Funny-ish Critique of Science Writing

This little commentary about science writing was published by the journal Science. Scientist/writer Adam Ruben’s piece makes a couple of amusing points as it goes through a list of unwritten rules of science writing. Here's a sample:

"Don’t think of what you’re doing as “dumbing down” science. It is, but don’t think of it that way.

All stories benefit from the human element, and the human of interest in your story is the scientist. So be sure to describe the scientist physically in vivid detail. Scientists love that.

Finally, the best ending for your article is always—always—a cutesy ending. If you’re writing about a new species of dinosaur, for example, end by saying, “Just don’t invite him to dinner!” This allows you to demonstrate common cause with the reader, showing him or her that you realize that you both slogged through a boring science article, but now that you’re through it you can wink at each other on the other side. Remember, they hated reading the article as much as you hated writing it, so by the end, you each deserve a little chuckle. Imagine inviting a dinosaur to dinner! Ha! But it’s a dinosaur!"

There’s a reason for those last two. When we turn in our stories, one of the most common questions from editors is “what did this person look like?” and one of the most common requests is a snappier “kicker” as we call the ending. We have to supply the needed kicker and looks description before we’re allowed to go out and play.  

Sometimes describing people and otherwise adding a human element helps propel a story and sometimes it can seem forced. But if there was an award for the most embarrassingly inappropriate thing written about a scientist’s looks, it would have to go to James Watson for his descriptions of Rosalind Franklin in The Double Helix. I don’t remember his exact words but it was something akin to: She might be pretty if she put on some make-up, dressed better and smiled more often.

Despite the sexism and transparent cattiness toward his colleague, Watson’s scientific narrative was a good read. It sold well and got good reviews because Watson emphasized the human story and wove the science in. It was never boring.  

I disagree with Ruben’s point about dumbing down. It would be funny if we science writers really were guilty of this and afraid to admit it. But in my experience, the harder a story is to read, the easier it was to write. Making a story easy is like translating one language into another. Comprehensibility takes work. A story is “dumbed down” if it fails to explain something important, or it’s inaccurate. If a story gets to the heart of a scientific idea and makes it clear, that’s good.