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If I’m Dumbing You Down, You’re Bumming Me Out

Adam Ruben’s most recent column, “Experimental Error: The Unwritten Rules of Journalism,” provoked this response from science writer Hannah Holmes. Footnotes are hers.

Yes, science writers make mistakes. And, of course, so do scientists. That column was one of them.

However, since Dr. Adam Ruben is both a science writer and a practicing scientist, I’m confident he’ll be happy to provide citations for a
couple of his assertions. At the next meeting of the National Association of Science Writers, we can update our science communication practices accordingly.

In reality, journalists make mistakes. And nowhere is the problem more prevalent than in science journalism.

Nowhere? Nowhere! That is bad, isn’t it!*

Science is difficult to understand, and scientists famously lack communication skills.

I’m guessing the first clause is attributed to Barbie. But I can’t guess the second, and science writers don’t present our guesses as facts. So let me trouble you for sources.

In fact, science writers appear to obey a collection of unwritten rules when trying to convey science to a mainstream audience.

In fact, for the convenience of Dr. Ruben, the rules are written! You can find them in about** a million books on how to write in such a manner that people might read your work! Now, we all make mistakes, but you omitted the main point, the biggest goal: Attract and educate readers.

Let me guide you to the bridge you missed, a bridge trodden by about*** a billion practicing scientists who actually want to cross the knowledge gap that yawns**** between what they do all day and the people whose tax dollars support their work. On one side, we have readers, few***** of whom are trained to appreciate what Dr. Ruben calls “the mundane.” Some have alleged this ignorance is due to science’s inherent “difficultness.”****** But other observers******* would suggest, rather, that the average person avoids mastering the mundane of every subset of “science” because she is preoccupied with growing the food, or dressing children, or balancing the city budget, or designing buildings, or painting pictures.

On the other side of the bridge are scientists, few of whom are trained in what I call “convincing taxpayers to protect the federal research budget.”******** One observer********* remarks that scientists have made enormous progress in conveying the relevance of their work. And science writers continue to do what our training has always dictated: attract and educate readers.

Dr. Ruben is obviously aiding the cause, as well, by–well, I guess I have to ask how.

* Please use small words. “Journal” is fine, but don’t hit me with all the sociopsychoneuro stuff.
** Science writer’s guesstimate. I was an English major.  (Summa Cum Laude, but still – not a ton of math in that major.)
*** Ibid. Or Idem. Edam? No, that’s cheese. Four years of Latin and I still have to look that up. Language is difficult!
**** There’s some of that fancy, literary tree-wasting we do every time someone lets us monkeys around with a keyboard. Yawns, get it? Hah! There’s more of it! I’m subtly accusing Dr. Ruben of being even more insulting than he was!
***** I need help with the math here. Would Dr. Ruben list the circulation of journals in which he regularly publishes, then replace the word “few” with that number? Thx.
******* Just me, really.
******** — and perhaps by extension, the planet. But that, again, is just me. Just why I go to work every day.
********* Been doing it for 20-ish years, but yeah, an n of 1 is still an n of 1. Mea culpa. What? Oh, sorry! Let me dumb that down for ya, bro! Mea culpa is Latin for “I mighta effed up.” Try it with me: May-uh. Cool-puh. Louder, so the whole class can hear!

Hannah Holmes is a science writer who writes for National Geographic and Discover, and is author of four books, most recently QUIRK: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality.