Science Writing Prize 2012 – Tess Shellard
The 2012 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, in association with the Guardian and the Observer, opened last week. Between now and the competition deadline, we’ll be hearing from established science writers about a piece of science writing they admire and what makes it so good.
Today, Tess Shellard, winner of the general category of the 2011 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, explains why she finds Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science so compelling.
Selecting just one piece of science writing I love was not easy. In the end I couldn’t resist going for something by that venerable battler of woo and quackery, Ben Goldacre. Tricky though it was to choose – he has written very movingly about science and certainly has the knack for some exquisite imagery – I’ve picked this peach about our inherently flawed perceptions.
Sometimes our intuitions are simply no use:
“We see shapes in the clouds and a man in the moon; gamblers are convinced that they have ‘runs of luck’; we can take a perfectly cheerful heavy metal record, play it backwards, and hear hidden messages about Satan. Our ability to spot patterns is what allows us to make sense of the world but sometimes, in our eagerness, we can mistakenly spot patterns where none exist.”
We’re not even down to the nitty-gritty yet and we’re already knee-deep in apophenia, pareidolia and cognitive bias. But do we feel as though we’ve been clouted round the head with a psychology textbook? No. With a few judiciously sparse, evocative references we’ve absorbed some important points and we’re all still on board.
Goldacre goes on to guide us through the clustering illusion, providing valuable evidence for the central point. There is some genuine appreciation for an “ingenious experiment” by social psychologist Thomas Gilovich here (about our tendency to see patterns in random sequences). That’s important for me. As far as I’m concerned, the revelations of science cannot be rivalled for fascination. The very best science writers convey a pure, irresistible enthusiasm for it all.
“You cannot sense whether a pill cures the common cold, or MMR causes autism. Your ingot of human experience does not present you with information to spot patterns on that scale: it’s like looking at the Sistine Chapel ceiling with one eye through a cardboard tube.”
Ah, now we’re really talking. It’s not exactly news to anyone, but a well-turned simile or metaphor can do wonders for elucidation. And sometimes they’re just downright beautiful to read. These ideas have not been translated into plain English for us. It couldn’t be further from plain. This piece, like all good writing, doesn’t spare the style, wit or personality.
Now, tragically, there’s no denying that Goldacre knows a lot more stuff than I do. The lexicon of his home territory is, for the most part, utterly alien to me. But while he makes a concerted effort to decode the more grindingly utilitarian language that could have been used, as the reader I’m trusted to be curious and intelligent enough to meet him halfway. It’s official: the gap can be bridged without resorting to hand puppets and words of one syllable.
So why do I love this piece? Well, it has maths, science, humour, some geeky glee, a beautiful simile, a clear well-flowing structure and – crucially – some expertly sparse explanations. I would give up a kidney for less. Plus, the nugget of knowledge it offers is more than just interesting: it’s important. Goldacre leaves us in no doubt about that.
This article first appeared on the Guardian website. The rest of the series will be published on our blog and the Guardian’s site over the coming weeks. You can find more tips and advice in the ‘How I write about science’ series that ran ahead of last year’s competition.
Find out more about the Science Writing Prize on the Wellcome Trust website – the closing date is 25 April 2012.