(Thoughts from Science Online 2011) (Part I)
I attended the “Death to Obfuscation” workshop on Friday, headed by Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer, and which is nicely summarized by the post Carl prepared when he wasn’t sure the snowstorm would let him get to the conference. Several of the points would come up again and again in the assorted “Be Better at Blogging” sessions I attended, such as not using jargon in your posts. It’s not that jargon is evil, per se, but it (like language in general) is a barrier to understanding if you aren’t familiar with it, and jargon is one of those things that’s not familiar to a wide audience. There was also a lot of discussion about writing as story-telling and the need to grab the audience from the beginning of the piece, because they can go elsewhere, and how a good hook is to make the story personal in some way. All good advice, but it left me with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction, and I think I know what that was.
The advice was all coming from professional writers who blog (mostly, as far as I can tell) in the life sciences, and I wonder if the same dynamic is there for the science blogger and more specifically, a physical science blogger. It’s all well and good to try and reach a broad audience, but you don’t have to do that — it’s perfectly fine to write to a smaller audience who must know a little bit of background to appreciate your posts, if that’s what you want to do. And getting personal may be a great strategy for a medical story — Mary had a serious case of fluffy bunny syndrome — but I just don’t see it being universal. I can’t really write a story like
Deep inside Bob, a W boson was wreaking havoc, causing a quark to flip from up to down and he winced as he silently emitted a neutrino, right there at the wedding reception, which would have been most embarrassing had anyone noticed, owing to the longstanding stigma of neutrinos being left-handed. But fortune smiled on Bob, for a jar of Carbon tetrachloride and a gamma coincidence detector were mysteriously absent from the wedding registry, so nobody had brought them as gifts.
OK, maybe I could write that. But not all the time.
To get back to the narrative, hearing a few of the professional-bio-journalism-y tidbits over and over again seemed less insightful after a while. But that’s a minor nit in the overall scheme of things. Part of it was the sessions I chose to attend.
There was a session on Science and Scientists in Fiction, and a major topic in that discussion was whether it was more important to get the science right, or to portray scientists as scientists really are, and avoid the stereotypes (if it came down to a choice). One of the moderators was Blake Stacey, and he used the Star Trek example of the baryon sweep he had blogged about, and I concurred that his instinct was correct. Short version:
- The name is OK from a physics and logic standpoint, because while all neutrons and protons are baryons, not all baryons are just neutrons or protons. So all of the dweebs who sneered at the name can piss off.
- The name is also correct from a physicist/engineer/technician standpoint, because nobody is going to repetitively use the long, technically accurate phrase exotic metastable baryon sweep (or whatever) — it’s going to get shortened down, whether to baryon sweep or some other nickname, because we use jargon all the time. So this is geeks acting like geeks.
I don’t recall any general agreement on which was worse, since it depends on the context. I suspect that as the nit-pickiness of the detail gets smaller it’s more forgivable, since fewer science-types will notice the error. But we’re generally disappointed when scientists are portrayed as the nerdy white-coat-wearing stereotype.
I’ll continue in part III.