Fun in Research

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, 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? 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 partner 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,, 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?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Yes, yes, yes!

    There's no reason science writing has to be boring and so convoluted that no-one can understand it but experts. I think scientists should be judged, at least in part, by their ability to write. Whenever I take a creative writing course, academic writing is presented as the utlimate example of how NOT to write. I don't think scientists need to be Hemingway or Shakespeare, but they certainly shouldn't be the examples of the worst writing possible.

    Part of the problem is when the passive voice and all kinds of qualifications are used, instead of just saying outright what is meant. Alan Lightman talks about this and the different styles and personalities of scientists in "The Discoveries," but he doesn't go so far as to tell the scientists to learn how to write better. It's a shame, because Lightman is a fantastic writer and a professional physicist, so he could certainly speak to this point.

    I'm not sure that science journal articles should be written for a popular audience, but it is something to think about if it would get more science stories on the front page of the local paper.

  2. Yikes, The Fire Ants is $95, even on amazon. Ouch. I guess I won't be ordering a copy any time soon….

  3. And it science isn't always dull, take the "improbable research awards" and their Ig Noble Awards as a funnie on the absurd research of the year.

    and I find a lot of humor in writers like David Bodanis (author of The Secret House for making certain science an *everyday event* [*wink*])

    And their of loads of FAB science blogs and bloggers who can make the mundane most intriguing.

  4. When I started studying for my Bachelor's degree in engineering, my first assignment set by one of the most senior and internationally respected professors in the school was to write an essay on engineering topic. In his briefing to us, he said that he wasn't interested in the content, just how well we could write. He made the point that there is little point in being a great engineer if you can't communicate, and that the most efficient way of communicating to large numbers of people was writing. I think he even went so far as to suggest that if you couldn't write well, and communicate effectively to your audiences, then you might as well not bother starting on an engineering degree.

    So I think absolutely, no matter how great a scientist, engineer, etc your value is greatly diminished if you can't write well and engagingly.

  5. Donald Knuth, who wrote the typesetting program TeX and a book about it called the TeXBook has a few jokes in his work. Larry Wall, the inventor of the Perl language, has more than a few jokes in his book on it. Those aren’t books of science per se, but they are technical.

  6. Every time I've tried to put something funny or entertaining in a journal paper, the editors have required those parts to be removed before publication.

    In fact, one of my favorite editorial letters says I should rewrite one of my submissions to make it less "literary."

    I took this to mean that it was a well written paper, and they could understand it. so it obviously wasn't serious science.

  7. As a scientist with published works I must point out that the whole point of the paper is to tell people as concisely as possible what your results are. Professional scientists do not have the time to read through long descriptive text that the English Society wants included. The papers are not and never will be intended for a general audience, and professionals find the facts interesting in themselves, so that's all they want.

    Furthermore, the passive voice is used because it's not important who did it, but that it was done. In this I object to pointing out that academic writing is the worst type possible. This is only true if you judge it as being a novel that is supposed to touch your imagination; that's not what a scientific paper is about.

    This doesn't mean that you can't have fun in the paper—you just need to be more clever to convey meaning while also making it interesting. (As some examples, here are some paper titles:

    Crouching Sigma, Hidden Scalar in gammagamma -> pi^0pi^0

    Kinky Strings in AdS_5 x S^5)

  8. I completely agree. Every time I watch The Discovery Channel and see a weirdy looking scientist that has to be forced to be mildly entertaining by the hosts, I get just slightly annoyed. I appreciate the work and research and recognize that scientists are the ones who are pushing the world forward, but damn it if they can't be a little interesting to motivate people to take interest.

    We need a new Richard Feynman.

  9. Very interesting responses; thanks guys.

    It seems as though no matter what, as DaveP suggests, every scientist benefits if he can communicate effectively with the intended audience, whether that means writing in an entertaining way or by simply conveying information in a concise and easy-to-understand manner.

    I honestly think that overall, the current trends are positive. We have a lot of interesting research going on, science-oriented books that sell very well, and like Karen mentioned, a lot of blogs and fun things like the Ig Nobels (which, ahem, I wrote about in the most recent issue of Skeptic Magazine). It's tough to know for sure though when you're as mired in the science world as we are, in the same way that politically I've always lived within an urban, liberal bubble making it difficult to see where the rest of the country stands.

    A new Feynman wouldn't hurt, though. A new, just-as-sexy Feynman.

  10. nsetzer said: As a scientist with published works I must point out that the whole point of the paper is to tell people as concisely as possible what your results are. … In this I object to pointing out that academic writing is the worst type possible. This is only true if you judge it as being a novel that is supposed to touch your imagination; that’s not what a scientific paper is about.

    In the books I'm talking about, academic writing is not criticized because it's not "literary" but because it's often difficult to understand what is being said precisely because it is *not written clearly or concisely. Passive voice is OK sometimes when it's used purposefully, but it leads to obfuscation and often is used as a way not to take full responsibility for one's ideas. Whether that is intentional or not doesn't really matter, because it's the way it comes across. If effective communication is the goal, it doesn't matter what was intended, only how readers react. I am not making this up, I can provide quotes from a whole slew of writing books if anyone is interested.

    Now, I'm sure that's an overgeneralization and it doesn't apply to all academic writing. I haven't read any of your papers, for example, and you may be a very good writer.

  11. I agree that it does matter how readers react, but it must be kept in mind that the readers for scholarly papers (at least the ones I'm talking about here) are other scientists who may very well perfectly understand that which someone in the English profession may say is obfuscated and badly written.

    That being said, I must point out that I think it is very important for scientists to be able to write well: I've encountered many things that have been composed poorly yet contained information vital for me to understand (oddly I can recall more books than papers at the moment). Because of that, I have been vigilant in modifying other author's contributions to a joint paper so that it may read more easily and have an overall better flow. Unfortunately, this might be something that other collaborators can't do or just simply don't have the time to do.

    On a complete tangent, I'm still waiting for the address to send that "New Feynman" application.

  12. I have to admit, I actually think business and government writing is the worst writing because it is intentionally dishonest and obfuscated. And there are probably other areas of acedemia besides the sciences where bad writing is more prevalent.

    I don't read a lot of scientific papers, and I agree that their purpose is not to communicate to the general public. But I thought that NYT article that Rebecca linked to was very interesting, and I think it's worth considering the idea that scientific journals could serve a dual purpose of communicating to scientists and to the media, and that this could be beneficial to science in general.

    I couldn't say if that would realistically work, I leave that up to people like you, nsetzer, who are a working and publishing scientist.

    Anyway, I'd like to see anything and everything that can be done to make science more accessible and interesting to the general public, and discussions like this are steps in that direction.

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