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.

  3. Hi, David!

    When Coturnix mentioned Carl Zimmer, he was actually talking about writing something researched by oneself, not by others, about a scientist being a science writer him-/herself.

  4. Good post – it is good to hear about someone’s motivations behind what they post.

    I sometimes think that the whole idea of ‘science’ as a separate subject might not be very helpful. I often go about things that don’t seem like science at all in a very scientific way, and sometimes will do science in a non systematic way. For instance at the moment I have a problem in the lab which is stumping me so I have just done something at random in the hope that it might give me some insight even though I have no clue how. A good journalist can entertain and inform you at the same time – does it matter whether it is about science or not? Or what the background of the journalist is? Bill Bryson’s book for instance is a pretty good introduction to science by a non-scientist. Primo Levi’s Periodic Table is basically a biography. There is science in it and it was written by a scientist, but it isn’t really a science book.

  5. I agree with you David (and with rpg..). The debate of ‘science bloggers vs. science journalists’ seems extremely polarized at the moment, and maybe unnecessarily so. There are too many people with an axe or two to grind, and I don’t think either side is doing themselves a favour. A lot of science journalists could certainly do a better job… as could science bloggers (language, people!!).

    Ultimately, there are a lot of people who don’t read science blogs and maybe never will, but they do glance at the science stories in traditional media from time to time – so we need good science journalists.

  6. David:
    To respond to whether or not you are a good science journalist, I vote good. My background includes physics and mathematics; however, I have long since left the science and mathematical fields. My weakest area is, of all things, chemistry. However, I read your material daily, even the chemistry articles. Even if I do not understand all of that chemistry, I leave the article more versed than when I entered it. That’s the sign of a good science journalist. Even so, I dare not comment on your chemistry material, lest I display my complete ignorance of the field.

    If I were a journalist (I am not), I would not report on the subject of chemistry — the scientist interviewing me could fool me or even accidentally allow me to infer an untruth. But, I know bad science or junk science when I see it in many fields — and there is plenty of it absorbed and regurgitated by “science journalists”.

    Carl Zimmer once wrote “I am not a scientist, I am only a science journalist”. I think that he might be a better scientist or science professor than many practicing the professions.

    Once, when you were stating that not many people respond to your work, I responded by saying, in effect, I don’t know how to respond to your material, but I read it and that I rate you up there with Zimmer and several others.

  7. I’m glad you’ve put this up. I keep meaning to blog on it, but my own thoughts are rambling.

    I think what blogging has done is that it’s raised the bar on what is adequate journalism. That makes it a threat to people who were producing passable work in the 1990s. In the past complaints required sending a letter to the editor, and there’s only so much physical paper you can use for that. Fisking was not possible before blogging, now each article could have a number of commentaries.

    There’s also the inequality of power. The recent NewScientist cover flap wasn’t just about content, but NS’s use of it’s position to push that line. If you feel badly misrepresented by a reporter then tribalism starts being useful. It doesn’t help that journalists (individuals) are equated with corporations because they own the presses. The AP copyright fiasco has made some people negative about the output of (often freelance) journalists. The change of media and increased desire for immediacy means journalism will be evolving and that is going to lead some bloggers who are working in a digital native format into conflict with the immigrants.

    My own view is blogging is not going to wipe out journalism, but it might change how people think about it. I suspect that the first media outlets that can work out a way of co-operating with bloggers, or a blog network, will re-shape blogging radically. I also think learned societies would be exactly the sort of organisations that media could work with, but that’s the subject of another rambling post.

  8. I think, actually, there’s an argument for saying science blogging (especially on certain platforms *cough*) harms science outreach. How many blogs take the attitude “Oh you’re so dumb, can’t you even understand something this simple?” or—worse, perhaps—patronize in a really vile manner.

    Journalists are trained to answer questions and get to the crux of the matter. If they get the science wrong, isn’t that the fault of the people trying to explain it? If you can’t explain something to a journalist you might have a problem.

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