Daryl Ilbury

Posts Tagged ‘science writers’

The problem with science…and Science

In Eish!, Science on September 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm

My old chum Ed Yong* – one of the few to crack the nod.

…so there I was looking at one of my favourite science journal websites, deservedly and authoritatively simply called ‘Science‘, when my attention was caught by the section titled ‘Careers‘. Seeing I had committed myself to a career as a science journalist and writer, and I was armed with over 20 years in commercial media, nine as a journalist, and a Masters in Science Journalism under my belt, I thought “let me see what opportunities await me”.

Imagine my surprise, nay shock, when a search under ‘Writer’ left me with the following message: “The specified search produced no results. Try changing your criteria or use the form below to save your search and create a Search Agent”

Thinking I must have filled in the multitude different fields incorrectly, I tried a different combination. The result was the same. My journalist instinct kicked in and I went straight to the source, and inquired of Tracy Holmes, the Worldwide Associate Director of Science Careers, if there was any need for science writers in the world of Science (capital intended), or if I was just filling in the search field incorrectly.

Her reply (within an hour I must add) was the following:

Hi Daryl,

We don’t publish many ads of this type on sciencecareers.org.  The majority of our ads are for more traditional research careers.  Typically we do run ads for science editors, we publish our own editorial vacancies this way and both Elsevier and Nature have advertised for editors on our site. Kind regards, Tracy.

And that, in my opinion, is what’s wrong with science (no capital intended): a reluctance to accept science writers into the ‘fold’ as it were; the refusal, it seems, to acknowledge the specialisation needed of a journalist/writer to write about science; and the reluctance to share its research and endeavours with the great unwashed – an aloofness, if you like.

The reality is that science needs science writers; because without them, the world would be more distrustful of science and its intense specialisation; because science research needs funding, and funding is directed where there’s a need or a public fascination; because science writers give real purpose to what science does; and because, at the end of the day, scientists, just like like everyone else, sit down to take a crap.

So come on science…and Science…give science writers a break.

*You can read the work of Ed Yong on his excellent Discovery blog Not Exactly Rocket Science

The sad tale of disunity in science journalism

In Eish!, Science on August 6, 2012 at 6:18 am

Budding science writers perhaps?

Many years ago, as the creative director of a science communications company, it was my responsibility to design a series of science shows and workshops aimed at senior primary school learners. Our aim was to break down the perceptive barriers that children developed around science, especially before they got to the level at school where they would choose their final subjects of study.

Our biggest challenge was the fact that many of their teachers had, themselves, never studied science beyond junior high, and were therefore a little reluctant to teach it. It was no surprise then that their pupils inherited this mindset.

Decades later, as a science journalist, I am still confronting the same problem, but mainly with a purely adult audience.

It’s obviously a problem I share with my fellow science journalists; but there’s an added complication: instead of there being a cohesive attempt by science journalists to educate media consumers about the magic of the natural world, there seems to be division within the ranks.

I have written about this before, but a recent blog entry on Forbes online by the journalist John McQuaid made me realise how seemingly disparate is the difference between scientists who write as journalists and journalists who write about science. He presents the fascinating case of the highly successful science writer Jonah Lehrer, who allegedly included some rather dodgy facts in one of his books, and how another science writer, the neuroscientist Daniel Bor, publicly took him to task.

One of Bor’s more interesting assertions (which he later tempered), is that all science journalists should have a PhD in a science field before they are let loose on the unsuspecting public. I smiled when I read this, because whilst researching my final project on the state of science journalism in South Africa as part of my Masters in Science Journalism, I interviewed Prof Lizette Rabe of the Department of Journalism at the University of Stellenbosch, who said that, in an ideal world, all journalists – irrespective of their ‘beat’ – should be armed with a BSc.

My research also threw further light on the rather sad reality as I have known it since those early years as a science communicator, that science is not as ‘popular’* as it should be.

I expect most science journalists would agree with me on that; but that many of them would disagree with me on this: science journalists with a specialised science degree are more comfortable writing for an already dedicated science news consumer, and in so doing may help preserve the isolation of science from the non science news consumer. In essence, they may even help perpetuate, perhaps even intentionally, its aura of exclusivity.

On the other hand, journalists who have evolved into science writing (my intended emphasis!) are more likely to help break down the perceptive barriers that still exist for most people around science, even though they run the increased risk of technical inaccuracies slipping by in their writing – inaccuracies that would be glaring to specialist science writers. This is especially the case when a sub-editor or editor doesn’t know any better.

So whereas Mr Lehrer presented some factual errors of science in his writing (which are avoidable) and appears to have misrepresented the nature of their origin (which is inexcusable); and even misquoted Bob Dylan (which seems to verge on the sacrilegious), I am a little uncomfortable with the witch hunt that seems to have manifested itself within certain members of the media. Here’s an example from Damian Thompson of the Telegraph.

Science holds the key to breaking down the cultural, religious and political ideologies that are tearing humankind apart. It is therefore far too important to remain the exclusive domain of a specialised elite; and the journalism entrusted with its propagation is far too threatened to become a battleground for infighting.

*popular |ˈpäpyələr|adjective:

1. liked, admired, or enjoyed by many people or by a particular person or group: “she was one of the more popular girls in school”,

2. intended for or suited to the taste, understanding, or means of the general public rather than specialists or intellectuals: the popular press.