Have we reached the end of science writing?

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama published a book titled, “The End of History and the Last Man.” Although everyone laughed at the title, the book wasn’t suggesting that history had ended. Rather, it was wondering whether we had reached the peak of political philosophy. Was there anything actually better than liberal democracy?

Reading science writing often leaves me wondering something similar. Have we reached the peak of science writing? The internet has led to an explosion in fantastic science writing, with people such as Ed Yong, Virginia Hughes, and David Dobbs repeatedly putting out sophisticated pieces on scientific discoveries. In conjunction with this trend has been a rise in magazines specializing in this writing, such as Aeon and Nautilus. But recently I’ve found myself being incredibly bored every time I read these articles.

Oh, I don’t mean I’m actually bored; the writing is still gripping and full of interesting facts and anecdotes. Yet when I start each article I can practically close my eyes, point at a paragraph, and tell you what’s going to be in it. It’s somewhat formulaic. That’s not necessarily bad: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But I’m the kind of guy that loves reading Faulkner and Nabakov and such: writing that is presented in a different structure than you are used to. Obviously, I don’t read that all the time – frankly, it’s mostly wizards and dragons and spaceships that cover the books in my hand – but it’s nice to have a change or a surprise.

Experimentation in form is not just for people like me that are easily bored. It is a way to push against boundaries and try to find new ways to say things that you couldn’t before. Let me give a couple of examples.

First, we are all familiar with the ubiquitous Malcolm Gladwell or New Yorker style of reporting (I apologize, I’m afraid I don’t know who actually started writing this way). If you read reporting a hundred years ago, it was a straightforward explanation of events: this then this then this. The Gladwell structure is different; look at How David Beat Goliath. It begins with a few paragraphs about a children’s soccer team, then continues with a few paragraphs of David and Goliath, then turns to a story about a software company on wall street. Slowly, it weaves the stories together. The structure utilizes several distinct outlooks on the same topic to shed more light on it than you would otherwise be able to get. It’s actually pretty complex for the reader, who is asked to follow several different stories as they shift in and out of focus. Think of it like the difference between I Love Lucy and Lost.

Another example is the New Journalism of the 60s and 70s. Instead of writing in a typical reporting style, people like Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe wrote in a manner that seemed like fiction (quote shamefully stolen from this blog post):

Ten o’clock Sunday morning in the hills of North Carolina. Cars, miles of cars, in every direction, millions of cars, pastel cars, aqua green, aqua blue, aqua beige, aqua buff, aqua dawn, aqua dusk, aqua aqua, aqua Malacca, Malacca lacquer, Cloud lavender, Assassin pink, Rake-a-cheek raspberry. Nude Strand coral, Honest Thrill orange, and Baby Fawn Lust cream-colored cars are all going to the stock-car races, and that old mothering North Carolina sun keeps exploding off the windshields. Mother dog!

Working mash wouldn’t wait for a man. It started coming to a head when it got ready to and a man had to be there to take it off, out there in the woods, in the brush, in the brambles, in the muck, in the snow. Wouldn’t it have been something if you could have just set it all up inside a good old shed with a corrugated metal roof and order those parts like you want them and not have to smuggle all that copper and all that sugar and all that everything out here in the woods and be a coppersmith and a plumber and a cooper and a carpenter and a pack horse and every other goddamned thing God ever saw in this world, all at once.

It is possible to experiment with form in order to understand an idea in a different way. But what about in science writing? I was called out on Twitter for the title of one of my previous posts; “Study: Men smell and that will stress you out.” It was something that I had meant as a tongue-in-cheek in-joke, but from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know my dry style of humor it really, really didn’t come across, sounding instead like linkbait. As they put it: “It’s a science blog. It has references. We use objective descriptions for accuracy, even if that requires repetition.” Which, honestly, is a great point. What is required of someone who writes about science? Does their intended audience matter? Should we be playing around if it might cause confusion?

Virginia Hughes passed along a great article on the desire to write about science beautifully. The article warned against playing too much:

Nonfiction arranges facts into a story, it finds the story in the facts. Readers are in it less for evocation of someone else’s world than for understanding the facts and nature of our own. Without facts, nonfiction is unreliable and readers’ understanding of the world is correspondingly untrustworthy. Untrustworthy authors/narrators in fiction are charming; in nonfiction, they’re worse than useless, they’re a betrayal, they’re at best a waste of time.

…So my note of caution is this: as science writers, we should go ahead and treat our scientists as characters and their discoveries as plots; and find pretty analogies; and control the rhythms of our sentences; and look for the central conflicts and the narrative arcs; and write with our own peculiar voices. But our readers have a different covenant with is. They trust us, they think we’ll tell them the truth; they think they can put that truth into their worlds and rely on it. And if we betray them, they’ll be pissed. So if you want beauty in science writing? Find the beauty in the facts, in reality, and write about that.

But does that mean there is no room for growth? Are there no other forms that people covering science should write in? While there has not been a ton of experimentation in form – that I can discover – there certainly is some. Adam Jasper and Nadia Wagner wanted to write an article on scent. Instead of a typical historical introduction, they introduced facts through disconnected paragraphs with tangential connections found at long distance. Bret Victor presented a scientific paper as a beautiful sequence of illustrations – and no, I don’t mean like an infographic. Aatish Bhatia (among others) has frequently mixed reporting with his own additional analysis of the data.

Again, I don’t want to sound like I’m attacking the way people write now; there’s a reason that I will read literally anything that Ed Yong posts. There are many ways to write, and we don’t want everyone going off and experimenting for the sake of experimenting – that way is studded with the problems that plague contemporary art. Yet we should examine what other ways there are to write about science. Just like any scientific experiment, most of the time it won’t work. But sometimes it will.

Please feel free to comment with any examples of science reporting that you think has played with the structure of the writing.

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4 thoughts on “Have we reached the end of science writing?

  1. As Betteridge tells us, the answer is no.

    I think the whole concept of an “end” assumes some sort of “progression”, which I think is completely absent. As cool as Ed Young and the other science writers are, I would be very surprised if somebody suggested that their writing was ‘better’, more influential, or more accurate than Arthur Eddington’s work was for popularizing relativity and propelling Einstein to super-stardom… that was nearly a century ago and pulled randomly off the top of my head. Did we reach the end then?

    I think that popular writing is just a reflection of our times and changes with the constantly changing tastes of society. If writing feels like it has “reached or passed its peak” then that is more of a reflection on you than on writing, it means that the society that shaped your values and aesthetic judgements is slowly being left behind by the current. I think it happens to everybody; damn those kids and their ruckuss! Why can’t they listen to real music, like back in my day!

    With that out of the way, time for some ranting.

    I cannot disagree with Anas Matthæus’ tweet more violently:

    It’s a science blog. It has references. We use objective descriptions for accuracy, even if that requires repetition.

    This is the most pervasive and accepted cargo-cult in science today. Clarity and accuracy does not come from boring repetitive writing. Clarity and accuracy in writing comes from clarity and accuracy in thought, and from an understanding of your audience and your topic. You cannot hide unclear thoughts with ‘objective writing’, and even if you plant rose gardens over clear thought, it will still be clear.

    The fact that we associate good or sometimes overly flowery writing with bad or unclear science is an unfortunate artifact of over specialization and institutionalized neglect. People who spend the time to learn how to write convincing and well are shuffled off into humanities programs where they are taught to fear math, science, and the other dark arts. People who spend the time to learn math and science are put into institutions where it is okay or sometimes even heavily encouraged to write badly. Eventually, we start to associate bad writing with good science and so we assume that science has to be badly written.

    As for aeon, nautilus and friends. I was very excited when these venues first appeared (or at least when I first noticed them), but my excitement has waned. A lot of the articles there feel too much like they’re trying. I’m not sure if that makes any sense. It feels like they want to make some deep connections and humanizing discussions, but it never really connects any new ideas that deeply, it just takes up more space and reading time.

    Of course, who am I to talk about taking up too much space and time? I just left another unreasonably long and ranting comment…

  2. It is dreadfully evident, what you point out. I was always of the opinion that science reporting is the way it is because it is effective. Infographics are meaninglessly laden with pie charts (and generally over-interpret results) and YouTube article reviews are cumbersome.

    http://www.theguardian.com/science/the-lay-scientist/2010/sep/24/1
    (Here Martin Robbins parodies the stereotypic longform post.)

    I read this a few months ago and I wondered then as I wonder now whether the monotony in the article structure would be as evident to me if I weren’t looking for it. Nevertheless, I think you might be on to something and I will think of a quirky (but effective) structure for my next post.

    “You are now aware of your right knee.”

  3. Excellent post sir. The “Gladwell”/NYorker style of the weave structure is actually a standard modern creative nonfiction magazine style. Any emerging writer who has taken a workshop at a creative writing / publishing program would know that style intimately (through reading a lot of it, and studying and understanding the structure of its construction). It’s a basic technique, much like a western blot procedure in the realm of biology.

    What I’m trying to say is that writing creatively is not something mysterious or elusive – with the right experience and editor, any type of scientific writing can be made better. Writing better is a discipline with structure and techniques – we should infused a bit of that into scientific writing.

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