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What’s your biggest pet peeve about popular-science writing?

By James Dacey

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It’s an overused expression but one that undoubtedly applies in the case of science. Time and again throughout the history of science a seemingly immutable theory has been overthrown by a new one as new evidence or new ideas come to light. In many cases, the new theory can appear so blindingly obvious that it seems incredible to think that our forebears could have failed to discover it themselves.

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But as any good scientist knows, in hindsight, many ideas that seemed rock solid at the time, turn out to be concealing flaws beneath the surface. But this is how science progresses. Any would-be Einstein does not simply stare into a crystal ball and wait for that revolutionary idea to miraculously emerge. No, scientists rigorously examine an existing theory from a range of different angles, looking for chinks in the armour that every so often can allow a theory to be damaged or even toppled. This then paves the way for new science.

Non-scientists, however, do not always have the tools to test these theories. This is certainly the case for science at the cutting edge, where we have few clear answers and the required tools to probe these questions can be very expensive – costing billions of dollars in some cases. So how far can a non-scientist trust what he or she is told by a scientist about a subject? This important question is addressed by the author Alan B Whiting in his new book Hindsight and Popular Astronomy, which was recently reviewed in Physics World.

In his book, Whiting looks back at several books about astronomy written for popular audiences in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, including titles by Sir John Herschel and Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington. With the full benefit of hindsight, Whiting looks at the science presented in these books and considers which theories have stood the test of time. But Whiting is not interested in laughing at these authors for “getting it wrong”. Instead, he is interested in the manner in which these scientists presented the science: did these authors present these theories as undisputable scientific fact; or did they acknowledge that there were still uncertainties? It turns out that these authors ranged widely from the humble to the “often wrong, but never in doubt”.

The book makes for a very interesting read and it highlights many of the qualities and pitfalls of popular-science writing. We have all read pieces of science writing where the author has presented the science as if it is incontestable knowledge. But this is only one flaw among many. In this week’s Facebook poll, we want you to share your feelings on this topic by answering the following question:

What is your biggest pet peeve about popular-science writing?

Talking down to readers
Blurring fact and speculation
Using clichés and overblown language
Giving bad or unclear explanations

Of course, you may have other pet peeves, so feel free to share these by posting a comment on the Facebook poll.

In last week’s poll we asked you where you would most like to go for a nerdy day trip from a shortlist of six places of particular interest to physicists.

Unsurprisingly, CERN was the most popular choice, with 51% of respondents saying they would most like to visit the famous particle-physics lab on the Franco–Swiss border. The second most popular choice was The Very Large Telescope in Chile, which was the choice of 27% of voters. In third place (which, incidentally, was my personal preference) was the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world’s first space-launch facility in Kazakhstan, which received 9% of the vote. The other three choices, which failed to stir much interest, were: the Trinity test site where the first atomic bomb was detonated, New Mexico, US; Bletchley Park code-breaking centre, Buckinghamshire, UK; and Woolsthorpe Manor, birthplace of Isaac Newton, Lincolnshire, UK.

Thank you for all your responses and we look forward to hearing from you again in this week’s poll.

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