There’s a fantabulous article in the NY Times today by one James Gorman, concerning the benefits scientists may be able to enjoy if only they employ more humor in their otherwise bone dry research papers.
Gorman mentions the joy he experienced reading The Fire Ants, a new book about, of all things, the lives and habits of ants. The author, Walter R. Tschinkel, peppers the text with asides about the people who are researching the ants in question — their foibles, quirks,Ã‚ and adventures. Gorman says that kind of writing made the subject matter miles more interesting, and wonders why more scientists don’t write in such a compelling manner. He indicates that this would help scientists connect their research with the general public.
A lot of Gorman’s article is tongue in cheek, such as
Honestly, nothing calls out for a personal aside like “highly conserved noncoding elements (HCNEs) in mammalian genomes.”
But it’s an interesting thought. Would scientists lose credibility by spicing up a research paper with a funny anecdote about Dr. Nedermeyer releasing his fruit flies in Dr. Benson’s new car?Ã‚ Scientists don’t get to the top of their fields by necessarily being a compelling writer, they do it with a crazy amount of hard work (my aforementioned trivia partnerÃ‚ worked 20 hours last weekend and still managed to party more than me). Plus, they have a lot of important details to convey in a paper, leaving little room for the jokes.
But if they could, should they? I can’t answer this, because I’m not the one who’s deciding who gets the funding. How about you scientists? Would you be more inclined to take interest in a study if it were a fun read, or would you doubt the authority of the writer?
Just as importantly, would the media be more likely to pick up a more interesting or well-written story and carry it to mainstream audiences? On this final point, I think yes. Every morning, I scan the NY Times, the Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Seed Magazine, BoingBoing, CNN.com, Fark, Science, Nature, and other sources to find interesting things that I think you guys want to know and that I’d like to talk about. It’s survival of the most interesting, and I know that what I do is what media consumers down the ladder do when they choose what to read, and what the media purveyors do up the ladder when they choose what to publish.
Anyway, I’m interested to hear how the rest of you feel. Comments?