Truth and Beauty in Science Writing

I’ve just read a piece by Ann Finkbeiner called “Beauty & Truth in Writing about Science“. Finkbeiner is apparently a journalist who specializes in science writing and her article considers the possibility of science writing that is literary and/or beautiful. In the end, she’s not sold on “literary beauty” in science writing. As it’s a form of nonfiction, we have no option but to find the beauty in the facts, she says. Science writers have to stick to the facts.

Now, I wouldn’t know literary beauty if it bit me in the ass, but as I do write stuff (here, if nowhere else), I do feel qualified to say a thing or two about writing. The first thing I’d want to say, is that that writing is a human activity that results in a product for reading by a human audience. Why would members of that audience devote time to reading a particular piece of writing in preference to any of the other things they might do with that time? It might be because they consider it informative and useful or it might be because it stimulates a satisfying kind of mental reflection. Either way, the writing has to keep them engaged. It has to be entertaining. That’s not something that follows inevitably from the subject matter of the writing. It’s perfectly possible to write boring or ugly prose about a subject that the reader would find in itself to be fascinating or beautiful. Conversely, it’s possible (if not so easy) to write compellingly or even beautifully about something that, in itself, the reader might find boring or ugly. To be sure, there’s a distinction to be made between those cases where the writing inspires the reader to take a closer direct interest in the subject matter for themselves and those where the reader enjoys the writing but finds no reason to change their perception of the subject matter itself. Either way, however, there’s a clear difference between the experience of reading about something and experiencing that thing for itself.

Finkbeiner seems not to recognise that distinction. Of nonfiction writing she says:

Isn’t the point of nonfiction, and science writing in particular, that the readers enlarge their understanding of the world?

… and …

Nonfiction arranges facts into a story, it finds the story in the facts. Readers are not in [it] for evocation of someone else’s world. They’re in it for the truth about the world we all must share, for understanding those facts.

While I’m not sure that it is the point of nonfiction writing to enlarge the readers’ understanding of the world, I can agree that such enlarged understanding can be an indirect consequence if readers are inspired to engage with the world in new ways for themselves. However, what Finkbeiner says about facts, stories and understanding just looks confused to me. According to her, a story is an arrangement of facts and the story is found in facts. So is the arrangement itself another fact – a given – or is it a narrative constructed by the teller of the story? To presume that readers aren’t interested in the “evocation of someone else’s world” is to imply that they expect the story itself to be a fact independent of the writer’s preferences. On the other hand, if readers want to enlarge their understanding of the world (as opposed to their collection of documented facts) they need a point of view on how those facts might affect their particular circumstances that they can critically assess, accept, reject or build on. The world itself is a given, but how we choose to interact with it – which is the practical expression of how we understand it – is not.

Finkbeiner is quite right to insist that writers of nonfiction should not to write fiction and tell people it’s fact. That’s just a matter of honesty. For Finkbeiner, however, honesty is apparently not enough. She wants trustworthiness because, according to her, readers rely on writers for their understanding of the world:

Without facts, nonfiction is unreliable and readers’ understanding of the world is correspondingly untrustworthy.

When scientists imagine themselves as exclusive fonts of everyone else’s understanding of the world, that may be just a matter of bad taste. When science writers do it, it’s a travesty. Could not science writers (and scientists) content themselves with the idea that where writing inspires others to take a closer direct interest in the world for themselves, one might call its effect “beautiful”. Once that has been achieved, whatever residual value remains in the writing might be what we could call literary beauty.

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