Some of the responsibilities of a science writer – Part I

Surprisingly, a significant fraction of science writers do not seem to realize their true influence, their true power. This power is illustrated by two main facts: (1) In a very real sense, science writers have the potential of reaching many more people than any scientist could ever hope. (2) In fact, popular science writers frequently are the only source of science that some people will ever get or even intend to get.

Just because of these two facts, science writers have a great responsibility, a great weight on their shoulders. They must, to the best of their ability, get their science right, and when they do not (mistakes after all, do happen) they should be willing to fix any errors.

What do I mean by that? Well, this should be self-explanatory, but “getting the science right” is deeper than that.

Probably the first important point is to make sure that your facts are correct. Paradoxically (and almost amusingly), science writers who are also scientists are usually the worst “sinners” in this aspect. This usually comes in two different flavors. The first one is when a scientist writes about areas close to their own area of expertise. It is not unusual for a scientist to be a tad overconfident when talking or writing about science at the non-professional level. The most common thought is “I got this“, which leads to a more relaxed attitude towards proofreading and fact-verification.

The attitude described above is markedly different from the attitude that any half-decent scientific researcher displays when writing a paper; this second frame of mind is brought to you courtesy of science’s self-correcting nature. We scientists read and re-read our papers; we make sure that we get our facts right (properly documented with data, statistics, etc.), we double check everything, we circulate the papers with our co-authors, we try to cover all the bases.

We really, really try to write our papers in the best possible way. Do you want to know why?

We do it because we KNOW that our papers will be closely examined by other scientists. We science-types are notorious nitpickers. I confess that I am one of those; big time. I have even been described as getting “all righteous” about “nits”… In fact, one of my former graduate students coined the term “Paganization” to name what happens to the papers and theses that go through my hands; when they do, they are Paganized, which by the way, has NOTHING to do with religion; you see, my last name is “Pagan”… (:-)

While proofreading this, I noticed that I have used the concepts of “sin” and “confession” in the previous paragraphs and that I have been described as “righteous”. Hmm… OK, professional and amateur psychologists alike, have at it! Please analyze away my motivations for liking science! … (;-)

Anyway, back to nitpicking. In all fairness, this comes with the territory. Scientific papers are supposed to be screened using a very imperfect method, which is nonetheless one of the things that make science great.

I am talking about peer review.

Peer review is essentially professional nitpicking. As part of the process, editors of scientific publications send paper submissions to other scientists with the proper (or at least adequate) expertise. When this is properly done the paper is read and evaluated critically by reviewers. These reviewers (sometimes amusingly called “referees”), then send their (ideally) honest evaluation of the quality of the paper to the editors, usually with their opinion as to whether the paper should be published “as is” (this almost never, ever happens), whether it should be published after modifications or even simply not published at all, as in “don’t call us, we’ll call you”.

Frankly, because of peer review, it is puzzling to me why otherwise very careful scientists sometimes fail to write popular science with the same rigor. I find this somewhat disrespectful. You see, I was a bookworm before I was a scientist; I just like to read and I read topics that albeit scientific, may not be in my direct area of expertise. Therefore, in many cases, I am able to catch “inconsistencies” in a book, ranging from typos (yes, I am that fastidious and please point out my own typos, it’s only fair) to blatant BS… Ahem, “untrue” statements.

Now, I have not done any systematic study of why this is so, but informally, I have noticed that this seems to be a far more common occurrence in books that deal with interdisciplinary areas, which brings me to the second flavor of mistakes by scientists as science writers: those who write in an area, that while scientific, is rather far apart from his or her own area of expertise.

If we think about it, this is not surprising, as nowadays it is simply not possible for a single person to master every possible area of expertise in a field like astrobiology for example, which has a very, very wide scope, as wide as the entire universe if you will.

That said, this is not excuse for not doing your homework. When I see a blatant error in a book in a topic that I am familiar with, I inevitably become suspicious of all the other material on topics I do not know that well (and this time, I am not talking about typos, I am talking about actual wrong, really wrong statements). In other words, the author loses my trust. Let me give you a particularly irritating example.

A few years ago, in 2007 a very promising book on astrobiology was published. Its author is a rather accomplished astronomer. Very early in the book, in a section on evolution, he stated that Charles Lyell, one of the founding father of geology, was the father-in-law of Charles Darwin, of natural selection fame.

What bothers me is not as much that this statement is absolutely completely, and “uglyly” wrong. What bothers me quite a lot is that Charles Darwin is probably one of the naturalists about whom most books have ever been written, making the verification of this putative “fact” extremely easy. Also, what were the people who wrote glowing “blurbs” praising this book reading?

Finally, what bothers me the most is that recently, an “Updated Edition” of the book was released. I eagerly checked it out; thankfully, I had the good sense of looking before buying. There may have been some updates, but that specific mistake, the BS about Darwin, is still there.

The net result? I do not trust the book. End of story. By extension, I do not trust the author and it is very unlikely that I will read anything from that author ever again.

Also, it is very unlikely that he does not know about my criticism; I posted a rather honest review in a famous website that starts with “A” and ends in “mazon”. I know that if I ever publish a book, I’ll check those out. If I am caught in a mistake, I’ll try to fix it. Actually, in several cases when I have posted reviews, the author contacted me acknowledging the mistake and pledging to fix it, which they actually do, especially in ebooks.

I want to clarify that I do not have a “zero tolerance” policy or anything like that for book mistakes. As I said, mistakes do happen and I give each book I read a fair chance. I really read them as carefully as I can. I recently posted a review of such a book. The book was not perfect, but it had very few innacuracies, none of them horrifying, and in the end, a great read!

I also realize that I have been somewhat more forceful (maybe a little too forceful) than usual in this post. It is just that this matter is incredibly important to me. To understand some science is essential, and science writers, as well as those who aspire to be science writers should understand what a privilege, but even more importantly, what a big responsibility that is.

That said, not all of us can be a Carl Sagan

In this post, I have explored aspects of when mistakes happen in the science writing process. As irritating as mistakes are, there are worse thing to worry about. In a future post, I will talk about some cases where wrong and even made-up information is published deliberately. (Update: Here’s Part II)

Breathe in, breathe out…

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14 Comments

  1. I also find it very difficult to trust an author (podcaster/whatever) after they’ve made a basic factual error, though I tend to be more forgiving about small mistakes or esoteric facts. I also try to be careful about that in my writing — sometimes it takes me half an hour to write a single sentence because I want to check the facts. I’m sure some mistakes slip through anyway, and I’m always grateful when they’re pointed out.

    Another aspect that I find somewhat challenging is balancing simplicity and accuracy. This can even be a problem with a surprisingly straightforward sentence like “A gene is a stretch of DNA with instructions for making a protein.” It’s almost true, but, strictly speaking, a gene could encode several different isoforms of the same protein. Explaining that, however, would mean going into alternative splicing, etc, which might just distract/confuse the reader if it’s not relevant to the article. Sometimes I struggle with those sorts of sentences to make them as accurate as possible, but other times I just settle for the simple version (and maybe link to another source for those who are interested in the full story).

    Thanks for writing about this important subject! Looking forward to reading more in part two…

    1. Thank you! You exactly understand where I am coming from in this issue. I am beginning to craft Part II; it will most likely be about not on mistakes but rather on deliberate made-up content and things like that. Again, thanks so much for reading ny blog!

  2. Writing is a paradox because when you have an idea that you want to share, it is almost a compulsive thing but actually conveying ideas so that your reader understands what the heck you’re trying to say is much more challenging. Like a gymnast, a good writer makes his work look effortless.

  3. excellent post. I am also very observant when it comes to scientific papers and books. you making a valid point, scientists must be responsible pf what they write and they must give the correct facts and be open tp correction by their peers

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