Friday, 14 August 2009

Can humanities graduates do it? Actually write science journalism?

I bloody well hope so. I am a future science journalist. I am a humanities graduate. I feel there’s a huge amount of work ahead of gaining background knowledge, contacts and plenty of nosing around to do if I’m going to do the best, most thorough, job I can. Seems like a mammoth task but my plan is this: work hard.

Hooper says: “You have to have a broad enough knowledge of stuff to know if something is genuinely new or not. And even if it is new, it might not be interesting. So you have to just judge whether that story is of broad enough interests. You have to bear in mind your audience. It might be something new but actually only a few geneticists are going to be interested in it... It’s not specialists, it’s members of the public. Will they care about it?”

Jha makes the point that “there are lots of very good reporters who write about science, and have no science background, but have reported science for ten years and I would say know more science than most scientists.” Also, non-scientists might ask questions from the perspective of relative ignorance that scientists might not ask, therefore serving the interests of the not-so science literate masses.

But then, surely even science grads are non-specialists when they are writing outside of their chosen field? Hooper agrees: “It helps if you have a degree in astrophysics and you’re working on some cosmos story, but that’s not going to help you on a stem cell story.”

However, there are advantages to being a science grad, says Hooper: “The best thing to be said for having a science degree or scientific training is the similarities with journalism. It means you have to question claims, look for evidence to support what’s being claimed. That’s what you do as a scientist and that’s what you need to do as a journalist, so there is that sort of similarity.”

Connor infers a degree of agreement with Goldacre about the fact that humanities graduates are the bane of science journalism: “I’d like to see more science graduates in science journalism… They understand that science is complex, the world is complex.” Connor thinks humanities-background science journalists might make the mistake of simplifying stories into pitching two scientists against each other without giving the context about their credibility needed for the reader to fully understand the significance of what’s being said.

Connor also tells me he’s concerned that Goldacre’s attitude could put off science grads from entering the profession. He says: “It’s not true that they can’t write. And they have the intellectual hinterland…”

But surely anyone with the intellectual hinterland to comprehend science, regardless of their degree background, should be able to write it? This smacks of an intellectual superiority complex to me. Jha says: “Surely everyone, anyone, should have the opportunity to write about, play with and enjoy what science is? If not then scientists are just talking to themselves.


  1. Remember a good journalist can write about anything for just about anybody. It's the writing that's the true skill - the information gathering, important though it is, is just the legwork.

  2. Thanks for your comment! Encouraging.

    Also, I just been given the head's up that Tim Radford [] has no degree at all and is award-winning science journalist.

  3. I'd say maths is an issue. Many a rubbish science story could have been avoided if a journo had some idea about stats. But then many science grads don't have that and let he who is without blame etc

  4. Thanks for the advice Ananyo. Duly noted. Swattage ensuing.

  5. "How to lie with statistics" by Darell Huff is a bit of a classic in the area, and although I thought it was over-hyped "Freakonomics" by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner shows the sort of numerate thinking that scientists* tend to take for granted.

    *I'd be interested to know if this is true of biologists since my background is in physics/chemistry.

  6. Possibly turning this idea around: but what do you think about a scientist's capability in the humanities? I am a physicist / mathematician by training and aim to move into the humanities. Any idea on that?