Thursday, September 15, 2005

Bad science journalism

Really good article by Ben Goldacre in the Guardian: Don't dumb me down

I won't try very hard to summarize it, since it has a lot of meat. Just read it if you're interested in the subject. (And you probably are if you're reading this blog.)

The first half is a taxonomy of bad science journalism. Basically there are three kinds: "wacky stories", "scare stories", and "breakthrough stories". A common characteristic they have is their purpose, which is much more to entertain than to inform. Sort of a piece with the journalistic principle that "if it bleeds, it leads". I. e., stories about war, pestilence, famine, and death sell a lot of newspapers.

The balance of the article assesses possible reasons for all the bad science writing. In general, Goldacre's thesis seems to be that it's all because science journalism tends to be practiced mostly by people who majored in humanities rather than science.

There's probably a lot of truth to that. And we can also concede that when science writing is done by people with a real science background, it ofter suffers because the writers would really prefer to be doing science rather than journalism. (Though there are numerous exceptions to this -- names like Sagan, Weinberg, Mayr, Watson, etc.)

But I have to wonder whether a lot of the reasons for the problems with science writing have to do not with the writers but with the audience. And by extension, with that part of society whose job is to educate the audience, namely the educational system.

There are some quotations attributed to Einstein, such as: "If you can't explain something simply, you don't know enough about it." "You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother." "It should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid." Unfortunately, I have to disagree somewhat. There are some things that require a fair amount of education to understand properly, and most of modern science is among them. We wouldn't expect one could explain so quickly how financial derivatives work or a symphony in sonata form is constructed. Except at so high a level as to be of little actual use. Why should cosmology or molecular biology be any different?

In particular, people often complain of too much "jargon" or "technobabble" in writing about scientific and technical subjects. People want things explained in "plain English". I think that this demand is unrealistic and is an important reason that science writing is dumbed down as much as it is.

The fact is, language is built upon a hierarchy of concepts, and scientific or technical concepts correspond to carefully chosen, specialized "technical terms", "terms of art", and the like -- i. e. "jargon". This is just as true in fields like law, journalism, and the game of baseball as it is in medicine, genetics, astrophysics, and higher mathematics. Simply put, it is much simpler and more economical to explain a technical subject using the terminology appropriate to the subject, rather than in terms of "plain English", where one needs repeatedly to use long, inaccurate circumlocutions instead of the proper technical terms.

To take a specific example, consider elementary particle physics. By now terms like "protons" and "neutrons" and "electrons" are familiar enough to the public, and even, perhaps, "quarks". (Not that most of the public could give anything like a satisfactory definition of any of them.) But to really get into the subject, you need terms like "baryons", "strong force", "symmetry", "bosons", and so forth.

Of course, on first introducing such terms, you should give "plain English" definitions using words that are presumably more familiar. And ideally, describe the concepts using nice, crisp analogies and metaphors. But after that, heaven help you if you can't count on the audience to remember the definitions and you must instead repeat them every time you need to invoke the concept.

And don't make the related mistake of avoiding proper technical terms with Greek or Latin roots in favor of terms of your own devising using more "common" Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. While this may conceivably make your immediate job easier, the effort will be wasted when people in the audience are later unable to identify your ad hoc terminology with what is actually used by people in the given subject area.

The problem can be illustrated in particle physics. If instead of "bosons" you talk about "force-carrying particles", not only is the result clumsier, but the audience will eventually wonder what force it is that a "Higgs boson" carries if and when they come upon the term elsewhere. This is especially a problem with the use of mathematical terms. How many writers have the guts to use a term like "homeomorphism", even when it's appropriate?

Enough said about that. I think there is one other problem that accounts for a lot of bad science writing, and that is the use of mathematics in any way. Simply put, too many people seem to be scared to death of mathematics, so that when statistical ideas are needed to discuss a subject or a few well-chosen equations can make things clearer, writers will try to avoid them so as not to "frighten the horses". Or because an editor insists that use of equations will turn people off and depress sales.

What should be done if some math is really needed to explain something? I don't know. Punt?

In any case, failure to use proper technical terminology and failure to use mathematics (when appropriate), seem to me to be the most common characteristics of dumbed-down science writing. Both these problems arise when the writer has to assume that the audience will have a lot of trouble with mathematics and technical language. (Of course, this is only if the writer actually does sufficiently understand what he/she is writing about.)

But how can such an assumption be avoided if the audience hasn't been properly prepared after a dozen or so years of elementary and secondary education? That's a rhetorical question, I guess. Unfortunately, the assumption generally can't be avoided.

The problem's not limited to science either. How can the public understand journalism about politics or the economy or international trade if basic education in history, geography, civics, logical reasoning, and critical thinking isn't adequate?

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