts of his that I have perused are so full of silly straw man arguments and valorizations of poorly thought out positions that it makes one cry that that scientist should read a little more widely or carefully before he shoots off his pen again.

But, I must disagree with your post. It smack too much of science and technical envy. As a working member of the scientific-technical apparatus, I think that we scientist-technicians are in need of works that speak to the layman in all of us, and in our fields as much as in the fields of others.

I might point out that some of the biggest consumers of popular science are scientists themselves.

Of course we should get the science right, but we should also attempt to make our ideas understandable in English.

Perhaps we need a different kind of science writing, a different forum in which an attempt is made to make ideas understandable in English, if not necessarily exciting in the silly way that pop science often is?

Chris Wilson said...

My entire blog is based upon EP. In your view, then, should I abandon the whole project? If your answer is yes, then I'd recommend you read some Karl Popper. Truth is not about being right at first. It's about being right in the end.

I think it is incumbent upon writers to state what they are and are not considered experts in. I make no claim to be a scientist. I simply absorb a wide swath of information, including that found in trade books and magazines, and then I explore the implications *if* what I've read is right. I think of it all as a stake in the ground, a place to start. As my goal is to find truth, I'm totally fine with being way off base and having someone correct me.

And I get about 15,000 unique users per month, which I think qualifies me for being a small to medium sized blogger. Nevertheless, academics very rarely will say anything to clear things up. I've emailed so many I can't even count. So, do consider the possibility that your assessment of the scientific establishment is necessarily biased by you being on the inside of it.

Chris Wilson said...

Oh yes, and I'd love to see you refute this guy's anti-global warming position, since you imply in another post that anyone taking this position must be a hack.


Chris said...

Yes, EC, I do think you should give it up. Not because you write about EC, but because you have a quick temper, and writing about controversial topics is going lead to criticism.

By the way, while I did not claim that all anti-global warmining positions are held by hacks, it is true that most are. I perused the anti-global warming site that you suggested, and I didn't see a criticism of global warming arguments, just some projections and a promise that they are better. Are there any specific posts I should read?

Anonymous said...

i think the larger point is that one should do one's research on any given subject and refute a science or a founding on it's own grounds, rationally.

You don't need credentials as any blogger can tell, but you do need to think something out.

Another larger point would be that specialists journals are no haven either; the thinking must always be subjected to critique.

Now, I'm starting to sound like Derrida, which Leiter either dishonestly or forgetfully suggested was no philosopher and a bad reader of Nietzsche to boot. Alex Nehamas comes in for foundational praise from Leiter in his most recent post on Nietzsche and the Nehamas work "Life as Literature" owes it's emphasis on Nietzsche's many styles by Nehamas's own recognition to none other than Derrida himself.

Critique involves close reading. in science and out.

Chris said...

I agree 100% that science needs to be critiqued, and often from the outside looking in, because on the inside, we tend to get wrapped up in our own theoretical biases. I just want people to do the critiquing after having done sufficient research. In one of the posts I linked as an example of bad blogging about science, the lawyer dismissed an entire field of research as silly, without having read a single paper on the topic. That's the context within which I wrote the original post.

Chris Wilson said...

Don't mistake my frustration for a quick temper. I am of the opinion that academia exists for the good of society. We certainly foot the bill for the vast majority of it. However, it seems that most academics have a pretty severe disdain for the general public. The moment some ordinary person starts weighing in on their territory, the fangs come out and the denigration begins. That's how your post comes off to me, especially given our differing views on EP, and it's frustrating. Very.

Here you are, obviously a smart guy with a great deal of knowledge that could be of use to those who, for whatever reason, cannot spend all their time in university libraries looking up papers, and what do you do? Tell them to stay off your turf if they can't prepare to your satisfaction.

Your solution, to me, is not a solution because non-academics don't have the time to do the kind of research you require *and* because academics, contrary to what you seem to believe, don't have very much patience for laymen or their pedestrian concerns. You really don't see that?

So if we can't do enough homework to satisfy you, then we shouldn't write? Does that really sound right to you?

I'm not trying to pick a fight here. I'd honestly like to see you *correcting* people in an accessible way. Then your knowledge would be of benefit to someone outside your club.

So if apologies are in order for the tone, fair enough. My bad. I doubt you'll find evidence of a temper much of anywhere on my own site. Go figure.

As for global warming, you should look at the same guy's more general site - http://markbahner.50g.com/index.htm.

And...I'd still like to hear your response to my defense of Wilkinson's essay. Maybe I missed your point.

Clark Goble said...

Regarding New Scientist, I think it often falls prey to the very things Chris mentions. I enjoy it still, mind you. But it is very sensational and not always accurate. I can think of several erroneous or misleading articles the last year. They definitely have a penchance for fringe science at times. Further they do what Chris mentions the Times doing. Quoting two sources without really clarifying how the two sides are viewed within the community of experts. When talking about such silly topics as anti-gravity machines or the like, they really need to provide that context.

Scientific American I'm mixed about. I loved it until its turn in the early 90's. However it has significantly improved, although it still doesn't quite have the format it once had. Even there though some of the columnists aren't as careful as they ought be. Further there have been some doozies of articles which you wonder what was going on.

One of the best things to do is to look at the feedback an article gets from the community. That once was difficult, but with blogs is becoming quite a bit easier.

Anonymous said...

You must do the research as Chris says, and if that is elitist then tough.

The elitists if you will, desperately need developed understandings in English of their respective domains. Obscurantism is no refuge for science.

Chris's point stands nonetheless. That is how science and rational knowledge progress, caveman. It's not a matter of academics versus amatuers. It is a matter of terms, languages, methodologies and instruments. If you can't master the language, you cannot critique it.

Anonymous said...

Further Caveman,

You are free to write whatever you like. A group of peers may not call it critique or take you seriously unless you do your research, but you are surely free to write.


You've done an excellent job with this blog of yours. I'm inspired to start blogging by your blog. I've been resisting the temptation, but encountering thoughtful and engaging blogs such as yours is an inspiration.

I've been meaning to write a little critique of Lakoff myself and the way that he warms over old insights from rhetorical studies by giving them a cog-sci boost. I'm not in the cog-sci field so it is interesting to see his work critiqued on those terms. As merely a critical reader, I have watched his promotion of his ideas as revolutionary and just scratched my head.

Chris said...

edge, thanks, and I'm glad you like the blog. Send me an email when you start yours up, so that I can drop by.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Chris,

Well the blog is a little ways off. I'm happy to post marginalia today on your blog, so Derridean!

I think I see what Leiter is up to with his disavowal of Derrida. He was pulling your leg by the way with his don't know what you mean by analytic because in one of his latest papers on the hermeneutics of suspicion he does use the pairing analytic/continental. He is on a jag about Naturalism it seems, and he makes the remark that Nehamas's derrida inspired aestheticization of Nieitzsche's penchant for style takes some of the edge off of his radical naturalism.

I have only read the intro and I've not read Leiter's work on Nietzsche and moral philosophy, have you? Part of this Leiter piece strikes me as purely rhetorical and I can see how it breaks new ground for him , clears the field, as it were. But I have to read further to see if he really makes a contribution. Interesting rhetorical position. Leiter makes some motions about proper understanding of science if my memory of what I read this morning serves me, so you might find it interesting. the whole paper is available in pdf.

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