Monday, August 31, 2009

A Plea to Science Writers: Scientists Don't Believe in Their Research..

Kim at All My Faults are Stress Related thinks we need some new geologic metaphors. Her blog post resulted in a real melange of great suggestions. I like the idea, but I would add that I believe we also have a need for new words for describing to the general public the findings of science. What's my problem? The fact that many a story about a scientific discovery begins with the statement "scientists believe...."

Scientists believe that amphibians evolved from...
Scientists believe in global warming...
Scientists believe that an earthquake is overdue on the San Andreas...
Scientists believe that continents were once joined in a single giant landmass...
Scientists believe that smoking cigarettes is a major cause of cancer...
Scientists believe that the rocks of the Grand Canyon are millions of years old...

How should we describe theories and well-grounded scientific principles? What words should we be using?

Scientists have evidence that....
Scientists have found that...
Scientists now know that...
Scientists have long known that...
Scientists discovered long ago that...

Or leave "scientists" out of it. What's wrong with a straightforward declarative statement of fact?

Marsupials originally evolved in China...
Pangaea was built by the collisions of a number of continents...
The schists in the bottom of the Grand Canyon are 1.7 billion years old

Are the findings you are describing tentative? Is there actually some doubt or are there some competing ideas? That is not a problem, most cutting-edge scientific research is tentative. But not subject to belief. How about:

The researchers are of the opinion that...
The evidence is suggests that...
But other researchers have presented evidence that...
...but other alternative hypotheses are still valid

Like it or not, the word believe has many meanings, but in today's society (American, anyway), it has religious connotations, and is opinion-based in usage. We like our facts boiled down into polls that we can pick and choose from, like food from a buffet line. If a scientific finding is uncomfortable to us, or challenges our assumptions, we can choose not to believe it. Science writing should not feed into that.

I've had a beef with the misuse of theory in journalism before. Some previous thoughts along these lines can be found here...

What do you think?

The definition of believe, from Merriam Webster online:
intransitive verb
1 a : to have a firm religious faith b : to accept as true, genuine, or real
2 : to have a firm conviction as to the goodness, efficacy, or ability of something
3 : to hold an opinion : think
transitive verb
1 a : to consider to be true or honest
b : to accept the word or evidence of
2 : to hold as an opinion : suppose


5 comments:

CJR said...

Good point. Although there's also the fact that they normally leave or marginalise out the why behind the "belief" - the evidence that supports the scientists' conclusion. Hence it becomes, "just look what those wacky boffins have dreamed up now!'

Jerry D. Harris said...

Hence it becomes, "just look what those wacky boffins have dreamed up now!'

Agreed! To paraphrase Isaac Asimov, talking about how the general public perceives the definition of "theory": “[People] make it sound as though a ‘theory’ is something you dreamt up after being drunk all night.”

Garry Hayes said...

Thanks Jerry. Actually, though, many geologic insights DO seem to happen that way!

cromercrox said...

How about 'subscribe'?

Michael said...

Fabulous! These are very practical suggestions to solve one of the most irksome problems of science writing.

For issues that are mildly controversial, I also like: "Most scientists accept the theory that..." Which implies that a rational judgement has been made from available evidence.