- 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.
- 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.).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.