Category Archives: science writing


High in Sky, a Refrain: ‘Squawk, Data’

A red kite, sans blog. Copyright Sean Gray

A red kite, sans blog. Copyright Sean Gray

Like any young adult moving to a strange new land—a common occurrence at this time of year—Wyvis, a resident of Scotland, took to blogging about her new home in late August.

Out on her own, far from relatives, she was making long trips around the farms of Durisdeer Mill, a village in the country’s southwest lowlands, she wrote. She loved the isolation. She would rest in the woodlands around Sanquhar. Then came the odd journey to the moors, worms squishi…


Historians, Dabbling in Science Fiction, Evoke a Climate Collapse

Prepare yourselves, dear readers: The United States of North America is coming.

Writing in the newest issue of Dædalus, two historians of science, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, have taken on a quixotic task: imagining a future historian looking back at our time, in an effort to tease out how we failed to avert a climate-caused collapse. Or, as they put it, how it came to be that “a second Dark Age” fell “on Western civilization, in which denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fi…


How Rude! Reader Comments May Undermine Scientists’ Authority

Boston — Scientists have a hard enough time getting people to understand what they’re talking about.

Their thoughts can be complicated. Their sentences can be laden with jargon. And their conclusions can offend political or religious sensibilities.

And now, to make things worse, readers have an immediate forum to talk back. And when some readers post uncivil comments at the bottom of online articles, that alone can raise doubts about the underlying science, a new study has found. Or at least rei…


The Researcher Behind the Ovulation Voting Study Responds

Kristina Durante

Last week CNN pulled a story about a study purporting to demonstrate a link between a woman’s ovulation and how she votes, explaining that it failed to meet the cable network’s editorial standards. The story was savaged online as “silly,” “stupid,” “sexist,” and “offensive.” Others were less nice. Most of the vitriol was directed at CNN and at the reporter, Elizabeth Landau, who pointed out on Twitter what should go without saying: She didn’t conduct the study.

The person who di…


Scientists Are Often Responsible for ‘Spin’ of Their Results, Research Finds

[Updated on 9/12/2012 at 10:35 a.m. with a response from Isabelle Boutron.]

In recent years, newspapers have been full of articles touting the health benefits of coffee: It cuts the risk of heart attack, stroke, and various kinds of cancers. Yet some studies have also raised warnings, saying coffee can encourage overeating and, yes, even increase heart-attack risks.

Similar uncertainties—at least as reflected in newspaper articles and TV news reports—surround red wine, aspirin, estrogen supp…


Taking Apart the Deepwater Horizon Oil Slick

The ecological effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill are still largely unknown. Josh Fischman, a senior writer at The Chronicle, is on the research vessel Endeavor in the Gulf of Mexico with a team of university scientists seeking answers. He is filing reports from the ship.

This oil slick was spotted from the deck of the Endeavor this weekend. (Courtesy of Kai Ziervogel)

About one mile from Deepwater Horizon’s former site—Gallons and gallons of chemicals called dispersants get poure…


The Neuroscience of Schadenfreude

Why do we sometimes delight in other people’s misfortune? The ugly emotion has an appropriately harsh name—Schadenfreude—and most of us have been guilty of it on occasion.

But the emotion may reveal something not terribly flattering about the person who feels it. A 2011 study concluded that we’re more likely to experience Schadenfreude if we suffer from low self-esteem. Researchers evaluated the self-esteem of 70 undergraduates and then told them about a fellow student who was a high-achiever. T…


Adolf Hitler Runs Into Peer Review—Again and Again and Again

This week the scientific world discovered Adolf Hitler, German dictator and wannabe science grant-winner, for the umpteenth time. The worthy Scholarly Kitchen today features parody videos of Der Führer ranting against stupid grant reviewers, right on the heels of the estimable Boing Boing, which posted them a week ago.

They are not the first to notice. The parodies were on YouTube in 2009. And CBS News did a story on them in 2010. That same year the science blog bioephemera pointed out this was…


Scoring the Showdown Between a Scientist and a Storyteller

Jonah Lehrer

Last Sunday a harsh review of Jonah Lehrer’s new book on the science of creativity, Imagine, appeared in The New York Times. That was followed by a lengthy response from Lehrer and an even lengthier response to that response by the author of the review, Christopher Chabris.

In one sense this is just a spat between an author and a reviewer. But it’s worth looking at closely because it’s also about how science gets communicated and translated, summarized and (possibly) dumbed-down.