Monday, 13 September 2010

Science writing and readability

Science erects high barriers to otherwise well-educated people, some of whom wear “I'm hopeless at science and maths” like a badge of honour. But the level of ignorance among our decision-makers and opinion-formers is far from honourable. It is shameful and dangerous.

The UK went to war in Iraq because members of parliament couldn’t analyse simple science and engineering, in weapons inspectors' reports that were readily available and in the Prime Minister's 24 Sep 2002 speech to Parliament about weapons of mass destruction.

Lacking the basic knowledge that would allow them to distinguish between “significant quantities of uranium from Africa” and “fissile matériel”, the MPs concluded that Saddam would have a nuclear weapon “in a year or two.”

Which was of course the explicit intention of Tony Blair, who used an old lawyer's trick of telling the truth but not the whole truth, and allowing the lie to happen in the listener's mind. By playing on MPs' ignorance of the difference
between natural and fissile uranium – and of the fact that this is the major technical challenge in making nuclear weapons – he frightened Parliament into voting for war.

Honest and effective science communication matters. Without it we launch illegal wars. We are duped by ministers and journalists. We melt the icecaps and pollute the seas.

So there is a huge burden on people who try to explain science to those who don’t yet get it. And especially on writers and scientists who aim to communicate science to children and young people.

There is no point in talking to Sarah Palin or Christopher Monckton about climate change. Or indeed anything else. These mature adults have made their minds up long ago. The same can be said for many other adults, far less irrational, malign or deluded than this perverse pair.

Kids and science
Children are different. All of them have opinions, but most are not yet set in stone. Kids grow, learn, assess evidence and change their minds – and are far more capable of doing so than most of us realise.

If we can find a way to keep the flame of science curiosity that burns brightly in most primary schoolchildren from flickering out when they hit adolescence, the world might hav
e a chance.

But it's not easy to keep teenagers interested in science. Traditional science teaching, aimed exclusively at future scientists, didn’t even try. The new curricula, with their focus on science for citizenship and making connections across the curriculum are much more promising.

But these need to be backed up and kept fresh by communications from the front lines – by direct contact with the people who are out there pushing back boundaries, getting excited, working long hours, making discoveries, doing the science.

Written word
Which brings me back to the barriers. There are
plenty. There are strong emotions stirred by past school science humiliations. There is the difficulty of some science concepts. There’s the maths. There’s the arrogant tone some scientists and writers take when ridiculing unscientific beliefs.

All these repel rather than attract non-scientists.

But I'm not going to talk about any of those here. Instead I want to look at a barrier that has been barely recognised. Which is surprising because it may well be the highest hurdle of them all.

Let me tell you a story – short and relevant. Until recently historians believed the Scots came originally from Northern Ireland. But it’s a myth. It has no foundation in evidence, as Glasgow University's Ewan Campbell has shown. Instead the west of Scotland and north of Ireland were part of a common culture for centuries, united by the sea.

Modern eyes look at big patches of blue on a map and see only a barrier. But the ocean was a highway to our ancestors.

When it comes to the written word, we writers and scientists are like ancient Celts surveying the sea. We see beyond it to old friends, other lands, new excitements. Most children and young people look in the same direction and see salt spray, high waves and hidden danger.

All this was brought home to me gradually but forcefully when trying to get inside the head of my dyslexic son, and when teaching English and science classes in secondary schools after 20 years of R&D in industry.

Scientists and writers are comfortable with words. Much more so than most people. I’m a writer, physicist and teacher, which gives me three overlapping perspectives. I know that what is taught is rarely what is learned, and that the reader seldom hears exactly what a writer is trying to say. Getting stuff out of one mind into another is much harder than many of us realise.

This is why almost everything written by scientists or science writers is unreadable by young people, or indeed most adults.

I am not talking about published papers, whose apparent obscurity masks clarity for colleagues. I’m referring to newspaper articles and blog posts that are supposed to be communicating science to non-scientists.

Most fail. The main reason is that the words and sentence structures in otherwise well-written pieces are too difficult for most readers. You might argue that science is hard and technical words unavoidable. This is true. But it is possible to write about hard science in a way that is accessible to young people. Younger than you might imagine.

I've seen cooperative learning classes with 10- and 11-year olds, who were using readable texts to research, discuss and present sophisticated science concepts, and astonishing even their teachers with the science they were capable of getting to grips with.

So let's take a look at the readability of some recent articles by science writers. Readability statistics are often criticised because good numbers don’t necessarily mean good writing. But this misses the point. We’re not using these stats to pick winners but to eliminate losers - or show where more effort might get us over the line. Good readability stats are a necessary but not sufficient condition for conveying science to young people in writing.

So what does the table three paragraphs down tell us? Well it’s a small sample. But this is an exercise I’ve done many times on many writers. It is not something I’ve only just discovered.

Real Science
I realised long ago that readability was a widespread and widely underestimated problem in science communication. It was one of my motivations in launching the Real Science website.

I'm going to repeat the readability analysis on these 12 writers and maybe a few more in the coming weeks, as they continue to produce articles. This should build a better picture of how consistently readable or otherwise they might be for younger people and non-scientists.

In the meantime it is interesting at least, and maybe significant, that the three most effective writers by readability - on this single exercise - are Alice Bell, a university lecturer in science communication, Alom Shaha, a science teacher and communicator, and Mark Changizi, a research scientist and author.

And that the three least effective – Mark Henderson, Alok Jha and Ben Goldacre – are all science journalists.

TitleWriterSourceReading easeGrade levelFog indexComment
Physicist, chemist & zoologist
Alice BellGuardian677.610.1Easy
King of the UniverseAlom ShahaBlog708.511Easy
Levels of real world wizardryMark ChangiziPsychology Today599.313.2Readable
The shark-toothed dinosaurEd YongBlog5310.313.1Hard
The grand designRobin McKieGuardian4911.815.1Hard
Analysis of PepsiGateMartin RobbinsBlog5211.713.4Hard
Rich-world diseasesDebora MacKenzieNew Scientist4412.114.2Unreadable
Glow in cattle's eyesKatia MoskvitchBBC4912.314.8Unreadable
If the world is going to hellDavid BielloScientific American4512.415.1Unreadable
Blind prejudiceBen GoldacreBad Science4613.216.4Unreadable
Humpback dinosaurAlok JhaGuardian3513.814.9Unreadable
Potential of genomic medicine

Photo credits
Images 2, 3 and 4 are by my highly artistic son, Douglas W. Blane.

Note on readability statistics

“Reading ease” in the table above is Flesch readability. “Grade level” is Flesch-Kincaid. “Fog index” is Gunning-Fog.

I obtain the first two using the built-in readability tool in Word – except when the second comes out at 12.0. In that case, since Word rounds down to 12.0 for this metric, I take the Grade level from this online analysis tool. That also provides me with the Fog index figures.

For the comment column I have crudely assigned one word to sum up readability for a target audience of young teenagers, as follows: Grade level >12 is Unreadable, (10-12] is Hard, (7-10] is Readable, and ≤7 is Easy.

The accepted wisdom is that texts aimed at a wide audience generally need a Fog index less than 12, and that targets for the other two indices should be 60-70 and 6-8. Note that readability increases as Flesch increases, but decreases with Flesch-Kincaid and with Fog.

For comparison, Reader's Digest has a Flesch readability of about 65. Time magazine scores 52, while Harvard Law Review is in the low 30s.

My own observation is that readability stats of one writer in one publication tend to be fairly consistent. But good writers vary their style to suit their audience. When I write for Glasgow University alumni, my Flesch-Kincaid often exceeds 12. For The Guardian it comes out at 10-11, while my articles in Times Educational Supplement and Real Science tend to cluster around 6-8

Sunday, 12 September 2010

High Flight

by John Gillespie Magee, Jr. (June 9, 1922 – December 11, 1941). He was an Anglo-American aviator and poet who died in the air over Lincolnshire during World War II, while serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.