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The Oxford Book of Modern Science WritingReview - The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing
by Richard Dawkins (Editor)
Oxford University Press, 2008
Review by Christina Behme
Oct 26th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 43)

When critically acclaimed science writer Richard Dawkins writes a book on science writing nothing could possibly go wrong, or so it would seem. Sadly things are not always what they seem and more than one thing has gone wrong with The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing.

First, the reader gets very little opportunity to enjoy Dawkins' writing. This is an undeniable deficit because even those critical of Dawkins' views on evolutionary theory, religion or politics usually admit that he is a brilliant writer. The little writing Dawkins provides (see below) still could have been the thread holding the anthology together. But instead we get odds and ends that seem to have little connection to each other or to a coherent 'theme' of the book or even the sub-sections. Dawkins does not write a general introduction to a volume that features 79 science writers on 385 pages. Instead, he provides a specific introduction to every entry. This he justifies by the diversity of subjects (and writers) covered. But it comes at a price. Dawkins' enthusiasm for the literary ability of his fellow scientists quickly becomes repetitive. The reader, who may have been delighted to learn that Atkins is "one of the finest living writers of scientific literature" (page 11) or that Cronin produces "as elegant a word picture as you'll find" (page 16) may be slightly unimpressed to read that Pinker is "one of science's most compelling writers today" (page 103) and by the time she learns that Smolin created "an uncommonly beautiful and deep piece of writing" (page 363) she may sigh 'C'mon already, I got the idea, they are all uncommonly good writers'.

Next, it never becomes quite clear which criteria Dawkins used to place individual contributions in one of the four sub-sections ('What scientists study', 'Who scientists are', 'What scientists think' and 'What scientists delight in'). Presumably one can question the categories themselves. For example, can a scientist study anything without thinking? But even if one accepts the usefulness of these sub-sections one may wonder why contributions that clearly describe the work of a scientist or what it means to 'do science' but say virtually nothing about his life ended up in the 'Who scientists are' section (e.g., Jacob Bronowski, John Tyler Bonner, Lewis Wolpert, Carl Sagan). Given the importance of the subject at hand (promoting 'good writing by professional scientists', p. xvii) these points are certainly minor side issues. And, someone who uses The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing as occasional bed-time reading, covering only one or two entries at a time, may never be bothered by them. I only mention them because I have come to expect better from Dawkins. For more substantial criticisms of the selection of some of the individual pieces I recommend another review (Bernstein, 2010).

A more serious flaw is that of the 79 science writers included in the volume only 2 are women. I do not believe this is an indication that Dawkins thinks the contribution of female science writers is negligible. But not every reader will see things my way. Even moderate feminists might cite The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing as one more example on a long list of publications glorifying male dominated science. Ultra conservatives can (mis)use the book as tool to persuade girls to stay away from careers in science. If neither Nobel Prize winning Barbara McClintock nor best selling science authors like Jane Goodall, Lisa Randall, Temple Grandin or Sue Savagh Rumbough can 'make it' into a science writing anthology, then it might be better for ambitious young women to pursue other careers. Right wing US politics comes to mind. This can hardly be Dawkins intention and it would be desirable for future editions to include writings of female scientists in a proportion that reflects the importance of their contribution to science. Similarly, it would be desirable to rethink the policy to include only work that has been originally published in English. A work that purports to "capture the allure of our understanding of the world through science" (front jacket) surely ought to provide a more inclusive account of the global multi-faceted scientific enterprise.

In my opinion, the greatest shortcoming of The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing is that it essentially neglects any reference to current problems that exist within science and at the intersection of science, ethics and politics. Dawkins' selection creates the image of science marching on a fairly straight road towards a deeper understanding of the world. To be sure, it is occasionally acknowledged that there have been roadblocks. But, seemingly, they are a thing of the past. We read nothing about the ongoing controversies within science (e.g., tree of life vs. web of life debates, global warming controversies, language evolution disputes, etc.).

Equally, problems that arise at the intersection of science and ethics, if dealt with at all, are treated as an issue of the past (e.g., Oppenheimer's discussion of the obligations of those involved in 'war-science'). Incidentally, one of the few entries that tackles a social issue (Hardin's 'The tragedy of the commons') receives one of the shortest introductions (4 1/2 lines) and the reader is never told why 'everybody needs to understand the concept [introduced by Hardin]' (p. 263). Here would have been an opportunity for Dawkins to shine by showing that modern scientists think beyond the ivory tower and inform social debates. This opportunity is missed and virtually nothing is mentioned about current issues (e.g., stem cell research, artificial life, genetically engineered food, ecosystem degradation, etc.).

Finally, Dawkins and the scientists who get a voice in this volume remain silent about the highly publicized scandals within science (e.g., data fudging in cancer research by Racker & Spector 1981; bioethics law violations by Hwang, W., et al., 2004; Climate Gate allegations of data manipulation by Mann & Jones, 2003). This 'no see, no hear, no tell' attitude is most unfortunate. It leaves Dawkins' audience depending on notoriously unreliable sources for this kind of information: sensationalist mass media (e.g., Golden, 1981; Sang-Hun, 2006; Revkin, 2009; Sullivan, 2009) or pseudo-experts who have an axe to grind with science. Yet, especially here his expertise in selecting competent advocates of science would have been beneficial. And there is no shortage of self-critical analysis in science writing. Not even from authors who do get a voice in Dawkins' anthology. From Gould's (1980) recount of the Piltdown case to Watson's (2007) memory of his personal experience with the Moewus data fudging and his account of some of the intrigue and unacknowledged contributions surrounding the DNA research, there certainly are examples of scientists addressing perennial problems within science. Yet, Dawkins' silence about the problems of science may leave at least some readers with the impression that longstanding criticisms that significant "research irregularities seem to be a fact of modern scientific life" (Savan, 1988, p. 30) are justified.

In spite of these shortcomings, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing can be useful and/or entertaining for many readers. Dawkins certainly is incapable of producing anything that is entirely bad or even boring. So we get many interesting and stimulating tidbits from the world of science. More often than not one is disappointed that the excerpts are not longer. As a result Dawkins' probably will achieve one of his goals (to entice the reader to pick up the book from which the excerpt is). Furthermore, the wide scope of areas covered will ensure that virtually every reader encounters at least some new ideas. So while I would not call The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing "a celebration of humanity" (back-cover) I recommend it to readers who are mainly interested in information that goes beyond encyclopedia entries and is written by some of the most distinguished scientists of the past century.

 

References:

Bernstein, J. (2010). A Bouquet of Science. The New York Review of Books.

Gould, S. (1980). The Panda's Thumb, New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Hwang, W., et al. (2004). "Evidence of a pluripotent human embryonic stem cell line derived from a cloned blastocyst". Science 303, 1669–74.

Golden, F. (1981). Science: Fudging Data for Fun and Profit. Time Magazine. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,953258,00.html.

Mann, M. & Jones P. (2003). Global surface temperatures over the past two millennia. Geophysical Research Letters 30, 15, 1820–23.

Racker, E. & Spector, M. (1981). Warburg effect revisited: merger of biochemistry and molecular biology. Science, 213, 303.

Revkin, A. (2009). Hacked E-Mail Is New Fodder for Climate Dispute. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/21/science/earth/21climate.html?_r=1

Sang-Hun, C. (2006). South Korea Scientist Contrite for Stem Cell Fraud. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/12/science/12clone.html?fta=y

Savan, B. (1988). Science under Siege: the Myth of Objectivity in Scientific Research. Toronto: CBC Enterprises.

Sullivan, M. (2009). The World's Most Influential Climate Scientists Get Caught "Fudging" the Data. Rock Creek Free Press. http://www.sott.net/articles/show/199641-Science-Scandal-of-the-Century

Watson, J. (2007). Avoid Boring People. New York: Random House.

 

© 2010 Christina Behme

 

 

Christina Behme. Philosophy Department, Dalhousie University


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