Reasonable Words: Carl Zimmer: Science Writing is Not Pole Dancing

Science writer Carl Zimmer has a thoughtful response to the whole Jonah Lehrer mess (the New Yorker writer who resigned after admitting he faked quotes). Prompted by reporting by Boris Kachka in New York Magazine, Zimmer reflects on the challenges (but also the necessity) of writing about science for the general public, and the “talking past each other” that occurs when the culture of journalism meets the culture of science. A journalist friend of mine calls this phenomenon a “glimp,” her coinage I think. Would be good to name, as it happens in all kinds of contexts.


As for the other side of the story–the culture that fostered Lehrer–I appreciate that Kachka avoided silly sweeping generalizations–that all popular writing about neuroscience has become the worst form of self-help, that speaking about science in public is the intellectual equivalent of pole-dancing. Kachka instead reflects on the trouble that arises when a science writer reduces complex science to a glib lesson. He’s right to zero in on Lehrer’s 2010 New Yorker article “The Decline Effect and the Scientific Method” as an example of this error. For years, a lot of scientists and science writers alike have grown concerned that flashy studies often turn out to be wrong. But Lehrer leaped to a flashy conclusion that science itself is hopelessly flawed.

American Composer Aaron Copland once comments about non-musicians writing on music:

“If a literary man puts together two words about music, one of them will be wrong.” Swap “science” for “music”?

In other science news, Library Link of the Day tips a Guardian piece about scientific fraud that leads with

“Science is broken. Psychology was rocked recently by stories of academics making up data, sometimes overshadowing whole careers. And it isn’t the only discipline with problems – the current record for fraudulent papers is held by anesthesiologist Yoshitaka Fujii, with 172 faked articles.”

The piece is by two scientists, but exhibits some of the journalistic lambasting and selective citation of data that might give Zimmer pause. Comments are lively, including a trope about just how to find that perhaps notional  distinction between academic fraud and mere academic bullshit.

One Reply to “Reasonable Words: Carl Zimmer: Science Writing is Not Pole Dancing”

  1. Thoughtful piece, but I would ask caution to your caution. The hyper specialization brought about by the growth of “knowledge” often seems to result in experts who are incapable of communicating their findings to the “common person.” Too much expertise and a lack of big picture awareness has led us down many a garden path (viz. climate change.) c.f. Laurie Anderson’s brilliant “Only an Expert Can Deal with the Problem.”

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