Science by authority is a poor model for communication

Thirteen, wait, ten science books for every non-scientist to read and live by.

Thirteen, wait, ten science books for every non-scientist to read and live by.

The Guardian recently ran a lengthy essay by Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg on the “best science books for non-scientists”. He begins with Aristotle, and proceeds to give a brief overview of popularizations of science. Weinberg might seem like a good candidate for this kind of thing; after all, he has written a number of popular science books, including the bestselling The First Three Minutes that introduced many non-scientists to the field of early-universe cosmology. However, the resulting article, and his list of “13 best science books for the general reader” came across as a prime example of how not to try to communicate science to non-scientists. UPDATE: see Rebekah Higgitt’s critique of Weinberg, and an alternate set of reading possibilities.

A number of Weinberg’s points are good and valid.[1] It is imperative for scientists to speak to the general public, and to engage with the culture at large (not least since the practice of science is influenced by culture, and anyone who thinks otherwise is foolish). Professional science communicators are also necessary, whether they are trained as scientists (like I was) or not.

But then he gets to his list, and hangs a lampshade on one of the major flaws in his view of history and public communication of science. Weinberg acknowledges for the first and only time in his long piece that women exist and sometimes do science and write about it. Again, while what he says is right — the exclusion of women is a horrible crime that is only now slowly being addressed — it feels like an afterthought. Weinberg doesn’t seem to grasp the irony of spending paragraph after paragraph talking about science and culture without mentioning the lack of inclusion throughout history: not only of women, but of anyone who didn’t have access to education.[2] Science history needs to address that point, and modern science communication needs to do the same. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a poor model for promoting science, if one doesn’t happen to be male, and if one notices that all those men are either white or (like certain Islamic scholars) allowed the benefit of inclusion because they helped promote European science.

Doctor’s orders

And finally, I disagree with nearly every choice on the book list itself. Here are the science titles Weinberg says are essential for non-scientists:

  1. Philosophical Letters (1733) Voltaire
  2. The Origin of Species (1859) Charles Darwin
  3. On a Piece of Chalk (1868) Thomas Huxley
  4. The Mysterious Universe (1930) James Jeans
  5. The Birth and Death of the Sun (1940) George Gamow
  6. The Character of Physical Law (1965) Richard Feynman
  7. The Elegant Universe (1999) Brian Greene
  8. The Selfish Gene (1976) Richard Dawkins
  9. The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986) Richard Rhodes
  10. The Inflationary Universe (1997) Alan Guth
  11. The Whole Shebang (1997) Timothy Ferris
  12. Hiding in the Mirror (2005) Lawrence Krauss
  13. Warped Passages (2005) Lisa Randall

The first and obvious problem with this list is its historical focus. Some of these books may be great works in the history of science writing, but they are poor choices for someone who is an interested non-scientist. For example, I love The Origin of Species, but I wouldn’t recommend it as the best book for evolution for a reader who isn’t a scholar. It’s a product of its time, and an excellent example of how a scientist can present new ideas to everyone, but if I were recommending a book about evolution for someone today, I would certainly start somewhere else: perhaps some of Stephen Jay Gould’s essays. Similarly, the rapid pace of cosmology research means that even a good book like The Whole Shebang is already very out of date. Dark energy was discovered in 1998, and the WMAP experiment built the clearest view of the structure and contents of the cosmos yet in 2001, both after the book was published.[3]

I see several potential problems in the list that Weinberg compiled. The first is the notion that a Nobel laureate and firm member of the scientific establishment is the best person to recommend the best books for non-scientists. Frankly, his list seems almost medicinal to me: these books are the ones you should read because Doctor Weinberg says they’re “good for you”. Once you’ve worked your way through them, then you’ll…I’m not sure what the goal is.

And therein lies the second problem I see. If the goal is to show examples of the evolution of good science writing over the last 300 years, I could see an argument in favor of some of those (but others not so much). But if the goal is to present good science writing as a whole for modern readers, this list just doesn’t work.

I’m not sure this is a problem per se, but I also noticed that other than Timothy Ferris and Voltaire, everyone on the list is or was a professional researcher. (Historian Richard Rhodes is an exception all around; while excellent, his book on the atomic bomb isn’t really a science book, so I’m not sure why it’s on the list.) And of course, as Weinberg himself points out, Lisa Randall is the only woman to be included, as the 13th member of a thirteen book list.

Who listens is as important as who speaks

Science communication is not terribly different from the religious tradition of exegesis. While the faithful often read the scriptures, others write explanatory materials, building up context and providing deeper theological meaning. Scientists can sometimes provide an exegesis for their own work — again, Darwin is a prime example of this — but most times others are better suited to do so. However, over time new exegesis writing is needed, or new explanations of older exegeses. Voltaire wrote explanations of Newton’s work for French intellectuals, but from the perspective of the 18th century. Today we would need a bit of background on his culture to understand his frame of reference, then we could understand what the big deal is about his writing … and its limitations. Science isn’t scripture, and our understanding of Newtonian physics has evolved since Newton’s day. To repeat a notion I’ve said many times before: Newton was the first word on the science that bears his name, but he’s not the last or the best authority.

That’s not because we’re stupid, but because culture changes. Science culture changes too: the very notion of a professional scientist is a relatively recent concept, and professional science journalism is even newer. The audience for science communication also has changed a lot, thanks to evolving notions of who is worthy to listen. An increase in egalitarian attitudes means writers today are likely to aim for a much broader audience than ever before, but there are plenty of white male writers still today who assume all their readers are just like them — or at the very least that readers like them are the most important category.

And of course there are other issues involving the person who is speaking. Richard Dawkins can be a very eloquent writer about biology and evolution, and I know a lot of people who were inspired to go into science because of The Selfish Gene. However, today he may be better known for his anti-religion polemics and reactionary elitist politics, especially with regard to gender, which understandably makes his science writing problematic to many people. I’ve already written extensively about Richard Feynman, so I won’t repeat any of that here. Lawrence Krauss has accepted a lot of money and perks from a convicted sex trafficker, whom he continues to defend publicly.

While some people may say these issues don’t take away from the good science communication they did or do, that attitude diminishes those who object — especially non-whites and/or non-males. It’s easy for a white dude to say “they were just products of their time”, but if that same white dude promotes them as paragons of science communication, is a black woman wrong to say “no thanks”?

Those of us who want to reach the broadest possible audience — a group that seems to include Weinberg — are not well served by promoting the Dead White Guy model of science communication. Weinberg bemoans the poor representation of women in the annals of science and science writing, but he doesn’t follow those thoughts to their logical conclusion: that maybe he’s not helping matters with this type of article.

This is why I think, rather than looking to a few authorities to speak for all of us, we need to work collaboratively and listen. If science is to ever be anything other than an enclave for the elite, white, heterosexual male, scientist communicators must first be honest with ourselves, even if what we find is painful.

Notes

  1. As an aside, his version of science historians doesn’t correspond to my experience at all. The historians of science I know are very nuanced in their treatment of the “great scientists of the past”, taking the correct view that science is a vaster and messier enterprise than a few great minds. However, Weinberg leaves us without any links to those historians, so I don’t know to whom his criticisms are addressed.
  2. Galileo wrote in vernacular Italian — a praiseworthy thing, in my opinion — but the culture in which he lived prevented many from reading his books simply because the system was built on preventing the education of a large percentage of the population.
  3. As Thony Christie reminded me on Twitter, Voltaire was also the person who popularized the myth of Newton and his apple. Historical science writing doesn’t mean accurate science writing.

16 Responses to “Science by authority is a poor model for communication”


  1. 1 Ricky April 4, 2015 at 20:13

    “And of course, as Weinberg himself points out, Lisa Randall is the only woman to be included, as the 13th member of a thirteen book list.”

    I’m not sure what that’s a problem. Weinberg was tasked with compiling a list of, what he thought, the best science books for non-scientists, not the best science books for non-scientists with the constraint that it contains enough books written by women. Who cares?

  2. 2 Ricky April 4, 2015 at 20:20

    “While some people may say these issues don’t take away from the good science communication they did or do, that attitude diminishes those who object — especially non-whites and/or non-males.”

    Perhaps someone at The Guardian should have told him to please be careful his list is agreeable to all the various ethnic backgrounds, genders, and sexual orientations, lest he offends them.

    “It’s easy for a white dude to say “they were just products of their time”, but if that same white dude promotes them as paragons of science communication, is a black woman wrong to say “no thanks”?”

    Yes. It’s just a book. Read it and learn.

    • 3 Matthew R. Francis April 4, 2015 at 20:42

      You say “who cares?” then proceed to leave two comments dismissive of everyone who isn’t white or male, which at last count is most of the population of the planet, and a significant population of scientists.

      I think I can safely say that most people who aren’t white or male have opinions, and their opinions are something that we should listen to.

      • 4 Ricky April 4, 2015 at 22:56

        But it’s a list of what Weinberg thinks is the top science writing for non-scientists. It’s the content that matters, and what one can learn from the writing, not who wrote it and whether they were white or black, male or female, heterosexual or homosexual.

      • 5 Ricky April 4, 2015 at 23:06

        And I’m not trying to be dismissive of everyone who is not white or male. All that matters is whether the book is good or not. If it is, who cares who wrote it? If someone who is not white or male won’t pick up the book because it was written by a white dude, they’re missing out. Should a black woman not read any Feynman because he was a white dude who you claim was nasty to women?

      • 6 Matthew R. Francis April 5, 2015 at 09:10

        A book is never just a book, because it is written by a person. Every book involves decisions on what is included, what is left out, and the perspective to take. Also, there are decisions to be made by the publishers and editors about whose voices are worthy of publication. So yes, it matters a great deal who wrote a book … or in some cases who never would have the chance to write a book.

        I’m a white man. Most writers of science look like me, so it’s easy for me to find books by people who share my cultural perspective. If you aren’t white and/or male, it’s a much harder challenge to find voices like yours. I want to make it possible for all of those voices to be heard.

      • 7 mark4asp April 5, 2015 at 05:34

        No one’s preventing those minorities, all of them, from listing their own favorite: 13 science books for the general reader. No doubt every single list will offend someone. What to do? Should we be silent because we know our voice will offend someone somewhere, or should be speak out to be branded wrong by some minority, or even majority, elsewhere? History has it that ‘we’ spoke out. That explains why one is able to recommend 13 books rather than no books at all.

      • 8 Matthew R. Francis April 5, 2015 at 08:56

        I deliberately didn’t create my own list of books because as I noted in my update, Rebekah Higgitt is already at work on crowdsourcing one. Any list created by an individual is going to limited by that person’s reading, and I know I haven’t read widely enough to recommend books across all of science. That’s an inherent limitation of any list like this: that it ends up being “my favorite books” rather than “these are books that non-me people would find valuable”.

        I’m not even saying these books are necessarily bad books (I haven’t read all of them), but — as a large part of my post pointed out — they really aren’t the best books to recommend to non-scientists to learn about science. Like I said (again), I like Darwin’s book, and Ferris’ book was just my speed when it came out. I’ve read most of Feynman’s books (including his lecture notes for graduate student classes), and in my opinion there’s useful stuff in some of them, but as someone who knows about Feynman’s treatment of women or anyone he thought beneath him, I’d hesitate to say he’s a good example of a science communicator.

        You say “History has it that ‘we’ spoke out. That explains why one is able to recommend 13 books rather than no books at all.” My version: “white men have run much of the world for centuries, and have suppressed the ability for most other voices to rise”. The year is 2015. It’s time to do better than to say that the best voices to listen to are white men.

        The choices for Weinberg — or for any white man, including me — aren’t between being silent and recommending only books by other white men, and if that’s what you got from my post, you didn’t read very carefully.

    • 9 mark4asp April 5, 2015 at 05:29

      The joke being that if scientific ideas had to be “agreeable to all the various ethnic backgrounds, genders, and sexual orientations”, we wouldn’t have any science in the first place.

  3. 11 mark4asp April 5, 2015 at 05:26

    In case you didn’t notice you failed to list your alternative best 13 books for the non-scientist. That’s a common flaw in hostile criticism – failure to suggest better alternatives. Nor did you tell us which of Weinberg’s 13 books you consider bad books to be avoided.

  4. 12 Ricky April 5, 2015 at 17:48

    Feynman was not a good science communicator because of what he did in his personal life, got it.

    If the Roman emperor Nero wrote a science book that would knock your socks off, I’d read it and would probably recommend it.

  5. 16 Ricky April 6, 2015 at 13:12

    So because I’m trying to defend my opinion, and not agreeing with everything you say, I’m trolling? What if the “string theory revolution” took place, not in 1984, but in 1914 and Hitler wrote the book way before anyone had any clue he was an evil guy? Would the book be good? Yes. Now, fast-forward to after WWII ended. Would the book still be good? Well, did the book change at all? Did any of the words change? No. So, yes, it would still be a book worthy of a read. Just read it and learn something, regardless of who wrote it. :-)

    Well, this was fun. I do like your posts, by the way. :-)


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