John Oliver on Scientific Studies

An excellent rant from John Oliver on the way science stories are handled in the media, and on the need for some healthy skepticism. And the need to track down sources for the studies yourself, to the extent that this is possible.

Also, I love the “TODD Talks” skit at the end.

On Writing Technical Articles for the Nonspecialist

WatchPhoto: John Mount

I came across a post from Emily Willingham the other day: “Is a PhD required for Good Science Writing?”. As a science writer with a science PhD, her answer is: is it not required, and it can often be an impediment. I saw a similar sentiment echoed once by Lee Gutkind, the founder and editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction. I don’t remember exactly what he wrote, but it was something to the effect that scientists are exactly the wrong people to produce literary, accessible writing about matters scientific.

I don’t agree with Gutkind’s point, but I can see where it comes from. Academic writing has a reputation for being deliberately obscure and prolix, jargonistic. Very few people read journal papers for fun (well, except me, but I’m weird). On the other hand, a science writer with a PhD has been trained for critical thinking, and should have a nose for bullpucky, even outside their field of expertise. This can come in handy when writing about medical research or controversial new scientific findings. Any scientist — any person — is going to hype up their work. It’s the writer’s job to see through that hype.

I’m not a science writer in the sense that Dr. Willingham is. I write statistics and data science articles (blog posts) for non-statisticians. Generally, the audience that I write for is professionally interested in the topic, but aren’t necessarily experts at it. And as a writer, many of my concerns are the same as those of a popular science writer.

I want to cut through the bullpucky. I want you, the reader, to come away understanding something you thought you didn’t — or even couldn’t — understand. I want you, the analyst or data science practitioner, to understand your tools well enough to innovate, not just use them blindly. And if I’m writing about one of my innovations, I want you to understand it well enough to possibly use it, not just be awed at my supposed brilliance.

I don’t do these things perfectly; but in the process of trying, and of reading other writers with similar objectives, I’ve figured out a few things.

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