Science writing fills the important role of bridging the gap between scientists and the public. Scientific information trapped in the laboratory is of no use to anyone! Writers package scientific insights into engaging content that can then benefit society.
But what does that mean in practice? There are five main reasons why science writing is important:
- Education: teaching scientific concepts
- Information: help people stay updated
- Persuasion: convince people to change the way they think or behave
- Inspiration: sharing the marvel of science
- Entertainment: content that is fun and engaging
Let’s dig into these and explore the importance of science writing.
Science Writing Vs. Scientific Communication Vs. Academic Scientific Writing
Before going further, it is worth clarifying some definitions.
Science writing covers all written or scripted content that includes scientific concepts. In this article, I focus on science writing meant for public consumption.
Scientific communication is any activity done to communicate scientific concepts. Scientific writing is part of scientific communication, but also includes demonstrations, workshops, and public relations work.
Academic scientific writing (sometimes called “scientific writing”) describes scientific research. It is published in academic journals. The purpose of this science writing is separate from the content written for the public.
These terms are easily confused, and are not applied consistently. I wrote an article that explores what academic versus non-academic science writing is, so go check that out if you need more information.
Educate – Science Writing is Important for Teaching
Education one of the most basic reasons for scientific writing. Every generation of researchers, doctors, and engineers is fed a mountain of educational content. High quality school materials helps students understand the world, and excel in their careers. While educational science writing may not be the most glamorous form of writing, it is absolutely essential.
The most iconic type of science education writing is the science textbook. You may not think of these books as having an author, but they are written by real people. Writing a quality textbook is extremely hard, and often requires large teams.
There is plenty of other educational science content for students. Assignments, guides, and reference books are all common. YouTube is also packed with outstanding videos meant to teach almost any scientific topic. It is incredible how many resources there are these days!
Is educational science writing content limited to schools and students? Absolutely not. Adults have all sorts of scientific questions or curiosities that need answering. Explainer articles, how-to guides, or documentaries are examples of educational science writing aimed at an adult audience.
Recommendation: I’m a big fan of Vox. They played a significant role in popularizing the explainer format in digital journalism. Most of their work isn’t science, but their science content is fabulous. This video offers a clear example of what educational content for adults can look like:
Inform – Stay up to Date and Fight Misinformation
A lot is going on in the world of science and technology. The public should be informed about everything from new medicines and astronomical discovery to chemical spills and natural disasters. These events aren’t simply an intellectual curiosity – they can effect our daily lives in profound ways. Keeping the public informed is critical in any modern society.
But how is this information spread? Science writers translate scientific events into written content. This can be broken into three functions:
- Explanation: what are the facts of the situation? How did it happen?
- Contextualization: why does this discovery matter? What problem does it solve?
- Amplification: what scientific topics deserve attention?
Science journalism plays a critical role here. They play go and find out what is newsworthy, report out the facts of the situation, then send that summary to the masses. We mainly associate reporters with politics and crime, but there are plenty of reporters chasing down scientific stories. These folks were absolutely critical during the early days of the pandemic.
Scientific fact-checking is a related function, which has becoming increasingly demanding in recent years. Misinformation and conspiracy theories circulate online, often spread by powerful and influential people. Science writers try to debunk these claims, provide references, or add relevant context.
Fact-checking is only one part of the fight against misinformation. There are many other forces at play, but science writers do important front-line work. They acts as “first responders” when bad science begins to spread.
Recommended: the New York Times science desk is superb. Their work is almost always accurate, and often integrates diagrams or multimedia content, adding depth to their work.
Persuade – Public Opinion, Policy, and Personal Habits
“Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson was published in 1962. This book explored the harmful effects of the pesticide DDT on the environment and criticized claims made by the chemical industry. This book had a massive impact. It led to the banning of DDT, the creation of the EPA, and was influential in the growth of the environmental movement. “Silent Spring” is often cited as one of the most influential non-fiction books ever (e.g., Time Magazine, the Guardian).
While it is difficult to imagine a book having this level of influence today, it is clear that science writing can be impactful. Scientific arguments are powerful because they appeal to a person’s reason or logic. You can use that influence to contribute to discourse, influence policy, or change the way people think and act.
Climate change is a topic where science writing has influenced public opinion. According to Gallup, only 24% of Americans worried about climate change a great deal in 1997. In recent years, that number has climbed to almost 50%. Science writers have been one of the actors responsible for this shift.
Fiction that includes science (not to be confused with science fiction) can also help influence the thinking of the public. The novel “The Ministry of the Future” by Kim Stanley Robinson explores how global warming will change the world. This means exploring both the natural phenomena as well as the societal impact.
Persuasive science writing can also change your habits rather than your beliefs. Here is a (partial) list of advice topics that use scientific arguments:
- Mental health
- Environmental sustainability
To be clear, that doesn’t mean every advice blog is a strong example of science writing. There is plenty of persuasive content that doesn’t use science at all. In fact, you should be skeptical when non-experts use science in persuasive content. Non-scientists tend to cherrypick or over-generalize data to fit their narrative.
Recommended: Ezra Klein has written a lot at Vox and the New York Times about meat, meat alternatives, and veganism. He does a magnificent job of balancing scientific and ethical arguments. Klein’s article arguing for “The Moonshot for Meatless Meat” is a wonderful example of his work.
Inspire – Getting Motivation from Scientific Wonders
The natural world is a fantastic source of inspiration, creativity, and wonderment. This can come from gazing out into the immensity of space or focusing on the molecules that make up our bodies. These drives may be intangible, but they are also priceless.
While the natural world is impressive on its own, science writers add detail and depth. They can explore the nuance, complexity, and scale of any topic. This writing can become an incredible mix of poetry and science at its best.
Famous scientists are also a source of inspiration and motivation. Albert Einstein, Alan Turing, and Marie Curie are a few of the geniuses that have shaped society. Their stories offer a glimpse into their thinking, their work, and the history of science
This inspiration also plays an extra role – promoting science. Scientists want more funding, respect, and bright students. Inspirational content is essentially marketing for science itself.
Recommendation: “The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)” by Katie Mack. This book discusses how the universe will end according to physics research. It gives you a glimpse into the many ways space is spectacular and terrifying at the same time. You can find a short review here:
Entertainment – Sharing the Weird and the Awesome
The world may be inspiring and educational, but it is also weird and awesome. Science writing shares these neat facts with the world. There is no rule that science writing needs to be serious and straight-laced. There is plenty of room for comedic, bizarre, and shocking content.
Entertainment plays another role – making content with other purposes more enjoyable. Educational and informative content is more engaging if you use interesting examples. Exciting or emotional stories make argumentative and inspirational content more compelling. If you want people to actually read your work, make it entertaining.
Recommendation: xkcd is a long-running and famous comic written by Randall Munroe. The content covers a range of nerdy topics, including science. If you want a higher concentration of entertaining science content, check out his “What If?” posts. Munroe has also written books based on “What If?”
For example, here is an illustration from Munroe’s analysis of what would happen if you tried to grab a pole while falling from a tall building at 100 mph:
I’d also recommend mndiaye_97 on TikTok. His channel is almost entirely amazing or bizarre animal facts. These videos are hilarious, punchy, and well-researched.
The Importance of Science Writing Vs. Regular Writing
At this point you may be wondering what makes science writing different than non-science writing. All of these functions can be found in “normal” written content. What does that imply about the importance of science writing?
This requires returning to a question mentioned earlier: what is science writing? Is it a category of writing like “autobiography” or “romance”? Is it a topic? Or is it a device used in written work? I think it is all the above. Science plays different roles in different types of writing, so it is hard to pin down what is unique about science writing.
But all this is a topic for another time. For now, let’s say science writing is important because it helps us understand and appreciate the natural world. It is a flexible tool that has a unique ability to open up a person’s mind.
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