On Science Writing

Few things make me happier than when I read a really good piece of science writing. This is particularly relevant now as it is that time of year when the Wellcome Trust teams up with the Guardian and together they go off in search of new science journalism talent. This competition is an excellent opportunity for budding science writers to show off their skills to two very prestigious and relevant organisations, and if you are thinking about entering, that’s a sure sign that you should – you have nothing to lose.

Why is science writing important?

Good quality science communication is more than important, it is vital. We live in a world in which science and technology are essential factors in almost everything we do and every decision that we make, and therefore ensuring that the general public have a sound understanding of basic scientific concepts and current issues in science and technology is imperative to the future of both our individual societies and the global community.

I am not for a second suggesting that we must make a scientist out of everyone. Of course not. Science is more than a grade or a piece of paper or letters after your name. Science is a way of thinking, it is a philosophy, it is a process. It is objective and it is honest, and it is subject to change*. It is not afraid of evolving and changing its mind, or even being proven wrong – that is the whole point. The scientific method is all about wondering up ideas, then testing those ideas against the real world through carefully designed controlled experiments, and then telling the world about what you discovered.

Science is not something to be afraid of, and yet a disturbingly high number of people fear it. The fault here lies not with those members of the public who are ignorant to science: Much of this is down to bad media representations of science. People often tend to believe what they are told without looking for any evidence – something which, somewhat ironically, science teaches us never to do. If the basic concepts or ideas behind science, such as demanding evidence for claims or hypotheses, were to be adopted by a majority of the public, then many of the scare-mongering stories regarding this topic would be nullified. There are examples of “bad science” out there, just as there are examples of bad practice in every discipline in life. We need to teach the public not to generalise fear and indifference to all scientific studies, rather to teach them how to separate the good from the bad, inform them about which studies are legitimate and why.

This is where good science writing, and accurate media representations of science more broadly, must stand up and play a role. Together we must convince people that science is generally working for the greater good and that scientists are not all mad men in lab coats attaching ears to the backs of lab rats or meddling with stem cells just for the fun of it. People do not need or want to feel patronised by science or scientists, nor do they need or want to be overwhelmed with jargon and terms that they do not understand nor feel they need to understand. People need to know why and how science is relevant to their lives and the lives of their family. People need to trust and believe in reliable sources of information. Science is open and it is honest and it is willing to share information and results. It does not make ridiculous outlandish claims that it cannot back up. The same goes for science writing.

The public are not stupid, but they are all too often not equipped with the tools and resources required to understand the philosophy and concepts of science. We can alleviate this by making sure that the most credible science writers are armed with a sound grasp of science and can effectively communicate this to the public. Could you do it? I’ll leave this link right here in case the answer is “yes”.

* I know a lot of this sounds far too over-romanticised and that there of course many examples of bad science out there to which these claims do not apply, but I am speaking generally of the ideal concept of sound science and the best practice scientific processes.

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