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Popular Science Writing: A Challenge to Academic Cultures [pdf] (ou.edu)
34 points by lainon on Nov 17, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 13 comments



Alexander von Humboldt believed that a scientist never interacts with nature in a purely rational manner, but that there are always emotions involved as well. And those emotions, he said, ought to be a part of the way he communicated his findings.

His philosophy shows in his books. His writing style superbly captures the beauty, awe and grandeur of nature as he experienced it on his South American expedition. The result was a series of books that became bestsellers, because almost everybody could read and appreciate them. At the same time, copious footnotes provided the accuracy and comprehensiveness his fellow scientists needed.

Of course, he also wrote books that were entirely technical in nature, as is perhaps inescapable. But I wish more scientists today would take up the challenge of communicating not just the truth of their findings, but also their beauty.


>Going against an epistemological vein of science, popular science writers make the discoveries of scientists available to non-specialists by empha- sizing what academic scientific papers necessar- ily exclude: the human stories and emotions of the scientists behind the discoveries.

This is a really weird statement. Professors love telling stories about how this-or-that is discovered; there's a downright attraction to the human side. Further, a human story about how an idea came to be can make great reading whether or not the idea turned out to be true in the end - Freud's cases are still interesting, but these days mostly as literature. A fun story might pique your interest in something, but it better not convince you that a theory is true! (i.e. keep your aesthetics separate from your epistemology for a long and happy life.)

So, Feynman's storytelling doesn't go against any vein of science, and even worse for the author's point aesthetic human stories aren't strict epistemological resources in any context. So in that sense the claim seems to miss the way the veins flow in science, and the way epistemology works in general.


The key phrase here is "academic scientific papers", which certainly strongly discourage human stories and emotions.


I remember at my school students were forced to choose between arts (AKA humanities) and sciences at 16. The science students were on the whole brighter than the arts students, through no fault of their own. The arts teachers tried to sweeten the pill by saying things like, "Those scientists don't understand human beings." The implication was that we were insensitive and callous individuals. Comments like this left a mark on me, a science student, and the rest of my life I've been trying to compensate. And I think it's also one of the reasons science writers do what they do.


Saying things like that is just a sign they were insecure and compensating.


Actually, there's a bit of 'fire' here, not just smoke. From the harmless stereotypical CS professor who doesn't grok humans, to Zuckerberg's dangerous obliviousness to the humanistic tradition.

The Wikipedia page for the two cultures has an interesting section which maybe doesn't belong there:

"In his opening address at the Munich Security Conference in January 2014, the Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves said that the current problems related to security and freedom in cyberspace are the culmination of absence of dialogue between "the two cultures": "Today, bereft of understanding of fundamental issues and writings in the development of liberal democracy, computer geeks devise ever better ways to track people... simply because they can and it's cool. Humanists on the other hand do not understand the underlying technology and are convinced, for example, that tracking meta-data means the government reads their emails."[12]"

Of course there are well-rounded, humane people in the hard sciences. But it's not a job requirement.


>"Today, bereft of understanding of fundamental issues and writings in the development of liberal democracy, computer geeks devise ever better ways to track people... simply because they can and it's cool."

Rubbish. Geeks do it because that's what they can get a job doing.


The quotation doesn't reflect my opinions, but I think you are taking an overly simplistic "people are driven by money" line.

It's not unusual to encounter this kind of view expressed on HN, and it's disturbing because it is so reductive. I mean, seriously, you think "geeks" in general have no choice but to build the software that maximizes revenue? Geeks are, if anything, more likely than other people to pursue activities for intellectual satisfaction, to attack difficult problems for fun, etc.

The previous time this came up, someone was claiming that every restaurant owner only cared about their bottom line -- and that absolutely no restaurant owners were in it for the love of hospitality (as a social good or something more professional) and self-expression/self-actualization. Honestly.


I don't think people are driven only by money, but if inventing cool stuff doesn't make any, you do it in your spare time after you take someone's money to push ads into eyeballs.


>Actually, there's a bit of 'fire' here, not just smoke.

I think humanities people are better at appearing humane but the paradoxical truth is that if you look at the average English Department you won't find a hive of harmony. You'd be more likely to find that at a place like CERN where thousands of scientists and engineers cooperate beautifully.


> Academia’s fracture into a limiting cultural dichotomy has been an ongoing contemporary meta-discourse since 1959.

Sheesh. You read Feynman and then you write stuff like this.


[edited:re read and changed my opinion]


I think you missed the point of the article. The author isn't talking about the language scientists use when talking to each other, but about the communication between scientists and non-scientists.

The way we speak and write in the scientific community is optimized for precision and succinctness. Within the confines of a talk or paper, we just don't have the time or the space to go into all the fundamentals of our work. And neither do we have to, because everybody in our audience has spent years of their life accumulating the necessary background knowledge to understand what we're saying.

But when it comes to talking to outsiders, that doesn't work anymore. Whether we are explaining our research to politicians or our grandmother, we need to find new ways to express complex topics. The aim is for the explanation to be readily understandable but not oversimplified. And that is the conflict the author of the article is aiming at.




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