The quintessential scientist, Carl Sagan once said, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”
Never has it been more crucial for the lay public to be scientifically literate. That’s where outdoor writers, using science, come in. In nearly all fields, outdoor writers deal with scientific facts from time to time. It is extremely important that writers get the facts right! Outdoor writers are often perceived by the public as authorities on fish, wildlife, and environmental issues. The writer has a responsibility to be accurate, as well as interesting and entertaining. The credibility of the writer will be judged on the accuracy as well as the readability of his/her work. The writer who has a reputation for accuracy and readability will sell more articles.
The goal is to make your product as scientifically accurate as possible, while still interesting and entertaining. “Where does the writer find the information necessary to produce an accurate yet interesting article?” You need to find experts.
Experts, “Who needs ‘em and why do we need ‘em?” you might ask. The short answer is: “We all do.” We call on experts all the time in our daily lives. Every time we visit our family physician, go to a hair stylist or take our cars to the repair shop we are seeking the services of an expert. Why shouldn’t we consult an expert when we’re communicating science to the public? Few of us as writers have the expertise necessary to explain adequately how cancer cells invade surrounding tissue or how an e-mail message travels on the internet.
In general, an expert is described as someone who is recognized by his or her peers or by the public as a reliable source of knowledge, information, and/or abilities. Just the fact that someone hunts, fishes, or photographs wildlife does not mean that person is an expert on fish and wildlife; it may mean, however, that a person is an expert on where to hunt, fish or find wildlife to photograph or what equipment is best for a particular site. We need to consult experts in the natural history and biology of the animal we’re writing about. How do you distinguish among real experts, pretenders, and ambitious individuals who want to use you to publicize their work and ideas? Finding an expert is not hard. Finding a credible expert with the proper credentials is a different matter.
Experts; Why do we need them?
One reader questioned a 2010 Smithsonian article on "Our Earliest Ancestors" presenting evolution as a fact, and not a theory. There is an equal body of scholarly work that supports the creation theory (i.e., The Institute for Creation Research). My problem with the article is NOT in its publication, it is in its presentation as absolute fact, which is not the case. What would prevent Smithsonian from presenting BOTH theories objectively, and allowing the readers to come to their own conclusions? Would that be any less scholarly?
What is the confusion here? Evolution as fact or theory…
What is the difference?
We know what a fact is, right? “The sun rises in the East”, that’s a fact. You can’t argue it—it happens all the time. But, what is a theory?
In technical or scientific use, theory, principle, and law represent established, evidence-based explanations accounting for currently known facts or phenomena or for historically verified experience: the theory of relativity, the germ theory of disease, the law of supply and demand, the principle of conservation of energy. Often the word “law” is used in reference to scientific facts that can be reduced to a mathematical formula: Newton’s laws of motion. In these contexts the terms theory and law often appear in well-established, fixed phrases and are not interchangeable.
Where we run into trouble: In both technical and nontechnical contexts, theory is often used synonymous with hypothesis, a conjecture put forth as a possible explanation of phenomena or relations, serving as a basis for thoughtful discussion and subsequent collection of data or engagement in scientific experimentation(research) to rule out alternative explanations and reach the truth. In these contexts of early speculation, the words theory and hypothesis are often interchanged “this idea is only a theory” when it’s barely a hypothesis.
Pasteur’s experiments helped prove the hypothesis that germs cause disease. Certain theories that start out as hypothetical eventually receive enough supportive data and scientific findings to become established, verified explanations. Then, and only then, does the hypothesis become a theory, the thought/hypothesis has evolved from mere conjecture to scientifically accepted fact.
Conventional wisdom also can be a big problem when presenting science to the public. Yes, even scientists can be guilty of accepting something as fact when it is not fact, or is an interpretation of facts that still have substantial uncertainty related to them. This problem has become particularly troublesome with respect to environmental issues. Ecology and environmental issues related to ecological matters generally involve greater uncertainty than the so-called hard sciences (physics and chemistry). An example is the statement that “fire is an ecological necessity”. This statement is accurate only if a particular stage of ecological succession must be maintained. In the absence of fire, succession will proceed in a different direction. It is more accurate to say, “Fire is natural, but it is not absolutely necessary”. Finding reliable sources that can and will distinguish between organizational policy or conventional wisdom and scientifically valid information may be difficult, but it is well worth the effort.
The credibility of the communicator, the media and, ultimately, the scientific enterprise itself, is at stake in our coverage of risks to human health and the environment. Many readers and listeners look to the media for some guidance in understanding the risks that we face and how to deal with them. Sometimes the best we as communicators can offer is the simple truth that science currently has no clear answer, so we need to learn to live with uncertainty. This fact, in itself, is not easy to communicate. We owe it to our audiences to provide more sophisticated, balanced reporting that goes beyond the “fear factor” approach. It is extremely important that writers get the facts right, and that they interpret these facts appropriately!
Who and Where are These Experts?
Colleges and Universities are full of ‘em. Government agencies, such as the County Extension Agent, and state agencies such as the state fish and game agency and even high school teachers can be experts. Successful business people can be experts, though this expertise may have been gained the hard way—by trial and error, not considered research.
A word of caution however, be careful when relying on specialties. Not every aquatic biologist is an oceanographer. In this age of interdisciplinary research, the boundaries between fields are often blurred. And always, remember that a scientist speaking may not be speaking as a scientist. Rely on them only when they are speaking within their area(s) of expertise. Really good scientists will tell you when they are expressing personal opinions or when your question is outside of their area.
Now that you have a few good sources, how do you interpret the scientific information to make it understandable and interesting the public? First, be sure that you understand the topic and the information you have collected. If you don’t have a complete understanding yourself, you will not be able to communicate the information accurately. Being a good science writer doesn’t require a college degree in science, however, it does require some healthy skepticism and the ability to ask good questions about things that can affect research studies and other claims. To separate truth from trash, you will need answers to these questions:
1. Was the study done, or claim made, on the basis of evidence only? How was the study designed and conducted? Was it laboratory research, field collections or observations?
2. What are the numbers? Was the study large enough to reach believable conclusions? Are the results statistically significant? That phrase simply means that based on the scientific standards, the statistical results are unlikely to be attributable to chance alone.
3. Are there other possible explanations for the study’s conclusions?
4. Was the study conducted free of any form of bias, unintentional or otherwise?
5. Have the findings been checked or replicated by other experts? And, how do the findings fit with previous knowledge on the topic?
What You Need to Know about Science
You must understand five principles of scientific analysis to find answers to these questions. They are the basis of scientific inquiry.
1. Some Uncertainty is Acceptable. Science looks at the statistical probability of what’s true. Conclusions are based on strong evidence, without waiting for an elusive proof positive. But science is always an evolving story, a continuing journey that allows for mid-course correction. This can confuse the public, especially when preliminary information is reported as fact. Scientists then are accused of “changing their minds or flip-flopping.”
2. Probability and Large numbers. The more subjects or observations in a study the better. A commonly accepted numerical expression is the P (probability) value, determined by a formula that considers the number of events being compared. A P value of .05 or less is usually considered statistically significant. It means that there are 5 or fewer chances in 100 that the results could be due to chance alone. The lower the P value, the lower the odds that chance alone could be responsible. Science writers don’t have to do the math, they just have to ask researchers: “Show me your numbers.”
3. Is There Another Explanation? Association alone does not prove cause and effect. You must be able to distinguish between coincidence and causation. A chemical in a town’s water supply may not be the cause of the illness there. A study’s time span can be very important so that normal cycles are not confused with study results. Ask the researcher and yourself: “Can you think of any alternative explanations for the study’s numbers and conclusions? Did the study last long enough to support its conclusions?”
4. The Dimensions of Studies. For costs and other reasons, all studies are not created equal. Old records, statistics and memories are often unreliable, but sometimes used. Case studies involving only one or two subjects usually are not considered a basis on which to draw broad conclusions. Far better is a study that follows a selected population for the long term, sometimes decades. Ask researchers in all scientific fields: “Why did you design your study the way you did? Is a more definitive study now needed?” Nevertheless, always bear in mind, exceptional claims require exceptional evidence.
5. The Power of Peer Review. The burden of proof rests with researchers seeking to change scientific conclusions. Science is never accepted until confirmed by additional studies. Science writers should look for consensus among studies.
Above all, have fun. Science is intriguing, funny and essential to everyday life. If you write too loftily, you lose some of the best stories and the ones to which your readers most relate. You must:
· Know your topic. First, do some old-fashioned library research.
· Find an expert.
· Schedule a face-to-face interview if possible. Phone conversations and email questionnaires are ok if the expert is not local.
· Be sure you understand the FACTS before you begin to write,
· Check again with the expert, if you feel unsure.
Being a non-expert will not make someone a good science writer. But it’s not the kiss of death either. If you pay attention to detail, ask good questions, and aren’t afraid to admit how little you know, you can actually turn your ignorance to your advantage. I’ve found that if I can get an expert, often my husband— who has a doctrate in zoology, to explain something to the point where I can understand it, then I’ll be able to explain it to anyone else.
Remember: your credibility will be judged on the accuracy as well as the readability of your work. The writer who has a reputation for accuracy and readability will sell more articles, as well as provide greater service to the public.
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