Monday, 9 April 2012

The Pen is Mightier than the Pipette

Why Writing can Make, Break, or Fake your Science

We scientists are just a tiny bit disdainful of what we call ‘the humanities’. Just a tiny bit. We are, just admit it! We know writing is important, but in the end it’s the science itself that’s going to change the world, right?

I only really started to think about the importance of writing recently, when I was given an editing test as part of a job application a couple of months ago. The test was a scientific paper that had sentences like this:  “The method is also laborious in pursuing the subject except in case when several fixed stations were set in closed waters.” This paper had already been through a first edit: all the grammatical and spelling mistakes had been fixed, and now my job was to try and make sense of it. Don’t worry, it didn’t make sense to me either, and I assume it didn’t make much sense to the editors when they first received the paper for publication, or else they wouldn’t have made it into an editing test, the sole purpose of which, I assume, is the slow torture of job applicants. (Note: the experimental ‘subject’ is a fish which the authors were having trouble to catch to do the experiment on, for anyone who’s dying to know.)

The point is, no matter how good your science or science idea, if you can’t write about it properly, you’re going to run into trouble. This puts scientists whose first language is not English at a serious disadvantage, and there are companies that have started making truckloads of money by capitalising on this. The most obvious point at which writing matters, is publication. If you can’t write about it in a way that makes sense, it’s going to be difficult to get your science published, which, as we’ve established, is all that really matters. But good writing skills are crucial even before you pick up that pipette, when you’re trying to persuade those funding bodies to give you money to BUY that pipette. If you’ve got Mad Writing Skillz, you’re more likely to get a grant in the first place.

So writing lets you do the science and lets you get it published. But it becomes even more crucial, if possible, when you’re trying to explain to people outside of your geeky science circle what it is you’ve done with your pipette. Because it is here that it influences how people and companies use your science, how science policy is made, and arguably most importantly, how people think the world works.

One of the most famous cases to illustrate this is the big scare around 2001 about the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine being linked to autism. As is explained here quite nicely, the main problem was not the actual first paper published in 1998 (which later did turn out to be a bit dodgy), but the exaggerated coverage by the media. There are countless of other examples where press releases reach the public before the science is properly peer-reviewed. And don’t even get me started on the careless way in which many scientific findings are misrepresented or exaggerated in the media today. Many good blogs already talk about this, like this one and this one.  

Can you think of any other ways in which the pen is mightier than the pipette? According to this article on science blogging, I haven’t really been engaging my readers in debate so far. Mostly because I know my readers agree wholeheartedly with everything I write.