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Writing Science Like a Tour Guide

November 20, 2013

Dog Ear Consultants

Flickr/USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Science writing is tough. Especially longform science writing for general audiences. You have these incredibly complex concepts that you first have to learn (or re-learn, if any of you gave up careers in cellular biology for a more glamorous alum mag editor lifestyle) and then convey them back to the person you were before you knew what eRNA was.

So when it’s done well, it deserves notice. And James Somers’ recent Atlantic profile of artificial intelligence pioneer Douglas Hofstadter deserves notice.

There’s a lot of smart stuff in here—more New Yorker-style backup grafs than you can count on one hand (for you form nerds)—but our favorite thing about it is Somers’ “tour guide” approach. There are plenty of passages where Somers grabs his readers by the lapels and says, “OK, here’s the deal.” Here’s Somers employing it while explaining why artificial intelligence researchers stopped using the human brain as a blueprint:

“The quest for ‘artificial flight’ succeeded when the Wright brothers and others stopped imitating birds and started … learning about aerodynamics,” Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig write in their leading textbook, Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach. AI started working when it ditched humans as a model, because it ditched them. That’s the thrust of the analogy: Airplanes don’t flap their wings; why should computers think?

He’s working as a guide, asking questions, leading us by the hand. Again, Somers puts the narrative on hold to bring the crux of the story into focus:

This, then, is the trillion-dollar question: Will the approach undergirding AI today—an approach that borrows little from the mind, that’s grounded instead in big data and big engineering—get us to where we want to go? How do you make a search engine that understands if you don’t know how you understand?

And here’s Somers wrapping up a section on the potential significance of Hofstadter’s work:

What if the best ideas in artificial intelligence—“genuine artificial intelligence,” as Hofstadter now calls it, with apologies for the oxymoron—are yellowing in a drawer in Bloomington?

We need someone on our side for a story like this—serving as that kind of veteran local cab driver, breaking things down for those of us who only plan on visiting science for a short while.



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  1. Donna Spencer #
    November 20, 2013

    This is a great post. But I’ve racked my brain, replayed longform pieces in my head, googled, asked my smartest colleagues, and I’m still stumped: what’s a “New Yorker-style backup graf”?

    • November 20, 2013

      Ha! We wondered if that was a universal idea or just something we mumble to ourselves. Looks like the latter. Anyway, these are grafs that follow a long intro scene, typically one set in the present. They give background and history, giving context to the action. An example would be a profile of, say, a codebreaker: The first scene is said codebreaker at his desk or in front of his class, etc; the next, then, could be anything from a brief history of codebreaking to a brief history of the person being profiled. The New Yorker loves these. That and dateline ledes. Lord, do they love dateline ledes.

      Or, at least, that’s our definition. And I guess because it’s increasingly clear that we made up the phrase, that has to be right.

  2. Donna Spencer #
    November 21, 2013

    Got it! Thanks for the clarification. And it’s an act of service to make such a handy term public – I plan to adopt it at the first opportunity.

  3. Ori Simcha #
    November 21, 2013

    Science writing is only tough for dumb people. Magazine writers and editors — even ones who work for colleges and universities — aren’t dumb. They’ve just been trained, like 99% of the population, to believe that they can’t understand science. Believe in yourself. Free your mind! Only then can you write about science without coming across like the dork you actually are.

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