On that 'Last Word on Nothing' post

A post published on the Last Word On Nothing blog yesterday has been creating quite the stir on Twitter. Excerpt:

While I can appreciate that this is an important scientific discovery, I still have a hard time mustering excitement over gravitational waves. I would not have read these articles had I not embarked on this experiment. And I wanted to stop reading some of these articles as I was conducting the experiment. Space is not my thing. I don’t think it ever will be, at least not without a concerted effort on my part to get a basic handle on physics and astronomy. …

Physics writers, this is how you nab the physics haters — human emotion. You can explain gravitational waves using the cleanest, clearest, most eloquent words that exist — and you should! — but I want the story of the scientists in all their messy, human glory.

Cassandra Willyard, the post’s author, was writing about the neutron-star collision announcement from LIGO. Many of those who are dissing the point the post is making are saying that Willyard is vilifying the ‘school’ of science writing that focuses on the science itself over its relationship with the human condition. I think she’s only expressing her personal opinion (as the last line in the excerpt suggests) – so the levels of indignation that has erupted in some pockets of the social media over these opinions suggests Willyard may have touched off some nerves.

I myself belong to the school that prefers to excite science readers over the science itself over its human/humanist/humanitarian aspects. In the words of Tracy, who wrote them as a comment on Willyard’s post,

So many amazing things happen in this universe without a human noticing it, reflecting on it, understanding it, being central to it. So many wondrous mysteries abound despite the ego. The human story is just one of billions.

And I will concede from personal experience that it’s quite difficult as a result to sell such stories to one’s editors as well as readers. I’ve written about this many times before, e.g. here; edited excerpt:

I couldn’t give less of a fuck for longer pieces, especially because they’re all the same: they’re concerned with science that is deemed to be worthy of anyone’s attention because it is affecting us directly. And I posit that they’ve kept us from recognising an important problem with science journalism in the country: it is becoming less and less concerned with the science itself; what has been identified as successful science journalism is simply a discussion – no matter how elaborate and/or nuanced – of how science impacts us. Instead, I’d love to read a piece reported over 5,000 words about molecules, experiments, ideas. It should be okay to want to write only about particle physics because that’s all I’m interested in reading. Okay to want to write only about this even if I don’t have any strength to hope that QCD will save lives, that Feynman diagrams will help repeal AFSPA, that the LHC will accelerate India’s economic growth, that the philosophies of fundamental particles will lead to the legalisation of same-sex marriage. I haven’t been presented with any evidence whatsoever to purchase my faith in the possibility that the obscurities of particle physics will help humans in any way other than to enlighten them, that there is neither reward nor sanction in anxiously bookending every articulation of wonder with the hope that we will find a way to profit from all of our beliefs, discoveries and perceptions.

For many people in this ‘school’, this fight is almost personal because it’s arduous and requires tremendous conviction, will and resilience on one’s part to see coverage of such kind through. In this scenario, to have a science writer come forward and say “I won’t write about this science because I don’t understand this science” can be quite dispiriting. It’s a science writer’s job to disentangle some invention, discovery or whatever and then communicate it to those who are interested in knowing more about it. So when Willyard writes in her post that “The day I write about a neutron star collision is the day hell will freeze over” – it’s a public abdication of an important responsibility, and arguably one of the most complicated responsibilities in journalism in the Information Age thanks to its fiercely non-populist nature.

(Such a thing happened recently with Natalie Wolchover as well. Her words – written against topological physics – were more disappointing to come across because Wolchover writes very good physics pieces for Quanta. And while she apologised for the “flippancy” of her tweet shortly after, saying that she’d been in a hurry at 5.45 am, that’s precisely the sort of sentiment that shouldn’t receive wider coverage without the necessary qualifications. So my thanks to Chad Orzel for the thread he published in response.)

However, it must be acknowledged that the suggestion Willyard makes (in the second paragraph of the excerpt) is quite on point. To have to repeatedly pander to the human condition in one way or another when in fact you think the science in and of itself is incredibly cool can become frustrating over time – but this doesn’t mean that a fundamental disconnect between writers like me and the statistically average science reader out there doesn’t exist. If I’m to get her attention, then I’ve found from experience that one must begin with the humans of science and then flow on to the science itself. As Alice Bell recommends here, you start upstream and go downstream. And once you’ve lured them in, you can begin to discuss the science more freely.

(PS: Some areas of Twitter have gone nuts, claiming Willyard shouldn’t be called a science journalist. I’m making no such judgment call. To be clear, I’m only criticising a peer’s words. I still consider Willyard to be a science journalist – though my fingers cry as I type this because it’s so embarrassing to have to spell it out – and possibly a good one at that going by her willingness to introspect.)

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