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The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing
Oxford University Press, 2008
419 pp., 39.15
Karl W. Giberson
No Science, Please
People who write obscurely are either unskilled in writing or up to mischief.
I once helped a theologian organize a science-and-religion conference. We selected familiar topics—creation, natural theology, biblical interpretation, origin of life—and assigned them to theologians paired with scientists. We wanted to promote interdisciplinary conversation to ease widespread misunderstanding about science and religion.
The meeting unfolded with alternating presentations—religion, science, religion, science—that were strikingly different. The scientists delivered informal presentations, with visual aids, and made use of helpful analogies. Few wore ties. Biologist Darrel Falk, to take one example, created a great analogy using a multi-generational family photo album to show how pseudo-genes establish common ancestry. (The analogy went on to form the basis for chapter 6 in his acclaimed Coming to Peace with Science.) The science squad all took great pains to deliver accessible, popular-level, presentations.
The presentations of the religion scholars were quite different. There were no visual aids. Presenters read papers filled with insider jargon. They made limited eye contact with their audience. They were clearly talking to each other and not to the rest of us. They were also, for the most part, boring. And they all wore ties.
What was going on here? Religion scholars are the caretakers of our most precious knowledge, and yet they seemed lost when asked to share that knowledge with people outside their field. Why were their presentations so different from those of their counterparts from the scientific community?
I was reminded of this puzzle as I read The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, an imposing new anthology containing more than 80 examples of "good writing by professional scientists," selected and introduced by that arch-villain Richard Dawkins. Much of the writing is indeed wonderful, filled with evocative imagery, poetic ...