Wednesday, June 08, 2011

WisCon Panel: Science Writing

My master's degree is in Technical and Scientific Communication, so that explains my interest in this topic. This was the first panel held Sunday morning; I was a little late, since I had breakfast with my family.

Can approach article authors with questions

Libraries can help you get access to articles

Open-source journals like PLOS

Sometimes authors post PDFs of their articles on their websites; however, they may not have been subject to peer review

Can always try a Google search too

The headlines may be sensationalized, but many people don’t read beyond the headlines

Newspapers very rarely go back to the scientist with question

Pay attention to your sources

Even big journals sometimes publish controversial articles to drive science forward

Blogs—Not Exactly Rocket Science

Science 2.0

Am I Making Myself Clear, Don’t Be Such a Scientist (these are recommended articles)

NY Times offers quality articles

Some societies train journalists in critical thinking and risk assessment

Small, regional papers may be more likely to sensationalize

Even peer-reviewed journals aren’t perfect

Some types of results are more likely to get published (positive preferred over negative, paradigm shift)

Science writers use analogies to help explain science to the public, but they’re not necessarily accurate

Even speculation may be off-base

The essence of science isn’t facts, but the ability to change our minds when new data comes along

(e.g., Pluto itself hasn’t changed, but the way we view the planet has)

Scientists in Italy are being prosecuted for not warning public about earthquake

Public considers numbers too dry; come up with another way to explain what the numbers mean

Kids are taught to use numbers and facts when writing about science; however, we need to use some of the elements of fiction (like a narrative) to bring science to life

People react differently to different ways of stating the same data

Scientists will critique science programs on their blogs

Labcoats in Hollywood (another recommended book)

Some wiki sources are useful, but there’s always the risk of someone editing it to distort the picture

You can get approval, but still use poor science to support your argument

Which sources are unreliable?

NPR does a lot of good reporting, will admit errors

Look for podcasts like the Naked Scientist

Even tiny misspellings can lead to errors

Wikipedia does have good basic stuff like MSDSs, chemical weights, boiling/melting points, etc.

Be wary of newspapers that don’t have dedicated science sections

AP labels tell you what people are talking about, but doesn’t guarantee quality

Highly focused scientists may not understand the big picture—and they don’t know everything either

Blog: Speakeasy Science

Writer may get the facts right, but editors may change things that they think are wrong (but aren’t)

Articles may be cut in such a way that the explaining paragraphs are lost

Jared Diamond—made some broad generalizations about why particular civilizations collapsed, cherry-picked data, didn’t address the data points that contradicted his thesis

Popular authors still winning, science still trying to catch up

We self-select our own data streams

Scientists in different specialties may have different paradigms

Jennifer Rome— (fiction that incorporates science)

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