One of the subjects I mentioned at the Thursday Flock of Dodos discussion was that an obstacle to getting the public excited about science is the state of science writing. It’s a very formal style in which the passive voice is encouraged, caution and tentative statements are demanded, adverbs are frowned upon and adjectives are treated with suspicion, and all the passion is wrung out in favor of dry recitations of data. Now that actually has a good purpose: it makes it easy to get to the meat of the article for people who are already familiar with the subject and may not need any pizazz to get excited about nematode cell lineages or connectivity diagrams of forebrain nuclei. It makes the work impenetrable to those not already inculcated with the arcana of the discipline, however.
The City Pages illustrates the difference. On Tuesday, the Café Scientifique is going to be given by Cynthia Norton of College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, on the subject of snails. Just for comparison, I’ve put an example of a scientific abstract and the publicity copy for the talk below the fold, and you’ll see what I mean.
Here’s the abstract for a recent paper by the speaker. I’m not criticizing this at all; it’s clear, it tells me exactly what I’ll find in the paper, and it’s got enough specific detail to trip the interest of people interested in any number of related subjects. This is good stuff.
Among several other factors, body size has been found to influence egg production in several species of hermaphroditic snail. We tested whether this relationship between body size and egg production exists in Helisoma trivolvis, a freshwater hermaphroditic species. We isolated 50 H. trivolvis from a laboratory population, measured shell diameter, and monitored egg production for seven weeks. We found a positive relationship between body size and total number of eggs produced, as well as body size and number of eggs per egg mass. When body size and egg production are linked, it should be adaptive for larger individuals to act as females and smaller individuals as males. Since body size is related to female fecundity in this species, the relative size of snails should determine, at least in part, which individual acts as male and which as female during copulation. However, the relationship between body size and egg production is not nearly as strong as it is in other snail genera. Other factors such as age, genotype and previous experience may be important in determining egg-laying capacity and therefore gender choice in this species. In addition, we found a negative relationship between growth during this period and egg production. This relationship has been found in other pulmonates, and is evidence of resource allocation tradeoffs.
Here’s the copy Chuck Terhark wrote for the City Pages to advertise the upcoming talk:
How do snails have sex? Probably very slowly, but that’s not the focus of this installment of Café Scientifique, the barfly’s answer to the Discovery Channel. It’s much more interesting: Snails, it turns out, are often hermaphroditic, and can mate as either a male or a female (sometimes both). Upon hooking up, they resolve their gender assignments in unspoken and mysterious ways. Dr. Cynthia G. Norton, professor of biology and women’s studies at St. Kate’s, says snails answer the age-old question of “who’s on top” by intuiting a series of biological and social factors, including body size, resource disposal, and mating history. As they hump, so too do they evolve, assuring their offspring get only the best of genes. Sound familiar? It should; there are at least five timely Valentine’s Day lessons to be learned in the above sentences. Tonight, for your further fornicative edification, Norton will expound on her recent study of these fascinating little fuckers.
That has specific details to trip the interest of the general reader: humor and sex, and it also relates everything to common interests. At the same time, it’s got enough scientific specificity with a few buzzwords that I want to go there and learn something.
These are two paragraphs written with different goals, and one doesn’t substitute for the other. Both have value in disseminating information, though: I think scientists need to think more about sometimes writing in that second style, and most importantly, respecting that style. There is a definite tendency to look down upon popularizing science—it’s our curse of elitism, that if we aren’t writing for our peers but for the hoi polloi, the work isn’t as valuable. The thing is, if people get drawn to a few talks or reading a few popular articles because they want to learn about snails humping, they’ll pick up background along the way, and before you know it, you’ve got a growing population of budding malacologists who can read the formal papers—and they become your peers, able to exchange information in a useful way.
That’s an important part of what a science educator is supposed to do—not just tell more details to people who already care, but to get more people to care about the subject in the first place.
(Hey, if anybody is now interested in hearing Norton’s talk, it’s at 6:30 on Tuesday, 20 February, at the Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis.)