On What Authority?

A stegosaur's authority rested in its thagomizer

In the wake of several conferences over the last few weeks (including the DC Science Writers Association conference I attended), a lot of people have been musing on the evolution of science writing, including the similarities and differences between journalists, bloggers, and other science writers. I’m very new to the whole science-writing game, please read what these wiser folks have written:

I was in the audience during the contentious DCSWA discussion Brian describes in his post, and I think his interpretation is correct: there is a certain reluctance among many professional journalists to grant other types of science writing equal legitimacy. Marshall McLuhan may be correct that the medium is the message, but it seems to me that DCSWA panelist Mary Knudson is correct: blogs are a tool that journalists along with other types of writers can use.

Obviously, I’m not a journalist — I’m a full-time physics professor who writes when I have the time (i.e., not often enough). However, my standards of reportage and research are still high, and the science writers I read — journalists, professional writers, and amateurs alike — all work to high standards. In my view, the main difference between the different types of writers is not the medium in which they use or the level of excellence. Journalists and professional scientists like me have extensive backgrounds in our chosen areas, and either implicitly or explicitly agree to uphold certain standards. They may not be precisely the same standards or ethics, but that’s not to say non-journalists are automatically lax.

When I write about a topic like the Aharanov-Bohm effect (a post I admit I’m somewhat proud of, even though probably not very many people are interested in it), my authority rests on my background in physics, through studying and teaching the subject over many years. I don’t need to interview anyone else or even refer to a book — I definitely could pull a couple off my shelf and cite them if needed, but let’s face it: if you’re reading my blog and also have the background to read a book with a title like Geometry, Topology, and Physics, you probably don’t need me to explain Aharanov-Bohm to you. As Bora Zivokovic said at the same DCSWA panel, a scientist’s source can be themselves — they don’t need to appeal to another source in many cases. That’s not to say we shouldn’t provide sources where appropriate (perhaps most of the time!), but it’s more important that we are resting our case on some authority rather than what particular authority it happens to be.

Science’s authority is a collective one, after all. You don’t have to trust what I or my fellow scientists say; our responsibility is to show people how to find and evaluate evidence wherever possible. Journalists’ authority is also collective, derived from their powerful code of ethics and often from the trustworthiness of their publishers. Even if you don’t know the particular journalist, the fact that they’re working for Scientific American or the New York Times or Nature (to name just three) should tell you that they are not simply making things up. A physicist writing about the Aharanov-Bohm effect or a paleontologist writing about stegosauruses (stegosauri?) are drawing on their education and the work of the collective science community.

Perhaps paradoxically, we are trustworthy us because our authority doesn’t reside in ourselves. Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether the medium is a blog or an article in a newspaper or magazine, whether the piece is edited or not (and believe me, I can already tell this piece could stand an editor’s pen!), how many words it is, or whether it is reflective. The main thing that matters is getting the story right, being clear about any assertions, and making it plain how we know what we know. That, after all, is how science should operate, and that’s how we should write about it.


3 Responses to “On What Authority?”

  1. 1 Matthew R. Francis April 27, 2011 at 16:36

    Brian Switek informs me that the plural of “stegosaurus” is… “stegosaurus”. What a linguistic letdown.

  1. 1 Curiosity and Ownership of Science « Galileo's Pendulum Trackback on June 3, 2011 at 17:30
  2. 2 2011: A Year of Oscillation « Galileo's Pendulum Trackback on December 30, 2011 at 10:10
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