Monday, December 21, 2015

Scientific Writing and "Science Writing"

"The standards of this criticism alter to the degree that historiography approaches journalism." (Martin Heidegger)

For me, 2015 will be the year that I finally lost all respect for "science writing". Not that I had been holding the genre in especially high esteem until now. Five years ago I participated in what Brayden King called a "backlash" against Malcolm Gladwell's "tsunami of wrong". I was especially worried about the reverence that social scientists have for his writing, and the influence it seems to have on the way they think and teach. I even found myself comparing Gladwell with Daniel Pinchbeck, who was at the time among those arguing that December 21, 2012 marked "the end of time" (in an admittedly only vaguely specified sense). (Last week, I finally got around to buying Terence McKenna's Food of the Gods, which has inspired much of Pinchbeck's project. More on that in the new year.) To my own surprise, I found Pinchbeck's writing to be more credible than Gladwell's (in a sense that I really hope you'll let me specify).

Even back when I was writing my PhD, my romance with popular science was beginning to unravel. I recently rediscovered an old anecdote about Erwin Schrödinger that I read in Leon Lederman's popular The God Particle, written before the Higgs boson was discovered, and before I lost my faith in the genre. At that time I was just beginning my master's studies in what would turn out to be the philosophy of science. But I was getting my history of science by this highly unscientific means. Indeed, this was the source of my understanding of physics beyond the high school level, and I cringe a little now recalling the confidence with which I declared what the metaphysical consequences of quantum mechanics are.

It was probably while reading Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene as a PhD student, that I started to realize that something was amiss with my approach to what is known by science. I had gone into my reading of the book expecting simply to "deconstruct" it (that's the sort of thing I was doing back then) but I found it to be a very compelling and illuminating read. It really did teach me, or so I thought, a great deal about evolutionary theory, and about how evolution "works". It helped me to understand things I had previously only vaguely believed. But at the time, a friend of mine was also telling me about the somewhat radical ideas of Paul Shepard and his "pleistocene paradigm" so I was thinking very hard about the evolutionary account of what it means to "be human". Also, though Steve Fuller hadn't yet testified in the Dover case, I'm sure I had discussed intelligent design with him by then. There was much to think about, in short, and I was trying to make up my mind.

I remember very clearly reading Dawkins' chapter on "the extended genome". I won't try to do it justice except to say that Dawkins made a compelling case for the idea that some of our features are the expression of genes that are not our own. (Some snails, as I recall, have thick shells because these shells are, not to their own evolutionary advantage, but to the advantage of parasites they carry. The parasites, not the snails, transmit the "selfish gene" that produces this thickness.) Bringing together my conversations about Paul Shepard and intelligent design, and no doubt my earlier reading of Lederman, I began to work out a theory of the "God Genome", i.e., a sense in which all the human body's traits are actually to God's (or some "advanced" alien species') overall advantage in the universe, or simply incidental products of some other, more or less divine, advantage, and not really to the benefit of our own genes. It was heady and exciting stuff.

But then a kind of depression set in. Dawkins' himself said that his chapter on the extended genome was really just a summary of a book he'd written for a less popular audience. I.e., an actual work of science, a piece of scientific writing. My friend was writing a dissertation about the evolution of cognition and would constantly correct me on elementary factual errors. It was frustrating for us both. He felt like he was teaching me high school biology, I felt like he was stifling my creativity. He, of course, was more right than I was. I simply had no basis to propose a paradigm-shifting account of human nature that makes of our bodies a divine "emanation". Though it was very exciting to think about these things, it just wasn't a very serious intellectual activity. I lacked a proper basis in science. I lacked knowledge. I was an ignoramus.

This, like I say, despite reading a great deal of popular science writing. As I've come to understand, especially since the invention of the TED talk (a "dark art"), it gave me the feeling of knowing without actually providing me with knowledge. Popular presentations of science tell us stories about what is known without giving us the critical foundations we need to engage with it, i.e., to question those stories. I know there are some people who will say that Darwin's Origin of Species is essentially a work of popular non-fiction. But the important difference is that his "public" was highly educated. They didn't lack the knowledge to engage with his ideas, only, perhaps, the time and equipment. Someone who had the necessary resources, would not need a more "specialized" version of his argument before his criticism could be of use.

At some point, perhaps around the time of The Selfish Gene, this stopped being true. Evolution became a theory you should believe even if you don't understand it, and even if it is beyond your abilities to understand it. The public became thankful for popularizers who could give people the feeling that they were "in on" this important theory. I don't have a good historical account of this process worked out yet, but as I write this post, it seems to me to be a worthwhile project to try to pinpoint the moment that scientific belief and a real scientific understanding were separated from each other. It is a consequence of the enormous advances in science and technology, of course, and the specialization that has driven it. I fear this has also affected the quality of our scientific writing.

I will definitely have to say more about this in the weeks to come. After all, the concept of "academic writing", my bread and butter, tells us a little about what is being lost. Knowledge was once something you acquired through years of study, guided by books, but framed by a classroom (other people), an observatory (other vistas), a laboratory (other experiences), a library (other books). If you did not have access to these "academic" conditions you did not presume to understand the topic. Scientists wrote about their discoveries for people who had the knowledge, intelligence, time and apparatus to test them. These days, "science" is becoming something that is produced in a lab and consumed in a book you buy at the airport.


Duncan Richter said...

Cf. Wittgenstein's 1929 Lecture on Ethics: "When your former secretary honoured me by asking me to read a paper to your society, my first thought was that I would certainly do it and my second thought was that if I was to have the opportunity to speak to you I should speak about something which I am keen on communicating to you and that I should not misuse this opportunity to give you a lecture about, say, logic. I call this a misuse, for to explain a scientific matter to you it would need a course of lectures and not an hour's paper. Another alternative would have been to give you what's called a popular scientific lecture, that is a lecture intended to make you believe that you understand a thing which actually you don't understand, and to gratify what I believe to be one of the lowest desires of modern people, namely the superficial curiosity about the latest discoveries of science." (Apologies if you were deliberately echoing this.)

Thomas said...

I had not seen that before, but, you're right, I almost feel like I'm plagiarizing it. I'm not surprised, however, that Wittgenstein and I agree on this point. I'm very influenced by him and do remember he's got a remark (in Culture and Value, maybe) where he says that popular books are written by scientists when they are resting on the laurels, not when they're doing science.

I do think there's a difference, however, between making you believe something you don't understand and making you believe you understand something you don't.

Jonathan said...

Even an expert scientist is (usually) an amateur in every branch of science except one. There ought to be popular writing about these topics for the curious. What's really wrong with superficial curiosity? We used to call it being an educated, well-rounded person.

Duncan Richter said...

Yes, that's a real difference.

Wittgenstein liked Faraday's Chemical History of a Candle, which is a popular book, so he, at least, was not against all popular science. But books that make you believe without understanding, or that fool you into thinking you understand when you don't, seem worse than merely superficial. They are misleading.

Anonymous said...

I am less certain than you, Thomas, that the demarcation is so visible between useful scientific writing and that which is ersatz. I still count as useful the popular essays written by Stephen Jay Gould. They allowed me to gain entry into the literature of evolutionary biology (The Blind Watchmaker and Darwin's Dangerous Idea were juxtaposed with Gould's portal). Even though these essays were written for educated nonspecialized audiences, they were excellent pointers to what you would easily regard as scientific tracts. I now have 15 linear feet of books in my office on speciation, mathematical evolutionary models, and biogeography. I could not have found, nor had the confidence to read, these serious pieces without the guideposts from the pieces penned for general audiences.

Interestingly, I served on two doctoral committees in the philosophy of science this year (three more next year!). Both students insisted that explanation and understanding are not universals; they depend upon the audience; i.e. the questions that the audience asks determine the quality of the explanation. The questions I am capable of asking (and, implicitly, the answers that I need to increase my understanding) are less scientific (on your scale) that the ones I pose in my field -- applied economics-- and in the field of evolutionary biology. In this latter case, I am an autodidact and though my knowledge surpasses my knowledge of philosophy, I cannot write in that field with authority. But I resent the thought that this knowledge is superficial.

Thomas said...

I can see I'm going to have tread carefully. I certainly don't want to make Randy feel like I think that his interest in evolutionary biology is (as Wittgenstein suggests) "one of the lowest desires of modern people". On Twitter I was told that my use of the word "respect" in the first sentence is a bit "harsh". Interestingly, we ended up agreeing that popular science deserves the respect of a good piece of science fiction. I.e., it is a form of entertainment. I don't think Randy would accept that characterization of his interests either.

On a more serious note, however, I worry that satisfying our curiosity with popular books gives us the impression that the truth is very complicated. I think I'm trying to say something like what Bill Evans meant when he said, "It's better to do something simple which is real ... something you can build on because you know what you're doing." This also seems to be what drives Tim Hunt's view of science. Maybe even what Pound meant by "the method of luminous detail", which was always looking for the "simple reason why".

Definitely another post coming up.

Faye Getz said...

Origin of Species (no 'the').

Thomas said...

Thanks. Fixed it.

Jonathan said...

I certain kind of scientific and numerical literacy is important, I think. You could divide up pop science writing into the categories of (1) helps this literacy among general public and (2) hinders it. The situation is more fluid than that, though. Just as my understanding of Bill Evans's chords is not perfect, and I would never say I understand more than I do, yet I understand more the more I study them.

The same could be said for "pop" deconstruction books like those of Culler, or pop lit theory intros like Eagleton's. It kind of depends on whether the goal is making someone into a real literary theorist, or giving someone a taste of it. I'd draw the line at whether the information is accurate or not, whether the simplification leads to a profound misconception about the object of study. So with some of Eagleton's literary theory books I'd say don't even read them. Of course, viewing a pop lecture on relativity and then claiming to understand it would be silly.

Jonathan said...

"A certain kind..."

Thomas said...

I can easily imagine a book for a popular audience that helps you really understand planetary motion by deriving orbits from observations. You explain how to chart the motion of the moon in the night sky, the sun at, day, maybe Venus, Mars and Jupiter for bonus points. The show how astronomers went from the geocentric to the heliocentric model of the universe because it made the math more elegant. This can be done even without actually teaching the math. Such a book would actually teach science. It would present science as an activity and it would tell you how to do it. Like playing the piano.

I guess I'm wondering what it wouldn't be silly to claim after a pop lecture on relativity.

Jonathan said...

You are on a spaceship going the speed of light. You throw a 90 mph baseball pitch to someone on the other side of the spaceship, in the direction that the ship is traveling. How fast is the ball traveling? Someone after listening to the lecture ought to understand the question without being silly.

Andrew Gelman said...


Gladwell's a joke now, right? You and Pinker were just ahead of the curve on that one. By now there's been a series of cases where Gladwell was wrong and insistent even in the face of contrary evidence.

One way of looking at this is to say that Gladwell was always a bit of a bullshitter and it took people awhile to twig to it. Another take would be that, several years ago, he had different possible career tracks, and he chose the option of over-certainty.

Thomas said...

Andrew: I actually haven't been keeping up on him. I'm sure he can still get book contract or a magazine commission without too much trouble, and that the same social scientists who defended him back them would defend him now. More or less. It is actually quite interest how five or ten years ago that kind of certainty was all the rage. It's a bit dated now.

Anonymous said...

Let me apologize for my churlish comments. Thomas, I look forward to how you parse out written science, science writing, science journalism, and crackpottery! As you must suspect from our discussions over good beer, I am sympathetic to your argument in general.

I truly enjoyed reading Isaac Chotiner's analysis of Gladwell in the Feb 2009 The New Republic : " is an axiom of Malcolm Gladwell's method that a perfect anecdote proves a fatuous rule."