Resource on evolutionary concepts for science writers?

If I were to put together a respectful, short, easy to follow resource of major evolutionary concepts that science writers could consult whenever they wrote a piece involving evolutionary aspects, would they use it? Would my friends in the science writer world promote it, refer colleagues to it, send authors who get things wrong to it? If it would be worth the effort, I’d be glad to cover things like natural selection and phylogenetics, which are very commonly misunderstood. (And for the record, this is not a shot at science writers — I am also working on a review aimed at genomics researchers). What specific things would you like to see included if such a resource were assembled?

I appreciate comments and ideas from everyone, but I am especially interested in hearing from science writers as they are the intended users.


8 comments to Resource on evolutionary concepts for science writers?

  • What a wonderful idea! There are heaps of tropes I’d love to never see again in a news story – “xxx is more/less evolved than yyy”, “xxx is a missing link”, etc. Short, unbiased and fair descriptions of controversies would help too – punctuated equilibrium, group selection, ‘junk’ DNA etc.
    –Simon

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  • Don’t know if you planned on this or not, but I think using some case studies as examples would help, such as the recent Chicken-or-the-Egg story, Ida, Ardepithecus, Human Genome Project, etc. It would be a good way to illustrate what the specific problems are.
    Speaking of the human genome project, explaining what “sequencing” actually means (as in it doesn’t mean we know what all the genes do) would be beneficial, I think.

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  • I think that’s a great idea! I would use it!

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  • While it’s a great idea and would be very valuable (much of quality evolution talk seems to be buried beyond paywalls and ‘terminology walls’…), there appears to be one major problem with getting evolution across especially: it seems so simple. While physics can get pretty badly battered too, it is generally accepted that a quality understanding of the field requires many years of grueling training. Evolution is not perceived that way: even my engineer father commented “Evolution? People STILL study that? Wasn’t everything like figured out in the 19th century already?” (*facepalm* would love to inform my boss about that…) And that automatically makes one very insensitive to seemingly trivial conceptual points. I think the problems with reading phylogenies are similar: trees are so simple looking, not a single PDE or integral for miles, and thus undeserving of proper attention.
     
     
    Thus, many fail to consult with proper sources while writing about evolution not only because they’re lazy, but because they genuinely think they get it. And when one thinks they get something, they usually don’t look for help or extra resources — because they, well, get it already. It’s much harder to fix those well-[mis]understood misconceptions than if one simply knew nothing about the subject to begin with. I’m not sure how to convince the public there’s actually important points they may have missed behind the thin veneer of simplicity…
     
     
    Come to think of it, that seems to be a problem present in classrooms as well, and I’ve experienced it myself many times: you FEEL like you understand it, but in reality, you don’t. How does one distinguish true understanding from a misunderstanding in themselves to begin with? Perhaps teaching strategies should factor in that psychological element somehow. (Failing all those courses has made me think waaay too much about this stuff for my own good, apparently…heh)

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  • I would certainly do my part to promote your guide. Your previous work has been of great help to me as a journalist, such as your paper on understanding evolutionary trees. But this raises an important caveat. There are already some good resources out there–not just papers like yours, but the talk.origins web site and the “Understanding Evolution” web site. (Full disclosure: I wrote the historical sections of the latter.) If journalists want to get up to speed on evolution and find out about some of the big pitfalls of reporting on it, they have plenty to pick from.

    Of course, these resources could always be improved upon. I’ve seen this kind of improvement occur in the world of climate research. Today it’s much easier to find solid information to cut through some of the more common canards tossed around about global warming.

    But the journalists who will go to a new and improved evolution site will be those who are motivated to invest some time into learning about evolution and who recognize that they have a lot to learn. And, frankly, I doubt that the reporters who publish the really dreadful stuff about evolution fit that description. I suspect they just don’t care. They publish their lurid pieces and move on to the next story (which is typically not about evolution).
    None of this is to dissuade you from doing this, but you need to go into it with eyes wide open.

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    • Hi Carl — thanks. You’re right that there are resources available in both print and online form. Evolver Zone itself has links to lots of them. However, what I have in mind is more of a handbook aimed specifically at authors (science writers and science paper authors) who are about to write something related to evolution. I think some clear browsing by topic and searching functions would be good and, as others have suggested, specific “correct” and “not correct” interpretations with examples. Links to more details at other sources could be included, of course.

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  • As Ed Yong said on Twitter, I think it would be a good idea to organize the list in terms of common myths and misconceptions. I think that will draw in more writers and get more attention than just listing the basics. If you do something like “Myth 1: Evolution is only driven by natural selection” and then explain what is really the case, I think something like that could work well and act as a check on commonly-used phrases or hooks. Likewise, if you did compose such a guide, I would link to it and let other people know about it. I am frustrated by persistent misconceptions and worn, inaccurate phrases in stories on evolution, too, so it would certainly be in my best interest to share the information!

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  • Barrett Brown

    Dr. Gregory-
    I’m the author of a book on evolution as well as a contributor to Skeptic and The Skeptical Inquirer, and I’m starting up an effort to improve science journalism as a whole. If you (or any of your readers) would be interested in learning about our project, shoot me an e-mail at barriticus@gmail.com. Thanks.

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