My colleague Michael Anft alerted me to this send-up of science writing on the Interwebs from The Guardian. Written by Guardian blogger Martin Robbins, it could not be more savage, or funnier, or more discomfort inducing. I read it simultaneously laughing aloud and silently ticking off how many of these sins I’ve committed in print. A few choice bits:
In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of “scare quotes” to ensure that it’s clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.
In this paragraph I will briefly (because no paragraph should be more than one line) state which existing scientific ideas this new research “challenges.”
If the research is about a potential cure, or a solution to a problem, this paragraph will describe how it will raise hopes for a group of sufferers or victims.
I’ve included a PDF below because I don’t know how long the Guardian‘s link might stay live. (Be sure to click on the links at the end of Robbins’ screed.) Read it and laugh. Read it and weep.
This is a news website article
For an example of how to write a university magazine science profile, turn to Harvard Magazine‘s September/October issue and read “The Mindfulness Chronicles” by free lance Cara Feinberg. Feinberg profiles psychologist Ellen Langer, who has some striking ideas, backed by striking experimental results, about the potential effects of mindfulness on our mental and physical wellbeing. In one of her most publicized studies—soon to be the subject of a film starring Jennifer Aniston, and I am not making that up—Langer took two groups of septuagenerian and octogenarian men to a monastery in New Hampshire. (Totally a Jennifer Aniston scene, don’t you think?) One group was asked to reminisce about the 1950s during their week-long retreat. The other group was asked to go beyond reminiscence and pretend that they actually were back in the 1950s, when they were young men. Given a battery of tests after the retreats, both groups showed significant improvements in strength and flexibility. But the codgers who pretended to be young bucks showed markedly greater improvements. By playacting as young men for merely a week, they achieved remarkable improvements in their posture, hearing, vision, agility, athletic performance, and scores on intelligence tests. (If you’ll excuse me now, I’m gonna go put a Doors record on the stereo and party like it’s 1972.)
Feinberg’s story doesn’t stand out for any stylistic or structural creativity. It stands out for its grace, clarity, and neutrality. The author begins with a lead that I like a lot: “In 1981, early in her career at Harvard, Ellen Langer and her colleagues piled two groups of men in their seventies and eighties into vans, drove them two hours north to a sprawling old monastery in New Hampshire, and dropped them off 22 years earlier, in 1959.” From there, Feinberg provides a fine introduction to Langer’s work before gathering biographical details, some of them cleverly presented in a bit of good-natured bickering about the past between Langer and one of her former NYU professors, who recalls her as “a smartass kid.” The story judiciously surveys Langer’s research, and devotes a section to skepticism about some of her assertions—always a good move if you want to publish a credible story—including the fact that her monastery research has never appeared in a peer-reviewed journal.
If pressed to find something critical to say, I would complain about Feinberg taking out for one more walk that tired, lazy generalization that New Yorkers are wired and pushy. But undercutting that quibble is Langer, who refers to herself as “a pushy New Yorker.” So what do I know.
John S. Rosenberg edits the magazine.
My friend and faculty colleague, science writer Ann Finkbeiner, is part of a trio who maintain a lovely little blog called The Last Word on Nothing. Her most recent post is a gem, about being a writer asking questions of scientists. I love this:
My problem is made worse because I write about the physical sciences which, with the exception of gravity, are rarely part of an English major’s life experience. Nevertheless, on the whole, scientists are tolerant of my questions. Maybe they understand the unfathomable distances between their education and mine. Maybe because they usually teach undergraduates, they are used to such questions. Or maybe they don’t expect much from me in the first place: like the dog walking on its hind legs, they think, the wonder is not that she does it well but that she does it at all.
And there’s this:
The all-time best was over a nice business dinner full of wine and charm, and the astronomer said philosophically, “You could almost say that the future is a Taylor expansion of the past.” I said, “What’s a Taylor expansion?” And he said, “Oh you know, you take the first derivative and then the second derivative and so on.” And I couldn’t help myself, I said, “What’s a first derivative?” He said—poor guy, it just slipped out—”How did you get so far with so little fuel?”
Ann has a new book coming soon, A Grand and Bold Thing. It’s about the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and I guarantee you it will be good.
Tom Levenson, author, documentary filmmaker, teacher at MIT, presented at the 2010 CASE Editors Forum yesterday morning. He spoke about science writing to the main room, then participated in a panel discussion with me and Michael Penn, editor of Grow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He made a number of worthy points and observations, but one thing in particular impressed me.
Levenson’s most recent book is Newton and the Counterfeiter, and for a scene in that book he wanted to portray Isaac Newton sitting down at his desk one morning to write a letter. Would Newton have lit a candle first?
I know of more than a few writers, including many widely published authors, who would just portray Newton as putting flame to wick without giving the matter any thought. Others might pause briefly to consider the plausibility of the act, then tell themselves, “Well, he surely might have lit a candle…good enough,” and simply written that detail into the scene. Levenson didn’t settle for any such dubious assumptions. He’s a nonfiction writer who takes seriously his obligation to work with verifiable fact. In this case, he consulted a weather diary kept by John Locke, archived by the Royal Society in England, looked up the entry for the day that Newton would have written the letter in question, and found that, indeed, Locke had recorded the sort of grey, gloomy English morning that would have required Newton to light a candle.
That, I would submit, is doing the job right.