May
02

No, let’s NOT sack all the science writers

posted on May 2nd 2010 in News & Uncategorized with 24 Comments

Update: Dr Goldacre has taken exception to this interpretation of his remarks in the I, Science interview. We would like to make absolutely clear that Dr Goldacre does not advocate the sacking of all science writers.

However, I genuinely did read his remarks to mean that he believed we should reduce science writers considerably and that ‘unmediated’ communication from scientists to the public, with no science writers at all, was ultimately the ideal. The headline was intended to be a pithy summary of my counter view. Obviously Dr Goldacre feels that was not what he meant. If he would like to explain his views on the future of
science writing then I’d be happy to hear them.

Regardless of any connection with Dr Goldacre’s views, I think it’s important to make the arguments for the value of a mixed ecology of science communication. And that is what the post is actually about, so I feel the points I make still stand.

In an interview with I, Science, Ben Goldacre outlines his theory that we should replace science writers with practising scientists writing about their area. Dr Goldacre argues that scientists themselves bring a depth of knowledge and insight that can’t be rivalled by the generalist science writer.

Because people who work actively in a field of science, they know that field backwards. Their distractions and the nuances of their language and the diversions they drift off in as they write, and their ability to spot the flaws in somebody’s case will be head and shoulders above somebody who’s just come to it, spending four or five hours working on it, on that one day.*

He suggests that instead of professional science writers we should have armies of editors helping the scientists to structure and express their thoughts.

Now I think there are some good points here, worth bearing in mind. An example I often give when explaining the value of I’m a Scientist, is of Sam Mugford, of the John Innes Centre, who took part in the pilot event back in 2008. Sam studies plant biochemistry, specifically the mechanisms that allow oat plants to resist infection by a particular fungus.

Sam Mugford in his welliesIt’s fair to say Sam (pictured) is obsessed by plants. One day, he was trying to convey this in a live chat and said “The interesting thing about plants is that they can’t run away”.
He explained that while animals can run away from predators and hide, plants can’t, so they have to find some other means of defence. This, therefore, is why they’ve evolved all sorts of things, from thorns, to leaves impregnated with hallucinogens, and ultimately, it’s a big part of why their biochemistries are so fascinating.
This really stuck with me for days afterwards. The simple fact that plants can’t run away. And that this seeming truism meant something. I found myself thinking about it while watering the pots on my patio.
I mean it’s something we all know of course, but Sam’s depth of understanding of the subject had given him the clarity to express why this was a key fact, and to see (and explain) that so much else followed from it. I’m not sure a generalist science writer would have this same insight unless their interviewees mentioned it.
This is precisely why I agree with Ben that there is an enormous value in scientists communicating their own work. There are possibly things that only someone really steeped in the field can do. But there are also things that only people not steeped in the field can do, and those things have value too.
A student in the last I’m a scientist asked the classic ‘If a tree falls in the forest’ question to the scientists in the Brain Zone. No offence to the lovely scientists, but I thought their answers were surprisingly literal. A philosopher, or a poet, or perhaps a quantum physicist might have given very different sorts of answers.
I don’t think it would make much sense to sit there and argue about which of these answers was ‘right’. I think they’re all valid ways of thinking about the question, and they all add a different perspective. As my old lecturer Joan used to say, you can’t tell the shape of a house from only seeing a photo of the front. You can tell a lot more by looking at it from the sides, the back and from above too.
Of course the neuroscientists who answered the student’s question think about things in literal, physical terms. That is the type of explanation they deal in. It’s their job, it’s what we want them to do. But there are other ways of looking at things that add something to our understanding.
A neuroscientist may be able to tell us what brain areas are activated when we ‘get’ a joke, but we need an immunologist to tell us in detail about it’s effect on immune function and it’s a social psychologist who can unpick why social status affects whether we laugh at a joke. Historians, ethnographers and sociologists can all tell us something about the uses of humour and the way it changes in different times, situations and cultural settings.
I think good science writers can look at a topic anew, interview a range of people and bring together those other perspectives. And I think that’s often useful.
Such generalist science writers do, I’m sure, have their shortcomings. But so do experts. What’s wrong with having a mixed ecology? As a biology graduate I’m perhaps overly prey to biological metaphors, but I know that a diverse ecosystem is a healthy ecosystem. When a plethora of niches are filled, there’s more likely to be something, somewhere, filling any gap.

*I’d like to also briefly take issue with this picture of science writers spend a few hours working on a story. I’m not having a go at Dr Goldacre particularly, it’s a shorthand that often comes up in this kind of conversation, but I think it risks missing some of the picture.


Yes, that’s often true of a newspaper science correspondent (although they will have interests in certain stories or topics and follow them over time), but this isn’t the only sort of lay science communication in the world. A feature writer might spend weeks, off and on, researching a topic. A documentary maker might spend months. Let’s not over-generalise our complaints about science in the news to all other forms of science writing.

currently there's 24 comment(s)

  • Andrew Maynard

    commented on May 2, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    Thanks for this Sophia. I think the idea of bringing different approaches, skills and perspectives together is critical. In research the most interesting stuff often happens at the intersection between different disciplines (not just science disciplines) – think the same goes for communication. And of course, there’s something a little iffy about one interest group – scientists – setting and controlling the communication agenda. This is where a multi-faceted approach is essential if the science is to be connected to the people who pay for it, benefit from it, and sometimes end up suffering the consequences of it.

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  • Ed Gerstner

    commented on May 2, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    The big problem I have with the idea of doing away with journalists is the inherent conflict of interest in scientists writing about own work. This is an immense problem with the increasing prevalence of churnalism on the web. Actually, it’s not really churnalism, but pure PR. That is, an increasing number of science stories I see on the web are not stories (in the journalistic sense) but university press releases.
    And if you want to see misrepresentation of the worst kind, you could barely find worse than that of scientists writing about their work for a popular audience.
    Yes, science news is more difficult to get to grips with than, say, entertainment news. But I utterly disagree that it’s that much more difficult than say, financial news. Or legal news.
    Should we do away with financial journalists as well, so that bankers can put a clearer case for banking reform. Or legal journalists so that litigators can put a clearer case for, say, libel reform?

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  • alice

    commented on May 2, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    Very much with you on the mixed ecology point. I assume you’ve read Ed Yong’s various blogposts on what he calls the “new ecology” of sci com’n? (has some links, though he’s talking more about the role of new media to disrupt traditional models).
    Anyway, I really liked the post, great examples. Ta Sophia!

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  • Stephen Curry

    commented on May 2, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    Hi Sophia – I read your post and then went back to the original interview in which Goldacre says:
    “See I think in an ideal world often the best people to write about science are people who work in that field, people who are working scientists. And what I’d really like to see is fewer science writers and more science editors. More people who see it as their job to help scientists communicate about their own work or about work in their field – in their own words.”
    I don’t interpret this as a call for a wholesale replacement of science writers by scientists, just a shift of emphasis. I think you might have exaggerated his view? I suspect Goldacre himself may appreciate the value in a mixed economy for science communication (but I’m sure he’s more than capable of expressing his own opinions!).
    It’s a shifting landscape after all and probably needs to be under constant review. Plus it’s an important topic, so one well worth thrashing out now and then!

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  • Sophia Collins

    commented on May 2, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    Hahaha, excellent point Ed, let’s do away with financial journalists and let bankers do all the reporting!
    Stephen, I agree that when Ben introduces the topic he seems to be talking about just increasing the number of scientists writing about their work, which I would probably agree with. After all, I do run an event where the whole point is scientists communicating directly and unmediated with teenagers and I strongly believe that works.
    But then later on he says “And I think that’s really crucial and I think that’s why in all honesty, for mainstream reporting and also for comments on science issues, I think scientists communicating themselves about their own field, but assisted by very able science editors could well be a much better model for science communication than science writers.”
    This and his subsequent discussion of the advantages of scientists talking about their own field seems to me to imply that that’s the ideal. I’m happy to be wrong, if that’s not what he meant. But I just wanted to make the argument for the value of science writers, and particularly for multiple perspectives.

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  • Evan Lerner

    commented on May 2, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    This was essentially the debate Bora and I had centered on Futurity’s debut. The position I staked out in my column was more-or-less the same as Ed’s, but I very much appreciate Sophia’s point about bridging disciplinary silos.
    That was way back when I was a magazine editor, though my position hasn’t really changed much now that I’m at ScienceBlogs. Clearly, there is great value in scientists directly communicating to the public (I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if there weren’t) but it’s not the whole story.
    If anything, being at ScienceBlogs has shown that the “army of editors” Ben suggests would have to be a literal army; we push through so much content that it would take staff probably 30x our current one to edit it all in something resembling a journalistic fashion.
    But I don’t think that’s necessary, or even ideal…the “mixed economy” is a symbiotic one, not (inherently) a competitive one, as Ed Yong attests in the posts Alice is referring to.
    Striking the right balance between the rapidity/directness of blogs with bird’s-eye perspective of traditional journalism is going to be a principle challenge going forward for every journalistic beat; I’d like to think we’re ahead of the curve here with science.

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  • Evan Lerner

    commented on May 2, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    Didn’t realize my HTML wouldn’t come through, so the links:
    Bora is Bora Zivkovic (natch)
    http://scienceblogs.com/clock/
    My Futurity column:
    http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/futurity_imperfect/
    Adapting to the new ecosystem of science journalism (Ed Yong):
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/01/11/adapting-to-the-new-ecosystem-of-science-journalism/

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  • Mats Frick

    commented on May 2, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    This is a very interesting topic. One very important topic for science journalists is to communicate to the general public the temperature if scientific debate. Where are the fault lines and where is stable territory? Scientists themselves are bad at this because of their focus on specific topics. Furthermore, are scientists supposed to face up the inevitable partisan critique when natural reality meets political reality? I’m not so sure they have the nack for it (with the exception of RealClimate). Finally, even though all scientist are passionate about their work, only a fraction have the ability to write for a general audience. Well that’s my ten cents of thoughts…

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  • Marianne

    commented on May 2, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    I agree that a balance is important; only having professional scientists as science writers would lose the outside-in view, which is also important.
    But we do need more ‘bona fide’ scientists writing about the diverse fields, I think, as it gives people a more in-detail look at what goes on, and as your brilliant anecdote shows, sometimes scientists can give a unique and inspiring perspective.
    It does, as Stephen pointed out, seem as though you misinterpreted Dr Goldacre’s point somewhat, though!
    Good article, thanks for posting – definitely an interesting subject now, especially as I am considering career moves post-PhD… eek!

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  • Wendee Holtcamp

    commented on May 3, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    As a magazine feature (science/environment) writer, I love this post – thank you Sophia! Plus most scientists are terrible writers… they either use too much jargon or don’t get how to tell a narrative story. I don’t think that editors are often great writers either, so relying on editors is not going to be much help. I’m not trying to generalize too much because there are some scientists who can write amazingly well, and some great editors who write very well too. I’m just sayin… I appreciated your post. 🙂

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  • Andréia Azevedo Soares

    commented on May 3, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    In my mind, the co-existence of different actors on the science communication stage is essential. I enjoy enormously reading a good piece of science writing – and, if it is good, it doesn’t really matter to me whether it was written by a scientist, a science journalist, a scientist/painter/law student/you-name-it turned into a science writer etc. But it does matter the fact that I have such a diversity of perspectives to learn from. If a mysterious disaster killed selectively one of those groups, then I would have less inspiration and fewer references to draw from. It would be sad.
    I also want to add a brief note to the point you made on Sam Mugford’s brilliant comment, and to the notion that lines like this are more likely to come from someone who is steeped in the field. I would like to put emphasis on the fact that Sam said this great line in a chat live context, it was his (beautiful) response to previous stimuli. He didn’t come up with this sentence out of the blue (I suppose). There were children asking things (I imagine, as I didn’t read the chat transcription) and he replied to them using that simple yet lovely combination of words. He obviously could have said this in different contexts. The point I am trying to make here is about the importance of the converser. More than that: the importance of the converser/interviewer who asks questions that people steeped in the field often don’t. In your example, the interaction of players with different backgrounds might have been important to the outcome you highlighted.
    All this conversation made me think about Elise Hancock’s book “Ideas Into Words – mastering the craft of science writing”. Elise, former editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine, wrote: “In fact, within reasonable limits, ignorance is an asset. It is likely that you will never understand the world in the way a scientist does – but the readers don’t either. When you ask ‘stupid’ questions, you are only asking what the readers would ask if they could. Because you do not know, you will nose out the gee-whiz examples and unspoken assumptions that the scientist is apt to take for granted. (“Huh? Everybody knows that.”)No, everybody dos not.”
    Sophia, thanks for this beautiful blog entry.
    Full disclosure: I’m a journalist and I have no scientific background.

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  • Sophia Collins

    commented on May 3, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    Wow, thanks for your comments everyone!
    Evan, sorry about the links not working! But thanks for posting them, v interesting. I think you make some good points in the Seed article about journalists as gatekeepers.
    To most of you, yes, I was thinking as I was writing the post that there are various other reasons to value science writers and not rely entirely on scientists themselves. But I thought I’d stick to one main point to avoid the post becoming too unwieldy.
    And on scientists possibly being terrible writers – I wouldn’t like to say that! Certainly some of them are very good, Stephen being a case in point. But writing well is an unevenly distributed skill. Do we think that only the scientists who happen to write and communicate well should get coverage of their work?
    Surely the thing that should be most important about a scientist is the quality of their research? If they do brilliant research but can’t string a sentence together, that shouldn’t mean no-one gets to hear about their work. That seems to me to be the logical extension of the idea that scientists themselves are necessarily the best communicators.
    And Andreia – that’s an excellent point that I hadn’t thought of. The converser of course influences the communication. For a start we often find that scientists explain their work much more engagingly in the live chats, in response to questions from students, than they do on their profile page. And yes, one of the shortcomings of anyone (scientist or otherwise) writing about an area they are expert on, is the tendency to miss out the stuff that seems obvious to them.
    Thanks for a thought-provoking bank holiday weekend everyone! Although you’ve meant I didn’t get as far with my unpacking as I should have done…

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  • Laura

    commented on May 4, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    I have to say that the inherent danger in this is anti-credentialism that would mean that large swathes of DailyMail/tabloid reading “pseudo-sceptics” would be dismissive of the writing. Its something that kills me to say, but a lot of my working class, partly educated acquaintances look down on educated, informed people as “snobby ar**-holes”. That is why it is so easy to hook these people into superstition-based beliefs – you are offering them an alternative to the people they perceive as looking down at them (and for whom they nurture their own reverse snobbery).
    The multiple partial views perspective I strongly agree with (as a soft systems practitioner) and I think there would be difficulties if only qualififed scientists wrote – newspapers don’t want to pay big bucks. Just look at the scenario in the media worldwide where big stations are dumping qualified meteorologists in favour of plain old continuity announcers who they can also get to read the news, the sports results and host the horse racing. Why is this? Because the traditional Met services retain power over their own staff, they become autonomous agents in the context of national broadcasters and lastly, they are not cheap (http://www.met.ie/contactus/charges.asp for the exact pricing). Far cheaper to get in a staff writer, and especially for media sources who are ideologically opposed to taken-for-granted tenents – like the certainty of climate change for example, it may play in their interest to have a mere opinion.
    A lot of the problem is the well-meaning idea that one persons opinion is just as good as anothers without any kind of critical commentary. The “bigotgate” incident showed this – it was perfectly ok to spout misinformation and prejudice because the jaundiced opinion is just-as-good as an informed one. In fact it was more wrong to spout the (correct) description for somebody with prejudiced ideas than it was to express those in the first place – how twisted is that? This is the problem where consensus is forced and accomodations not sought for by critical dialog and reasonable debate, and a deep lack of mutual respect for ethicality.
    In fact I think it really does boil down to ethicality at the end of the day. Whether a writer is an “expert” or not, if they consider their ethical principles as a writer they will not print misleading or biased information. If a writer is conscious of potential issues regarding ethicality they will be more cautious in their approach. Scientists already instinctively are aware of this but there is nothing to stop it being taught to writers.

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  • Jon Copley

    commented on May 4, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    I’m a scientist who writes about their own research, and also a former full-time science journalist who used to write about other people’s work – and I think there is an important distinction to make here. Scientists writing about their own work can provide engaging, inspiring and insightful narrative about research. But objective reporting and analysis of developments by journalists is something else.
    The job of a good journalist is to get the answers to questions that they think their audience wants to know. That can be very different to the information that many scientists think that their audience wants to know. The first loyalty of a journalist is to their readership: they act as a proxy for their audience, and it can be difficult for someone involved in the story to have the necessary or desirable objectivity for that.
    What Ben seems to be criticising, quite rightly, is the pandemic of uncritical churnalism. A recent example in my own experience: as part of a research project that I lead, last month my colleagues and I discovered the world’s deepest undersea volcanic vents and produced a press release about it. The story was widely covered (e.g. by the BBC, New Scientist, The Times, Metro, National Geographic etc), but most outlets cut-and-pasted the content of our press release.
    Only two media outlets out of more than 500 did what I (as a former New Scientist news editor) would call a proper job of journalism and got some independent comment. Back in my day (the late 1990s), I would not have accepted copy from a reporter who did not get independent comment, but times have clearly changed.
    I would not want to remove the potentially important role of science writers in that regard – and if that role is in decline, then surely it needs to be bolstered rather than abandoned. Many “science writers” are also already undertaking the “science editor” role that Ben espouses. They talk to scientists about their work, extract the information that is required from them, and craft it into into appropriate language, context and engaging narrative for their audience.
    But writers get a byline for their efforts, while editors do not. It can be frustrating as an editor to rewrite someone else’s godawful copy only to see their name, and not yours, appear on the piece. So I’m quite happy for “science writers” to remain acknowledged as such – most of the time they really earn that byline. And sometimes, the fresh perspective and juxtaposition of ideas by *good* science writers actually leads to new insights for researchers, who are sometimes too close to their subject to see them.
    Rather than replacing “science writers” with scientists, I would like to see *every* science PhD student routinely trained in the specific skills for communicating with non-specialists. That way they can interact effectively with “science writers” / “science editors”, not only to communicate their own research, but also to comment on developments and thereby promote better coverage and analysis, both in traditional and home-grown new media. Ok, I’m biased on that: I provide such training for several universities and institutes – but that’s because I think it is vitally important. If many scientists as “terrible writers” as Wendee says, it is just because they haven’t had appropriate training. Fortunately it only takes half a day to grasp the basics, though refinement can last a lifetime.

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  • bengoldacre

    commented on May 4, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    I do wish people would argue against what I actually say, rather than what you wish I had said. This is a tedious and deceitful strawman. You have quote-mined, invented a solution yourself, and atrributed it to me. I’ve never suggested we shld sack all science writers, though some oversensitive and intellectuallly incompetent ones may fantasise that I have, as I have dared to criticise their excesses. I’m on my phone right now so can’t post quotes from the interview and elsewhere, perhaps someone else.with more integrity than you would like to. You have deceived your readers. This is like arguing withh homeopaths.

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  • Shane McCracken

    commented on May 4, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    @bengoldacre I understand your view that you feel Sophia has created a strawman. I think she has exaggerated the headline in order to create a valuable discussion about the different strengths of scientist writers and science writers. You’ve obviously read it to mean that you said it so we’ll update the post to avoid that confusion.
    Now in the interest of fairness would you please retract your comment about this being like arguing with homeopaths, because that is a step too far.

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  • ben goldacre

    commented on May 4, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    “sack all science writers.” jesus. i dont even think it should be unmediated, as you say in your “clarification” i specifically talk about how i’d like “more science editors, facilitating scientists in communicating about their work, and fewer science writers” or some such thing, and xplain why and how i think it wld be a good model alongside straight journalism. sigh.
    http://dougal.union.ic.ac.uk/media/iscience/?p=1176
    Q But do you see the future of journalism as more of a free-lance thing? Would you rather it was that way if it meant people didn’t have to compromise their principles?
    A No, no, no, I think there’s lots of really good stuff done by science journalists and there’s lots of stuff where it needs to be a full-time job. There is one thing that I have a bit of problem with and that is: I’ve got a bit of a problem with the idea that science writers are necessarily the people who should write about science. Because I think, I worry that it might be driven partly by the ego of the science writers, I mean, I’m now talking myself into a situation where you’re just going to write about what I massive bastard I am for saying this…
    Q No we’re not going to do that to you. You’ve got a whole community that could come back at us and destroy us, it’s fine…
    A Oh, fuck no, I wouldn’t worry about that. See I think in an ideal world often the best people to write about science are people who work in that field, people who are working scientists. And what I’d really like to see is fewer science writers and more science editors. More people who see it as their job to help scientists communicate about their own work or about work in their field. in their own words. If you ever do go in and sort of work on maybe a features desk in a newspaper, you’ll find that people who regard themselves as ‘features’ journalists really do email in some of the most appalling, disorganised bullshit, that then has to be fixed from top to bottom by the editors on the features desk- that happens in every publication. There are book publishing operations where book editors have to rewrite books for people. What I think is bizarre is why do you bother having science writers? Why don’t you just have really good editors who can help people who work in a field to chorale their thoughts, to get a good structure to their piece, to express themselves clearly? Why not help them do that? Because people who work actively in a field of science, they know that field backwards., Their distractions and the nuances of their language and the diversions that they drift off as they write and their ability to spot the flaws in somebody’s case will be head and shoulders above somebody who’s just come to it, spending four or five hours working on it, on that one day. I think a really good model of this is Radio 4 science, cause Radio 4 does popular science better than pretty much anywhere else. If you listen to a Radio 4 science documentary about 70% of the words in it are spoken by the scientists themselves. But that’s not to say that they’re making these programmes by themselves. Their words are edited down, they’re cut down, they’re reordered, they’re organised in presentable ways by the people who are producing the show. There are people there who are saying: “well I’m not sure the people quite get that, could you explain that maybe in another way?”. But they’re not insisting that they write and present the whole of the show. They’re not insisting that they mediate the ideas to the public. And I think that’s really crucial and I think that’s why in all honesty, for mainstream reporting and also for comments on science issues, I think scientists communicating themselves about their own field, but assisted by very able science editors could well be a much better model for science communication than science writers. I’m surprised by how resistant science writers are to that idea.
    Q And what about scientists’ resistance to the media itself, being willing to do this in the first place and then be edited?
    A I think scientists are cautious with very good reason about talking to journalists. They see stories like when Jonathan Leake from the Sunday Times misrepresents somebody’s research and then they can’t even a get a correction or letter printed. I think you can allay a lot of the concerns if you say well, you know, you’re writing the article. There’s a lot less to be scared of in that case.
    Q Do you think it’s a realistic foresight in the next few years or do you think what you’ve just said was more idealistic than the realities of the industry?
    A It’s like any other change in culture, if people start doing it and people see that it produces good content, then other people will follow their lead. I think the Eureka magazine from the Times for example, although some of it’s fairly dull, a lot of the good stuff in there is where they’ve got working scientists in to write about work in their own fields, so that’s I guess an example of people cracking on and doing that. I find it’s the stuff that interests me, especially if it’s areas that I know nothing about, I’m always much more interested in reading a scientist talking about that, themselves, than I am in reading the opinion of some random person who’s decided to be a specialist for six hours in it.
    Q Sure, cause it authenticates it for you, doesn’t it?
    A No, it’s not about trust. It’s just that I find it’s better written and I find that it’s being written by somebody who has a depth of knowledge that allows them to develop new metaphors or to be more imaginative or expressive in the way that they describe things. Or, they can identify similarities with other areas of their own field or of other people’s fields. Or they can spot the shortcomings in a given experiment which doesn’t necessarily destroy it, blow it out of the water, but the interesting methodological limitations that you need to know about when you’re thinking about something. It just feels like a much better ride.

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  • Alex

    commented on May 4, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    Ah, Ben does make me smile 🙂 He rightly castigates bad journalists for cherry-picking facts to support a particular viewpoint that sells newspapers (and here castigates bloggers for cherry-picking quotes to set up their own “tedious and deceitful strawman”). But let’s not forget that he cherry-picks examples of poor journalism to, erm, sell his books.
    Several posters have in fact referred back to Ben’s original interview to question whether he was actually advocating a wholesale replacement of science writers, discuss that interpretation, and generally explore that as an idea, regardless of whether Ben was actually proposing it or not. This being a blog, it’s about facilitating a discussion between people, rather than delivering pronouncements on tablets of stone. From his rather grumpy and combative post, I’m surprised Ben doesn’t seem to get that, or appreciate that it’s not all about him.

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  • ben goldacre

    commented on May 4, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    great that people want to discuss stuff, and i want people to disagree with me, with compelling arguments that will make me change my mind, on any subject. the only thing i find tedious is people inventing views and attributing them to me. you’re welcome to your ad hom, some people probably do find that kind of thing exciting and interesting.

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  • Sophia Collins

    commented on May 4, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    You know Ben, I really don’t think there is any ad hominem attack on you in this blog post. I say absolutely nothing about you as a person, merely paraphrase what I took your views to be. You feel I misrepresented those views. Fair enough. I apologise for that.
    I’ll state again, it was an honest mistake on my part, based on what I interpreted the words I read to mean. You’ll note that from the beginning I linked to the interview so that readers could read that for themselves. There was no attempt to obscure the wider content of the article. As I was writing, I was not *intentionally* putting words in your mouth, or *intentionally* misrepresenting you. I really thought that what you were saying was that in your ideal model we shouldn’t have science writers, just scientists and editors. I felt that was an interesting and provocative suggestion, but one that ultimately I disagreed with and wanted to write about.
    Now perhaps the headline was unwisely hyperbolic, reading it with hindsight is a beautiful thing of course. Apologies for that. I didn’t think anyone was going to take it quite so seriously. Mea culpa. However, I’ve read the interview again and it *still* reads to me as if what you are suggesting is ultimately a world without science writers, just editors. I appreciate now that that wasn’t your intention, but I can’t feel that I have been *egregiously* at fault to read it that way.
    I have discussed it with a colleague and he argues that other interpretations are possible. And of course you are the horse’s mouth and you are clear that isn’t what you meant, so I accept that. Now that you have expressed your disagreement I have immediately published a correction.
    In response you have told me I should be ashamed for writing this, responded ‘rubbish’ when I said that I had no intent to deceive, several times described me as deceitful, impugned my integrity and compared me to a homeopath.
    May I say I think that’s just a little bit over the top? I feel it’s unreasonable to accuse me of deliberate deceit for a misinterpretation. And really rather presumptuous to tell me what I should be ashamed of. I’ve lived a varied life, and no offence but this is a long, long way down the list of things I should feel ashamed of.
    Believe it or not, I didn’t think I was writing a post about Ben Goldacre and what his views were. I was writing about modes of science communication. Your remarks, or what I took them to mean, were just the jumping off point, because I happened to read that article on Saturday. Regardless of your view on the matter I think it’s important to recognise the value of good science writers (and yes, of course, some of them aren’t good and churnalism is appalling) and recognise that expert scientists writing on their area would not be a panacea.
    Now surely there are enough bad things in the world to get het up about, without getting too upset about misunderstandings, misinterpretations and the opinions of a harmless drudge, toiling in obscurity, who frankly never imagined you would even read this post? (Just wait til I tell my friend Sarah about this, she’ll be very excited, she *hearts* you). We all want to support and encourage good science communication.
    Imagine the article makes no mention of the thoughts of B Goldacre. Read it replacing all references to yourself with Karl Popper, or Santa Claus or ‘The King of the Penguins’. I flatter myself that it’s not actually unreadable and incoherent tosh and that I’ve managed to illustrate it with a couple of nice examples. I do explicitly agree with the views of The King of the Penguins at several points. I think having scientists communicate directly is fantastic. But I think we need other things too, and I offer some reasons why. Are they compelling? Trite? Over-stated? A mirror of your own? Your thoughts would be welcome.

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  • Andrew Maynard

    commented on May 4, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    It’s rather sad when a science celebrity misuses his position to snidely attack a well-written blog on science communication (and its author), which he mistakenly thinks is all about him?
    This was a great blog that stimulated an informed and worthwhile discussion on science communication. Pity Ben Goldacre had to spoil that – simply because Sophia was using an interview with him as a jumping off point to explore some ideas.
    And as for comparing this discussion on science communication as being “like arguing withh [sic] homeopaths” – come on Ben, at least have the civility to apologize for that one!

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  • ben goldacre

    commented on May 5, 2010 at 3:15 am

    nobody here is a celebrity. it’s great that you didn’t mean to strawman my views. apologies for interrupting your interesting discussion by pointing out that you did.

    Reply
  • Neil Robertson

    commented on May 6, 2010 at 12:07 am

    This is clearly an issue among scientists. But there’s points to be made in favour of the journalist and the scientist. The main ones are I think as follows. For the journalist: they understand the science needs a vehicle to catch the public interest and they have experience in doing just that. Otherwise, they ask, why not just leave the science in the journal. For the scientist: it’s more than annoying if your life’s work is reduced to a poor analogy in one paragraph of a poor article. Where scientists can help is to work with the journalist to provide the analogy and a compelling story. Is this an editorial role? Who knows (who cares?). What scientists have to remember is that much of the work is publicly funded and there is a moral argument to made for attempting to engage with the public via the media.
    On the ensuing controversy, Goldacre says, “What I think is bizarre is why do you bother having science writers?”. That seems a pretty unequivocal statement about his perceived usefulness of science writers. What’s odd about the Goldacre argument is that: (a) he is a science writer; (b) what happens when the writer is not writing with the agreement of the scientist. I would think Goldacre would realise that, in his own writing for example, criticism and evaluation takes place. What then? The reductio is that there’s always a better expert than the writer. Is Goldacre claiming to be the last and authoritative word on flawed drug trials? Why didn’t he go to the scientist involved and ask them to tell us all about it? Surely they know more and the science writer should just get out of the way. The reason is obvious: he’s wants to present an impartial view or a competing view. That’s where Goldacre’s argument breaks down.
    (On a side note. Sophia don’t get browbeaten by people like Goldacre into snivelling retractions. At least wait until the lawyer files for libel 🙂 There’s enough material in the interview to at least argue your point. After all the history of science is full of forceful men who need to be taken on.)

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  • Shane McCracken

    commented on May 6, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    Neil, thank you for the comment. All very true.
    I’ll take responsibility for the clarification though. It was a clarification though not a retraction. Ben didn’t actually say “sack all the science writers” and it is open to interpretation what he did mean.
    I like his work and I like the way he uses social media in his work so I didn’t want to mis-represent him. He was clearly upset by the article, so I asked Sophia to clarify.
    I am however disappointed by his lack of graciousness in accepting the clarification. And the homeopaths comment… was that perhaps in jest? I beginning to doubt it.

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