Unit 1: Popular Science Writing

Role Audience Purpose Genre Rhetorical Situation
Science Journalist Readers of a major news publication (The Washington PostThe LA Times, etc.) To ethically and honestly report on a recent health or scientific study in a format that is palatable to general/non-expert audiences Popular Sceince Article You are asked to write an article for a major news publication that examines and explains a recent health or scientific study to a particular audience.

“Science says the first word on everything, and the last word on nothing.” ~ Postcritum de Ma Vie, Victor Hugo

Popular science writing bridges the gap between scientific literature and political and cultural discourse. Designed to capture accuracy of science by investigating the methods, results, and implications of recent scientific developments. The goal of popular science writing is to make science more accessible to an audience outside its limited audience, but its purpose is to persuade readers of the validity (or lack of validity) of scientific observation. Popular science literature can be written by non-scientists, though these writers should ideally have expert knowledge of the field, topic, or discourse upon which they write as well as a basic understanding of the field’s research methods in order to dispense scientific knowledge ethically. Take, for example, the work of Eula Bliss, whose recent non-fiction book, On Immunity, explores the cultural fears swirling around the practice of inoculation. Or look at Mary Roach, a popular science writer responsible for several best selling popular science books: Stiff (2003), Spook (2005), Bonk (2008), Packing for Mars (2010) and Gulp (2013). But some scientists write popular science too. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for example, published a ground-breaking study (The Mismeasure of Man) exploring the political and cultural motivations undergirding the belief in biological determinism and exposing the problematic statistical methods used to reproduce the “data” used by scientists like Samuel Morton to support his claim about the biological superiority of the Caucasian race.

For this unit, you will create your own “short form” popular science blog in the style of Ed Yong, a science writer for National Geographic. We’ll break the work into more manageable assignments to assist you in the process of creating an interesting and affecting piece of popular science writing.


Feeder 1: Topic Selection and Resources
Length: Citation of 4-5 sources 100-200 words
Manuscript preparation: CSE or appropriate citation format for your discipline

First, decide what topic you want, make sure it is an appropriate topic for a scientific blog. Then, prepare a list of 4-5 sources that you will use for your Unit Project. Your sources should mainly come from scientific journals, although you may include an article or chapter from 1-2 books. Do not use Internet websites unless they are particularly credible, official, or important sources of information on your topic (i.e., official government websites, or vetted non-profit organizations). Consider these questions: What is the main claim or finding of the article? Why will this source be useful for your literature review? How helpful is the article to your research? How effective is it as a source?


Feeder 2: Science Summary article
Length: 400-600 words
Manuscript preparation: CSE or appropriate citation format for your discipline. Prepare a summary of your chosen research article, avoiding jargon, quotation while emphasizing paraphrase.
Submission Extras: Include a paper copy (or drop in Sakai dropbox) of the original research article with your summary.

Now that you’ve warmed up your analytical skills to discover what the science blog is, what it does, and how it works, you are ready for the next task: tackling science writing its purest form, the professional science research article. The object of this feeder assignment is to master the succinct summary.

Journals I recommend for this assignment:

PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), Nature Neuroscience, Nature Genetics, Nature Medicine, Science, Nature, Nature Communications


Unit 1 Final Project: Popular Science Blog
Length: 750-1100 words

For this final project you will be creating your own science article and posting it to our class blog in the style of Ed Yong—making the article accessible and interesting to a broad general audience. Writing popular science requires two basic things:

1.) Cutting through the scientific rhetoric deployed in professional science writing by using language of appropriate formality (informal, popular). This may include eliminating or limiting jargon or adequately defining any jargon-y language you use. In other words, you’re making something that may seem complicated simple and easy to understand.
2.) Making the scientific findings relevant and interesting to a broad audience. This second part requires more finesse and creativity. Here is where you as a writer and thinker will shine. What connections can you make between the scientific research you’re relaying and current political, social, economic, or ideological concerns? What connections can you make between the scientific research and people’s everyday lives? How might this affect their lives or the decisions they make on a daily basis? How might this effect the way they view the world around them?