Workshop 2

The Fact/Fiction Ratio in Science Writing

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On Thursday 12 and Friday 13 April 2007, the second workshop of the "How Well Do 'Facts' Travel?" project was held at LSE. Organised around the research interests of Jon Adams, The Fact/Fiction Ratio in Science Writing was intended to examine the ways in which the communication of (primarily scientific) facts might be affected by the use of fictional devices: characterisation, narrative, even dialogue. (The programme can be found here.)

About the Workshop

Popularisation is more popular than ever, and not just of the natural sciences, but also of the social sciences such as psychology and economics, and of the humanities: archaeology, history and philosophy. Yet the "popular" label is not necessarily helpful nor descriptively apt: Darwin is cited as a proof that important scientific ideas needn't always be couched in inaccessible, specialist language; Bill Bryson is evidence that successful science popularisation doesn't require a scientist. Yet science writers do have to grapple with the problems of making difficult and often abstruse ideas interesting and comprehensible, while maintaining a high degree of fact to fiction ratio. Or, in the terms we think about the problem in this research project: successful science writers have to make facts travel well.

It may be that facts don't travel well without strong attachment to scientific ideas. Perhaps successful science writing is better portrayed as a set of narratives, whose power comes from the changing ideas of science as their subject matter and the scientists as their heroes. But while science writing may rely on a strong narrative, like history it may also depend on integrating a set of facts that assure the audience of the veracity of the story. And while narrative is certainly a mnemonic device of extraordinary power, other literary devices may be equally usable as fact carriers. How far do science writers use such literary or dramatic techniques to communicate their materials? And how far can a science writer afford to be creative in pursuit of their aims? Participants were asked to think about these issues intersected with the project's central question of "How Well Do 'Facts' Travel?"

Abstracts and Speakers

  • Jon Adams - On the Fact/Fiction Ratio / Do intrusions of fictional material into factual material constitute a violation, a breach of contract? Looking at how Michael Crichton's recent novels sit on the border between popular fiction and popular science, this paper shows how that boundary can be worked in such a way as to strategically elide differences between fact and fiction.
  • Simon Singh - Fermat's Last Theorem - narrative non-fiction / Simon Singh's first book, Fermat's Last Theorem, was part of a new genre labelled narrative non-fiction, which stressed the importance of story-telling when writing about science or other usually dry topics. Before becoming a writer, he was a TV director at the BBC for six years, and produced a documentary on Fermat's Last Theorem. Using clips from that documentary, this presentation discusses how facts travel into film and into writing, and shows how a balance can be struck between narrative, explanation, and clarity.
  • Clare Dudman - Finding a Voice / Novelist Clare Dudman looks at the transfer of information from the rather inaccessible language and style of the scientific academic text to the more accessible voice in a novel. This paper looks at how the novelist might consider what is added, what is taken out and to what extent the basic factual information is retained.
  • Joan Richards - Showing and Telling - narrative in science writing / One of the stock phrases offered to narrative authors is that they should "show not tell," whereas the opposite is the advice given to academic and science writers. In this paper, Joan Richards considers the possibility of locating scientific narrative on some kind of intermediate ground between these poles.
  • Jon Turney - Explanation as story-telling / Jon Turney's paper focuses on the exposition of scientific theories and ideas in "straight" (ie, non-fictional) science writing. He argues that even the "straightest" explanations are most often a particular kind of narrative, and details how this can work.
  • Jane Gregory - Fiction as Fact Factory: an astronomer's novels / Astronomer Fred Hoyle wrote about astronomy in many different contexts. For example, he used fiction to develop scientific ideas before as well as after he published them in the scientific literature. Jane Gregory explores the work in both contexts, and assesses the various factors that gave each its power to bestow or deny the status of "fact" to Hoyle's ideas.
  •  David Warsh - Two Kinds of Fact: Popularization vs. Science Journalism (With Special Reference to Economics) / Journalism stands in a generally friendly, but arms-length relation to professional authority, with the journalist typically asking: how well does the professional community really understand this topic? Journalist and author David Warsh investigates how we think about the "fact/fiction ratio" when opinions differ.
  • Greg Radick - Counterfactuals in the Darwinian Tradition / Greg Radick looks at those curious moments in the writings of Charles Darwin and his intellectual descendants when imaginary pasts and presents are conjured out of the actual past and present. Illustrating this with examples drawn from (among others) Darwin's Descent of Man, Fisher's The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, and Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life, this paper considers what such cases can tell us about the nature, functions, and influence of counterfactual conjectures in the Darwinian tradition of scientific writing.
  • Geoffrey Cantor - The Facts of Light / Drawing on his researches in the history of optics, Geoffrey Cantor looks at the ways in which writers - particularly textbook writers and popularisers - have interpreted Newton's discoveries about light and colours. Concentrating particularly on how Newton's results for the division of the spectrum were reported, this paper shows how his speculations about the nature of light became hard facts.
  • Heather Schell - The Alpha Male in Romance Novels / Romance novelists have adopted the "alpha male" hero, rejecting the "beta" male that they feel feminist publishers have tried to make them write. They have marshalled a defence of their domineering, violent protagonists by drawing on scientific arguments from evolutionary psychology. Romance trade publications are perhaps the last place one would have expected to find people engaged in heated arguments about scientific research: but it seems arguments from evolutionary psychology have travelled surprisingly well.
  • David Kirby - Big Screen Science: Scientists' Backstage Role in the Production of Scientific "Facts" in Hollywood Films / The overwhelming financial success of films such as Jurassic Park and Twister led filmmakers to believe that scientific "realism" is a necessary component in producing a modern science-based blockbuster. Filmmakers ask science consultants to help them transform scientific facts into plausible cinematic scenarios - which means turning scientific facts into Hollywood "facts." This presentation explores the role science consultants play in negotiating information transfer between the scientific community and the entertainment community.

Speakers and Participants

  • Jon Adams, LSE
  • Rachel Ankeny, University of Adeleide
  • Marcel Boumans, University of Amsterdam
  • Richard Burkhardt, University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign
  • Geoffrey Cantor, University of Leeds
  • Clare Dudman
  • Albane Forestier, LSE
  • Jane Gregory, University College London
  • David Haycock, the National Maritime Museum
  • Peter Howlett, LSE
  • David Kirby, University of Manchester
  • Justus Lentsch, University of Bielefeld
  • Sabina Leonelli, LSE
  • Harro Maas, University of Amsterdam
  • Erika Mattila, LSE
  • Julia Mensink, LSE
  • Martina Merz, University of Lucerne
  • Ashley Millar, LSE
  • Gregg Mitman, University of Wisconsin
  • Mary Morgan, LSE
  • Greg Radick, University of Leeds
  • Ed Ramsden, LSE
  • Joan L Richards, Brown University
  • Heather Schell, George Washington University
  • Max-Stephan Schulze, LSE
  • Simon Singh
  • Jon Turney, Imperial College London
  • Simona Valeriani, LSE
  • Aashish Velkar, LSE
  • David Warsh
  • Patrick Wallis, LSE
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