Accuracy or Enchantment: The Angst That Plagues a Newbie Science Writer -or- How To Put Asses Into Lab Chairs, and Keep Them There

Two years ago, I decided I would find a way of getting paid for the skills I have accrued during the five years of my undergraduate university education. So, I went to grad school (sorry, no joke here).

Last year, I made a similar resolution. This time, I was determined to get paid not only for my skill set, but for my experience and knowledge. However, before I could do so I had to develop another set of skills: how to write about science so that the general public understood it, and, more importantly, enojoyed it.

So, I began writing science articles for free at NowPublic (after a friendly nudge from a staffly friend), starting with, of course, things I knew. The first article (here) I put a proper effort into took me around 3 hours from start to finish:

The way paleoceanographers investigate ancient oceans is very similar to how paleontologists study fossilized species or archeaologists uncover ancient cities. These scientists have developed tools through observing the behaviours and trends of ocean sediments and their constituents. Many of these tools involve microscopic animals called foraminifera.

Some of these “bugs”, as the biology-disinclined often refer to them, live in the sunlit surface waters and produce shells made of the same mineral chalk is formed from: calcium carbonate. Upon being formed, the mineral lattice of certain species of foraminifera and corals accurately record different chemical characteristics of the seawater around them.

I distinctly remember feeling a certain amount of angst, like full body shivers when you want to pee but are too involved with what you’re doing to both walking to the bathroom, while writing the article that I had never felt before, a feeling that has not since subsided. I knew from reading various popular science books that when writing about science, one must take advantage of their reader’s natural sense of wonder. Basically, one must ask the same questions a young child might innocently ask their parents:

  • Why is the sky blue?
  • Why is bird poop liquidy?
  • What causes waves in the ocean?
  • What makes black black?
  • What are dreams?
  • Where is the Earth from? How did it get here? Where was it before it was here?

Interestingly, many of these questions arise from more basic questions about our world (What does it mean to experience the world? To see, hear, or touch? How do I know what I see is real? How do I know it isn’t a dream?), the same basic questions that have haunted philosophers for millenia.

Explaining them surely could not be an easy task. Nevertheless, I was a diligent and, at times, belligerent. “This is going to work, damnit, I just need the right metaphor!”

I continue to struggle with the following questions whenever I put a proper article together:

  • Is there such a thing as enough science in a science article?
  • When is enough science enough?
  • How does one successfully balance enough science with enough enchantment of the science?

These questions are akin to those you would probably find in an “Introduction to science writing” course, a course I’ve never taken (as a result, I’ve been stumbling my way through the process, learning much, and making plenty of mistakes).

And now, more questions I don’t have answers to:

  • At what point does the scientist turned science writer know they haven’t betrayed the science they aim to write about?
  • How far can you dilute, mold, or change an idea and have it retain its core principles?
  • Furthermore, is this an issue for the writer, or for science education in general?
  • Must the writer assume the reader knows nothing about the scientific method (i.e. when one writes about science, it is implicitly assumed the reader holds a healthy dose of rational skepticism?)
  • Is it ever OK to misrepresent the true nature of a scientific principle, if it means empowering the reader?
  • Might such misrepresentations invite scorn from more science-literate readers?

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Dave Semeniuk spends hours locked up in his office, thinking about the role the oceans play in controlling global climate, and unique ways of studying it. He'd also like to shamelessly plug his art practice: