The Guardian did a group interview of five of the six nominees for the the Royal Society’s Winton prize for science books 2012 — Steven Pinker, James Gleick, Brian Greene, Lone Frank and Joshua Foer.
Here’s an exchange between Greene and Pinker:
How has the formal, technical way scientists write journal papers affected popular science writing?
BG: I was looking back over some quantum mechanics papers from the 1920s and in one article the scientist described an accident in his laboratory when a glass tube exploded, a nickel got tarnished and he heated it to get rid of the tarnish – he went through the whole story himself in the technical article. You don’t really see that much these days. I don’t know if that is a one-off example, I haven’t done an exhaustive study, but have journal articles moved away from telling the story of discovery to just a more cut-and-dried approach?
SP: They have; I think that’s been documented. There is scientifically a problem with that, as opposed to narrating what happened. The problem is that since you’re under pressure from the journal editor to tell your story leading up to your conclusion without talking about all the blind alleys and accidents, it actually distorts the story itself because it inflates the probability that what you discovered is really significant. If you tried 15 things that didn’t work and one thing that did work and didn’t talk about the 15 that didn’t work, then the statistic that makes it significant is actually mistaken. The statistic has to be computed over all of the experiments you ran, not just the one that happened to work. In the social sciences especially, we’re seeing that there’s a lot of damage done by the practice of only reporting the successes and telling the story as if it was a straight line to a successful result.
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