Writing about Science: Filling in the Gaps

What is a journalist supposed to do when there is part of a scientific study they don’t understand? For instance, while writing this recent article on nitrogen pollution from fertilizer used on rice crops, I realized that there were a number of things that I needed to explain to my readers but that I did not understand myself and were not explained well by my sources. What am I supposed to do in that situation? A good example of this is in talking about gasses released from chemical reactions involving nitrogen. I write that these reactions occur “as a result of nitrogen fertilizer dissolving in water.” To be honest, I wasn’t totally clear why these reactions happen. I am not an organic chemist, and though I understand the concept of chemical reactions, much of the description in the scientific paper I was reading went over my head. So, I used my best guess as to what the author was saying. Is this appropriate? It has its advantages and disadvantages I suppose. One advantage is that I think my guess is pretty close to what the scientist meant, and although they could surely give a more complete explanation, at least my explanation is easier for non-scientists to understand. I may have lost some of the complexity that a scientist doing research would need to know, but does the average person on the street need that detail? Probably not. On the other hand, making a habit of just filling in gaps with “best guesses” seems dangerous. Communicating science is hard enough, but if science communicators simply use their best guess every time they run into something they don’t fully understand, we are bound to have competing interpretations of the same scientific topic. Also, we could guess and get something wrong that actually is important, not realizing this because we don’t fully understand it. Thus, it seems science communicators have to do some serious homework, and should as mush as possible try to find answers to anything that is unclear before it goes in a final article. I’m realizing more and more that writing about science is hard, and I have tremendous respect for the people who do it well.

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