“…Error magnification is the single most vicious and pervasive meme in popular science miscommunication. It is seeded and driven by the science communicator him/herself and feed-back-looped into society, creating a cycle of half truths rather than educating the public…” — GPC
By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C
I am not fond of giving unsolicited advice, I almost never welcome it, although one should be open to internalizing constructive guidance when sincerely offered to us. And writers of any kind need editors to help us spot mistakes in our articles and improve format and content.
But I do have some experience writing about science for the general public. Occurrences that I can share with all.
My first article (1987), for El Comercio, explored the impact of aggressive shrimp-farming on the pristine mangrove ecosystems of Ecuador. The piece summarized a hands-on and in situ research project conducted as a biology undergraduate. Not only did it ignite my interest in investigative coverage, but led me to editorialize –ever since– on science, technology and the environment. Twenty-plus full-page reports –text and pictures– followed up to 1993 in Diario Hoy (another leading newspaper in Quito) and wildlife magazines. When I came to the United States to attend graduate school, I contributed 35 op pieces to El Popular (1996 to 2000), the foremost Hispanic newspaper in Toronto.
“…English has an advantage, it is the currency of modern science. It is an idiom of exploration, almost anything goes. Unfortunately, junk-writing is also part of this trial-and-error…”
Over time, I transitioned to writing almost exclusively in English (my second language), which has its own science etiquette, quite distinctive from Spanish. But English has an advantage, it is the currency of modern science. It is an idiom of exploration; anything goes. Unfortunately, junk-writing is also part of this trial and error.
Writing about science for the American readership –lay or specialized– is always a challenge. The landscapes (e.g. editorials, chronicles, reports, notes, blogs), styles, theme trends, and audiences’ interests change constantly. The internet has brought dynamism to sharing science news, via imaging (photos and video), more than text, or in short reports (150 to 300 words, rather than the usual 600 to 800 expected by publishers in the past), and quick and dirty delivery. The latter is a powerful temptation that a cautious columnist should avoid.
“…I do not consider myself a science writer, although I have been called ‘science journalist,’ as an insult, by a rodentologist incapable of graceful interaction with people…”
Before advancing any further, note that I do not consider myself a science writer, although I have been called “science journalist,” as an insult, by a rodentologist incapable of graceful interaction with people. But, I am a biologist who happens to write about science. I come from a background of journalists (my grandfather, father and a sister), essayists (two brothers who are professors in academia and regular contributors to newspapers), and a novelist sister. Plus, my father’s line run, for decades, a publishing initiative. Books were around us. Still, my only assertion here is that the publication process, from paper to ink on it, or to the sorting of pages and final binding of volumes, is the foundation of my cultural imprinting.
Learning to Spot Mistakes
A good, skeptical eye is essential in a writer, and this can be acquired by training. In my case, I worked as a copy editor for the journal Biotropica while I was a graduate student and, later, a postdoc (1996 to 2003). I revised 80 manuscripts by world authors and on multiple subjects. My responsibility was to find mistakes (typos, grammar errors, non-sense sentences, contradictions and, occasionally, bring content issues to the attention of the editors). That experience taught me to minimize the errors I still make while preparing scientific papers and perspectives. Perfection is never achieved, only sharpness to spot what seems incorrect and improve the outcome.
“…The skill of spotting mistakes shall make anyone a better author…”
And not to forget, I was also production editor and copy editor for Animal Behaviour (2001 – 2003), something I remember with mix feelings: although I did not revise as many manuscripts as for Biotropica, the AB Editorial Office in Indiana passed on to me difficult, long manuscripts, loaded with problems, arid science, although written by famous ethologists. In retrospect, I am grateful to my colleagues for the tedious assignments, and for forcing me to examine unpolished papers. The skill of spotting mistakes shall make anyone a better author.
Learning to Be an Editor
From 2003 to 2012, I became founder editor of The Conservation Behaviorist, a biannual periodical of the Animal Behavior Society’s Conservation Committee, which I chaired for three years (2003 – 2006). I edited and produced, from scratch, each of the issues of the ten volumes published during that decade.
“…One must avoid the pseudo science trap, sequel of adopting language that feeds the readers’ unsophisticated comfort zones, at the expense of hurting scientific rigor via distortion…”
What I value most from that activity is that I discovered how to adapt the texts submitted by scientists —in the interface animal behavior / conservation biology— to a media-friendly format, language and delivery. I spent hours reshaping the prose without changing the intention of the writers or the scientific accuracy of their proposals. And that is key in science writing. One must avoid the pseudoscience trap, sequel of adopting language that feeds the readers’ unsophisticated comfort zones, at the expense of hurting scientific rigor via distortion.
This malady is widespread in the work published in major newspapers, magazines, blogs and social media. Here is an example: claiming that naked mole rats are “cancer free” is not only falsehood, but it does not make scientific sense (i.e. relative lower incidence of cancer in a given organism, in respect to others, including humans, does not mean cancer-immunity, nor its absence; UPDATE: for a comprehensive review see Cancer Across The Tree of Life: Cooperation and Cheating in Multicellularity). As much as it was questionable, when in the 1990s, the “shark- cartilage pill industry” made a fortune ecociding sharks, milling their dried skeletons and selling “miracle powder” in anti-cancer capsules for the pro-natural-medicine ignoramus. Science writers must not fall in love with inaccuracies or fables like these.
The point here is that, by being an editor, one can learn to honor science, respect its integrity rather than allow free ride to sensationalism by promoting “breaking news” soon-to-be debunked.
Developing Your Own Style
You do not need to please everyone, particularly family, friends, colleagues or supervisors. Actually, it works best to stay away from their never unbiased reviews (except if they are writers themselves). But it is important to define the type of science writer you want to be, and develop a style with which a readership identifies you.
“…it is important to define what type of science writer you want to be, and develop a style with which a readership identifies you…”
When I wrote my initial op piece for The Standard Times in 2010, it was welcomed instantly, but two subsequent editorials were rejected. I spoke with the Editor in Chief and persuaded him that we needed to develop –together– a readership for the types of articles I would offer: an analysis of science topics with my personal take, rather than a report-story vast in empty phrases like “scientists say” or “according to researchers” or “in the opinion of experts.” Reluctantly, he agreed and months later we enjoyed the interaction with the readers and their feedback; positive and, sometimes, disapproving.
The Standard Times and I published 28 editorials (2010 – 2015) under the “Your View” column, thus conveying that I, as a writer, was one more member of the community, discharging from the inside my criteria and views about dissimilar or related topics, including: the relevance of curiosity-based research, the anti-vaccine movement, the collapse of basic science under the for-profit model, the scientific challenges to the reputation of the Stradivari violins, the wrongly called God-particle (Higgs boson), or the false beliefs in faith healing (for complete access to articles go to publications).
Being Aware of Your Skills
Because pop science writing lacks the editorial process of a scientific article, it is tempting to avoid fact-checks. Editorial reviewers of newspapers and magazines pay more attention to the journalistic aspects of the story than to its scientific accuracy. Many science writers have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in the humanities, with some training in science and technology (note that this is evolving and today’s media firms hire contributors with graduate certifications and previous experience in the job). If they possess a doctoral degree, it often lacks the postdoctoral practice that a recently-graduated student needs. And if a postdoctoral training is under the belt, the exercise of peer-reviewing (or being peer-reviewed), editing, publishing and, most importantly, reading thousands of scientific papers is just not there.
“…If, as a science writer, you feel confident with your grasping of scientific papers, think twice. You are probably wrong…”
Not only science writing is difficult, but also reading and correctly translating what the scientists communicate in their publications. Cutting-edge research is usually understood by highly specialized investigators. The best a science writer can do is to seek the original source and obtain interpretations of findings directly from the horse’s mouth. Do not rely, to write your own report, on other writers’ stories in the media. That will only magnify the error. And error magnification is the single most vicious and pervasive meme in popular science miscommunication. It is seeded and driven by the science communicator him/herself (including the press-releases from university campuses about their faculty’s discoveries) and feed-back-looped into society, creating a cycle of half truths rather than educating the public.
If, as a science writer, you feel confident with your grasping of scientific papers, think twice. You are probably wrong. Principal investigators all over the country read the same articles you claim to understand and discuss them in journal clubs with colleagues, postdocs, and graduate students. They dissect the articles to a level of extreme, yet fine criticism and end up comprehending the experiments, the math and statistics, the theoretical context and significance of the studies. If they struggle collectively in this effort, what makes you think that you have it clear?
“…It is up to you, therefore, to publish well-documented perspectives or copious shallow reports…”
In addition, writing hundreds of 300-to-600-word notes about science is not equivalent to preparing a single peer-review publication for a scientific journal. If you do investigative coverage, which might take days, weeks or months (to confirm the veracity of the info), any average science writer could surpass you in production by spawning hourly articles. It is up to you, therefore, to publish well-documented perspectives or copious shallow reports.
Your Work Is Needed
Society needs science communicators, and science writers are crucial in this respect. But be realistic, just examine the turnout of science writers at any major newspaper or magazine (info available online under “contributors”), and realize that, after a few years, the entire staff might have crossed the revolving door. Although there are still more job opportunities for science writers than for TV or documentary anchors. Writing for radio is also an alternative, yet with limited employment. Freelancing, therefore, shall be your probable route.
If you have passion for writing about science, it can be an enjoyable journey. However, here are additional tips:
- Obtain the highest education possible and dismiss the notion to not pursue formal schooling and, instead, “learn on the job.” The latter is damaging advice, usually given by people without specialized education, or by those who benefit from your unpreparedness. If you actually get the job, you will always “learn the praxis” while on it. But you will never compensate, “on the job,” for the formal education you missed. Science, math and technology are not taught in the streets.
- Read by far more topics than you can write about; develop a sense for science.
- Travel internationally to scientific meetings and try to understand the cultural contexts in which science is done elsewhere; this could be difficult since we all see the planet through parochial preconceptions. However, modern science is done collaboratively and international partnerships are ubiquitous. Writing from home will keep your mind at home.
- Write about science itself, rather than people in science. Do not celebritize individuals, but grant credit to all who deserve it.
- Do not become enticed by the ivory-tower institutions as the sole source of science stories to report; that will turn you into a snob writer.
- And remember that a good science tale should be good by itself, no matter its origin, but only a good story teller would make it shine.
Science writing can be art or artistic, profound and beautiful, but also commercial and prone to “likes” and “shares” in the social media, which are addicting. If you want to “go viral,” then consequential science communication might not be the path to take. It is not for you. After all, the most significant science books and articles for the general public are written by scientists (some in collaboration with reporters), not by science writers. But you can create a niche for yourself as science communicator-facilitator in a way that servers your local community and society. — EvoLiteracy © 2016.
Acknowledgment: I thank Avelina Espinosa for editorial comments and feedback to improve this article.
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Paz-y-Miño-C, G & Espinosa, A. 2016. Measuring the Evolution Controversy: A Numerical Analysis of Acceptance of Evolution at America’s Colleges and Universities. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, United Kingdom. ISBN (10): 1-4438-9042-1, ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-9042-7.
Measuring the Evolution Controversy can be ordered directly from Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Amazon US, or Amazon CA . The publisher has made available a “VIEW EXTRACT” (in PDF), which includes the first 30-pages of the book: Cover, Table of Contents, Acknowledgments, Preface, Chapter ONE and the beginning of Chapter TWO. For PDF of color illustrations go to Image Resources of Didactic Relevance.
“The great contribution of ‘Measuring the Evolution Controversy’ is the rich content of data and analysis that asks detailed questions about the social, economic and political backgrounds of those who tend to reject evolution vs. those who accept evolution as science. Paz-y-Miño-C and Espinosa deftly analyze their data drawn from institutions of higher learning in the United States and particularly New England —which stands as a microcosm of the rest of the country, and indeed elsewhere in the world. It is their scientific approach to these issues which makes this book stand out as a uniquely original contribution.” — Niles Eldredge, PhD, Curator Emeritus of Paleontology at The American Museum of Natural History, New York.
“Pro-science activists and educators constantly bemoan the resistance to the teaching of evolution in the United States. All of us have anecdotes about encounters with the public, parents and students who are misinformed by their churches, Religious-Right groups, and creationist organizations. Paz-y-Miño-C and Espinosa present hard data that support the anecdotal evidence. They also show that although anti-evolutionism typically begins with religion, it is a multi-faceted problem that intersects with political and cultural ideologies. Gathered through careful research over a period of years, their data will enable scientists and defenders of science education to comprehend the roots of the evolution controversy and counteract resistance to evolution more strategically and effectively.” — Barbara Forrest, PhD, co-author with Paul R. Gross of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (2007), and expert witness for plaintiffs, Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District (2005).
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Paz-y-Miño-C., G. 2013. Evolution Stands Faith Up: Reflections on Evolution’s Wars. NOVA Publishers, New York. By NOVA Publishers, New York Soft Cover. Find it at Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, Amazon UK
“The sweet spot of this collection of essays is the interface of science, history and literacy. Paz-y-Miño-C is, in essence, a champion of rationalism and a passionate defender of literacy standards. His essays deftly weave hard survey data and memorable turns of phrase with evocative imagery… While the essays in this collection are vast in coverage —from climate change to energy policy, stem cell research, vaccinations and, especially, evolution— a clear underlying theme emerges: [the author’s] goal is no less than to counter, through the lens of history and the majesty of rationalism, social forces that sanction ignorance, celebrate denial and… continue to diminish our global status in the fields of science and technology.” Jeff Podos, PhD, Professor of Biology, University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA.
“Paz-y-Miño-C is a firm believer in evolutionary processes. He would like to see decisions made on the basis of facts, not unsupported opinion. He abhors and fears irrational thinking, especially ‘the views of those who see evil in truth and menace in the realities discovered by science.’ He marvels at the intricacy and diversity of life, and how it came about through natural selection… and is clearly frustrated by the unwillingness of so many to see the beauty and majesty in this view of the world and all that it explains.” – Jan A. Pechenik, PhD, Professor of Biology, Tufts University, USA, author of The Readable Darwin: The Origin of Species, as Edited for Modern Readers.