The scientist-journalist divide: what can we learn from each other?

Cross-posted at Highly Allochthonous

ResearchBlogging.orgLast week, the journal Nature published two research papers on the effects of human-caused global warming on extreme precipitation events. I’m working on a post on the papers, and they’ve already received quite a bit of attention in the media.

As glamour mag journals often do when they publish papers that they think are going to catch wide attention, the two articles in Nature were accompanied by feature stories designed to add explanation and context to the necessarily succinct and technical writing of the articles themselves. One of these features fell under the heading “News in Focus”, while the other was in the category “News and Views.” Here are the first lines of each of those features.

The varying distribution of fresh water across the globe, involving complex patterns of rainfall in space and time, crucially affects the ecosystems and infrastructure on which human societies depend.

Climate change may be hitting home.

Which of those stories do you suppose was written by an academic scientist and which was written by a science writer? No bonus points for being correct. I’m not going to call either sentence out as good or bad, because I think they both have strengths and weaknesses. Overall, both were very well written pieces. But their first sentences sure do strikingly exemplify the differences in the culture of written expression between research scientists and journalists.

Scientists can definitely learn a thing or two about communication from science journalists. I don’t want to transform my manuscripts into text that reads like journalism, because the two forms of writing serve very different purposes for very different audiences. But reading good science writing online and practicing my own writing here have immeasurably improved my consideration of word choices, sentence structure, the value of an engaging first paragraph (or lede), and sense of narrative arc. I think these skills are carrying over from blogging into my manuscript and grant writing, my interactions with graduate student writing, and even my teaching. Maybe I’ll start asking my students to read both primary papers and the accompanying feature stories, so that they might absorb some writing skills from their reading assignments. So my unsolicited advice to fellow scientists is: “If you want to write better, start by carefully reading good writing.”

But science journalists can learn some tricks from the scientists too. After I read the first article, I understood why extreme precipitation might increase as a result of a warming climate (warm air holds more moisture; additional moisture in the air makes dry places even drier). When I read the second article, that “why” explanation was completely missing. In both articles, I got an overview of what the studies did and what they found, and in the second article I learned about implications for the insurance industry, adding context. But I lost the “why.” And it’s the why that allows us to translate what we’ve learned in one situation or study into another. Given the physical basis (the why) for a study, an interested reader can conjecture that if extreme precipitation is increasing in the Northern Hemisphere, then it’s likely increasing in the Southern Hemisphere as well, and that droughts may becoming more severe in arid regions. (And eventually scientists can test those conjectures.) Without the why, a reader only knows what that the insurance industry is concerned about climate change. If I may be so bold as to give some advice to science journalists, it is this: Explain not just what the paper of the week found, but why the result was obtained. Use those fantastic writing skills to communicate the science behind the science.

If both scientists and journalists are concerned that Americans are ill-informed and apathetic about science, and climate science in particular, then it behooves both groups to change the way we communicate science. And maybe the place to start is to look to each other for advice.


For those who are interested in reading more about extreme precipitation and less about writing, the sentences above came from these two sources.

Allan RP (2011). Climate change: Human influence on rainfall. Nature, 470 (7334), 344-5 PMID: 21331034

Schiermeier Q (2011). Increased flood risk linked to global warming. Nature, 470 (7334) PMID: 21331014

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