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Currently I’m reading sections of Investigating science communication in the information age: implications for public engagement and popular media. In chapter 4.1, Making science newsworthy: exploring the conventions of science journalism, Stuart Allan cites journalist W. T. Stead who wrote in 1906 (see page  152):

In editing a newspaper, never employ an expert to write a popular article on his own subject, better employ someone who knows nothing about it to tap the expert’s brains, and write the article, sending the proof to the expert to correct. If the expert writes he will always forget that he is not writing for experts [b]ut for the public, and will assume that they need not be told things which, although familiar to him as ABC, are nevertheless totally unknown to the general reader.

While Allan, perhaps wisely, does not make direct comment on this–in his words–“telling bit of advice”, my impression is that he agrees with it. I’ve heard very similar lines elsewhere, including at a presentation for science writing in New Zealand.

I think it’s wrong and that it misses the real point. There are experts that can write, and write well at that. It’s not that because the person is an expert that they can’t write about their subject. It’s if they are they good at writing for the public or not that matters.

Surely it’d be more accurate if rephrased as:

In editing a newspaper, never employ an expert who cannot write for the public well to write a popular article on his own subject, [...]

Inverting the negative we could get the advice:

In editing a newspaper, if possible, always employ an expert who can write for the public well to write a popular article on his own subject, [...]

OK, you think I’m just playing around with logic, right? I am pushing it, but not without a cause. To my eyes there are two things to note, one a stereotype and the other a reality.

There is a stereotype that experts inherently can’t write well for the public, just as there is a stereotype that all scientists are ugly, inarticulate geeks that wear mis-matched clothes! Both are bunk.

A reality is that no-one would expect anyone with little practice in writing for the public–”expert” or not–to be good at it in their first attempts.

A key to any craft is practice. I recall an instructor in a joinery course saying that making one shelf doesn’t make you good at it, but making hundreds eventually does. It’s the same for writing.

The key–of course–is that few scientists have the time to practice writing for the public. That’s pretty understandable, most scientists are  already busy being researcher, teacher, mentor, administrator and fund-raiser all-in-one.

There are two main things needed things for science writing. One is enough expertise (or understanding) of the subject matter to write it accurately. The other is to have enough practice to write the subject matter clearly and entertainingly.

The expert who writes well has both.

Yes, they are–or perceived to be–a rare beast. Nevertheless, I prefer an expert to a non-expert. After all the expert will know if the analogy is fair and meaningful, if that data presented on it’s own is out of context or misleading, if that other guy really is a crank.

If you wouldn’t be happy with an inexperienced writer, who is unable to present material to the public well, why be content with an non-expert writer, who is unable to judge the material well? OK, it’s not a perfect world. There are more non-experts than experts. And non-experts are cheaper. I’ll still say that I think the stereotype isn’t helpful, that the use of experts as writers shouldn’t be dismissed out-of-hand as the stereotype encourages.

What Stead does get right is that articles with science content need two reviews, regardless of who writes the article. One for accuracy, against experts. Another for how the writing would be accepted by the public. Of course, if the writer is an expert, you get both in one. (To journalists: the Science Media Centre provides an avenue for expert comment and review. Use it.)

Am I alone in thinking that writing “experts can’t write” is bunk and the real issue is the time to practice to becoming good at writing? I hope not. A little back-story may help, which I intend to leave for another post. Recent science history research suggests that in Victorian times experts did write for the public and that the stereotype that the “expert can’t write” in part is a consequence of the development of “professional” science, which, it is claimed, repressed this communication role amongst it’s members. Other research suggests that experts still do, it’s just they don’t get the visibility that perhaps they deserve.

Two final thoughts :-

Most scientists are teachers. They teach kids straight out of high school.

All of us are experts at something. Journalists are experts at journalism. Should we say that journalists couldn’t possibly explain journalism because they are experts at it?

© Grant Jacobs

Footnotes

1. I should emphasise (strongly) that Allan’s article is fine once you accept this point. I don’t mean to criticise all of his article, only this particular remark of W.T. Stead’s that he cites.

References

1. Investigating science communication in the information age: implications for public engagement and popular media edited by Holliman, Whitelegg, Scanlon, Schmidt and Thomas (OUP 2009, ISBN: 978-0-19-955266-5).