Astronomy to Zoology, Poetically

I’m trying to work out whether I’m a bad science journalist or not…scary thought. If I am, then I’ve wasted the last 20 years of my life.

I started out specializing in chemistry, that was my field. But these days, I cover science much more broadly, although I do still tend to do more chemistry than anything else. It’s all science after all, I’m still a specialist to my arts, humanities, finance, politics colleagues ;-) (As are they to me!)

Meanwhile, Bora Zivkovic, is perhaps one of the most well known scientist bloggers. And, rightly so, his A Blog Around the Clock is one of the best. On Sunday, he was waxing lyrical about science journalism, which seems to be a growing point of torment for many scientist bloggers. The title of his post is Why good science journalists are rare? [I'm not sure it needs the question mark, mind you, it's not a question, is it?]

In the post, he suggests that a science journalist forced to cover a wide range of topics from astronomy and physics to archaeology and materials science, “he would do a bad job”. Well, I beg to differ. Bora seems to be equating non-specialism with ignorance, and he himself covers quite a range of scientific subjects beyond his chronobiology expertise, which is fine.

I think being a non-specialist journalist is actually a boon to reporting. It seems to apply to journalism in the arts, finance, and politics, where a generalist covers a huge range of expert areas, why not science too?

The first question a journalist must answer when confronted with any subject, whether in science, the arts, medicine, politics,or whatever is the “So what?”. This is the question that subconsciously crosses the mind of the reader every time they pick up a newspaper or click a link and the answer to which determines whether they will continue reading.

It’s irrelevant whether the writer is a specialist journalist, a scientist musing on their field, or a scientist blogger delivering commentary on what they perceive to be the latest public “misunderstanding” of science.

If the writer cannot engage the audience by answering that “So what?” question in a powerful attention-grabbing manner, then all the background reading and expertise in the article or blog post will count for nothing.

Indeed, the non-expert is often much better placed to answer the “So what?” They aren’t already steeped in and regurgitating the jargon and acronyms unexplained, they aren’t conversant with the hidden agendas of the characters involved, and they don’t necessarily have an agenda of their own or an axe to grind.

The non-specialist can arrive at a subject from essentially a lay standpoint. They can ask the scientists the dumbest questions without embarrassment (do scientist bloggers interview their subjects?). The answers to seemingly naive questions, will then hopefully lead the journalist and so the reader from that state of misunderstanding to understanding.

One of the best science writers I’ve ever met was a non-specialist. Tim Radford, the Guardian’s science editor for many years, began in the arts section, but sidestepped into science and produced some of the most poetic, lucid and engaging words on a wide range of science subjects for years. I’d suggest that there’s actually only a handful of scientist bloggers and specialist journalists who can do that.

To those in science, Tim would be seen as a generalist, of course, because, like me, he covered everything from astronomy to zoology. However, to those outside science: science is science. In writing only about science, Tim is as much a specialist as the writer who looks only to the stars or at the worms under the microscope.

More debate is taking place around Bora’s original post here


14 thoughts on “Astronomy to Zoology, Poetically

  1. @ David: Then why Coturnix praised only Carl? The only reason I get from his post was that Carl did long time research on what he wrote. Therefore what Coturnix called for is actually something produced, not interpreted or reported, by the writer. He chose a journalist for example. However he was asking for scientists.

    A reporter stays ‘good’, when confronted with vast area of topic, by keeping his/her own knowledge/opinions away.

    If one stays ‘good’ by relying on his/her own knowledge/opinions, it is hard to do so if confronted with vast area of topics

    This is not my real opinion. I am just trying to propose one possible view point.

  2. I would not worry about all that. There is just too much science to read firsthand, so we need you and people like you. I worry more about how much junk science we see nowadays. It comes with pressure to be first and ease of publishing. But it also comes with lack of training in statistics.
    The more science journalists we get the better. The more trained in basic stats we all are, the better what we report and how we report and how we understand.
    The main problem of a scientific reporter should be to miss an essential discovery. Sometimes we just do not evaluate the importance of what we read. In the Lippincott dictionary of 1871, Darwin had five lines, his father had a whole column. I am very much afraid of doing the same mistake.

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