The Write Kind of Science

21 March 2014 by Robin Wylie, posted in Uncategorized

I'm imagining you in your dressing gown. There, I've said it. Nothing untoward, you understand, just a tried and tested writing aid.

A notable science journalist once told me that was how they pictured their readers. Just out of bed, bleary-eyed, a bit confused; in other words, someone in dire need of some mental caffeine.

I'm getting, in a roundabout way, to my point. I was going to blog about Antarctic sea ice this week (I'll try and get back to planet Earth soon), but a discussion on a popular microblogging website pulled me back to last week's thread—the turning of science into news.


On Thursday, a newly discovered oviraptorosaur (you'll know it as the "chicken from hell") was rampaging around the science news sphere. Every big hitter covered it, and it's not hard to see why. It was cool news. But what it wasn't—as prominent palaeo-blogger Jon Tennant (@protohedgehog) pointed out—was important news; new dinosaurs are unearthed all the time.

Even more strange, then, to find that in the same journal (PLoS ONE), on the same day, a truly groundbreaking study had also emerged that went largely unsung.

A Swiss-American team had made a discovery about the rise of life after the end-Permian mass-extinction (concluding that it happened much quicker than was previously thought). Given how close life came to obliteration around this time, anyone with a penchant for existance would surely want to know about that, wouldn't they? The papers didn't think so.

This is not the chicken from hell; it's a velociraptor. Basically, imagine this, but weirder.

This isn't the chicken from hell. Just a velociraptor. Basically, imagine this but weirder.

Science vs. Story

So why did the less important science get the coverage? I have a feeling that this question holds more insight than my kneejerk response of, "because demonic chickens are cool". It would be easy to pass this off as lazy journalism. But I don't think that's it.

I'm going to float a risky idea: the best science doesn't always make the best science writing. Because science writing, it's easy to forget, is about more than "just" science.

A science writer may be—indeed, the majority probably are—driven to write by a desire to inform; to convey a sense of wonder about about amazing new ideas. But invariably, their number one priority is a simpler one: to get read. Otherwise, whether your subject is a new kind of cheddar or the discovery of the Higgs velociraptor, it'll be a waste of ink.

The raw material they have to grab their readers is raw science—the data and the diagrams—in much the same way that men in shorts are a sports writer's raw material: a good start, but a long way from being readable. It then needs to be moulded into something people want to look at—and people really, really like to look at dinosaurs.

Of course, the job of a science writer is to report new developments. But the developments they (read: their editors) choose to report, are subject to factors outside what scientists might deem to be important. That choice falls to a bored office worker on their lunch break, two seconds away from buzzfeed.





8 Responses to “The Write Kind of Science”

  1. Paige Brown Reply | Permalink

    Very important topic! Did you read my "Cool Factor and Cautions for Science" post? ( Do you think the factors that make science newsworthy are taken for granted due to age-old criteria of newsworthiness, or is there something here that really makes some science stories more readable than others? I'm wondering if the best science writers can take those "important" but not necessarily cool findings and MAKE them cool through excellent writing. I'm also wondering whether we take what audiences think is "cool" for granted - maybe if we branched out to things other than dinosaurs, and wrote engagingly, the public would still be reading?

    This is also VERY relevant to my survey for science journalists and bloggers on what becomes news:

    • Robin Wylie Reply | Permalink

      Hi Paige, afraid I missed that post the first time - just read it now and it's fascinating.

      The analogy between the "image based" nature of today's politics, how that might (or might not!) have changed over history, and what parallels we can draw to the evolution of science communication and its current situation is incredibly interesting. I think it was a brilliant idea to bring it up, and I think there's a lot more to be written about it. (Idea for Kickstarter pitch?

      • Paige Brown Jarreau Reply | Permalink

        Thanks Robin! I do think there is more to be written here - how science communication has changed over time, how what we think is newsworthy has changed over time. What science is considered news, and has digital media and visual communications changed that? Does what is considered science news fall in line with what is important to scientific progress? How do journalists decide what is "news" in science? Are we ever going to move away from the disjointed coverage of single new journal articles in Nature and Science?

  2. Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

    Interesting post! I like the ideas, and see this in my own field all the time - why do new species of vertebrates get so much press while new species of inverts are described every day? Two additional points I want to raise a) good writers make ALL the difference. This is a key skill, and an effective writer can make all the difference. b) what is 'the best' or 'good science' anyway? This is all relative, and a matter of opinion in many cases.

    • Robin Wylie Reply | Permalink

      Christopher, thanks very much. Excellent points. Regarding (a) I think the other research could indeed have made an equally enticing story, which in fact would have stood out all the more for NOT being about the dinosaur.

      (b) I believe what is considered the "best" science is (for a majority) the showiest science. Science with a spectacle. Image-based if possible. This should change, and I predict it will, once we reach "wow" saturation and start to cotton on to what important science is - developmental.

  3. Maddie Reply | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this! As a soil microbiologist who spends a lot of time thinking about the ecology of tiny organisms in remote environments, the issue of "cool" science versus "important" science is something I grapple with a lot. In the past couple of years, the media has begun to pay much more attention to my field due to the dramatic expansion of human microbiome research and the resulting flood of new studies that have the "cool" factor (case and point: a piece on NPR health last week discussing how your gut bacteria can make chocolate "healthy"). While on the one hand these studies often get media attention because they are flashy and compelling, scientific merit aside, on the other hand they are helping to grow public interest in fields that otherwise would not get much public attention. It's a subject I feel very conflicted on. I would agree with others that good writing makes a huge difference in turning less-flashy research into a compelling piece of science journalism.

    • Robin Wylie Reply | Permalink

      Hi Maddie, thanks for your comment; I'm really glad you found it interesting. Your experience is very thought-provoking.

      I firmly believe that any truly important science (whatever we take that to mean!) can make a great story - it's just an issue of how deep you need to go to find the hook. In the case of "bacteria that can make chocolate healthy", it was probably quite an obvious one. However, in a research area as vital as microbiology, I'm sure that there are countless other ways to get the public engaged.

      Out of interest, have you recently noticed any important discoveries in your field that didn't get picked up by the media when you feel they should have?

  4. philipstrange Reply | Permalink

    Thanks for an interesting post. I cant see the wow factor disappearing any time soon as a dominant factor. It certainly dominates science coverage here in the UK media. Another problem is that quite a few of the journalists writing for mainstream media in the UK are not scientists so press releases and wow factors have a big effect.

    I do believe that a good writer makes a difference and this means understanding the science and looking for something that draws the reader in so that the detail can then be explored, even if it's a "hard" topic.

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