Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Must Pop Science Writers Know What They're Talking About?

Is it too much to ask that a pop science writer knows what they're talking about?

On the one hand we have the Denyse O'Leary school of journalism, blending lousy writing with an even lousier understanding of her subject matter.

On the other hand we have Carl Zimmer, whose books are praised by scientists knowledgeable in the areas he covers.

In between, we have books like The Violinist's Thumb by Sam Kean. Kean seems like a nice fellow, not at all like the know-nothing harridan O'Leary. But a master's degree in library science doesn't exactly inspire confidence that he knows what he's talking about. Nevertheless, his books have garnered some positive reviews, so I thought I'd take a look.

I was disappointed. Just to name four howlers:

  • On page 107, Kean reveals that he thinks that Mitochondrial Eve is the "oldest matrilineal ancestor of everyone living today". No, she's the youngest (most recent) matrilineal ancestor. The distinction is absolutely crucial.
  • On page 159, Kean states that he thinks the name "junk DNA" has "haunted [scientists] as an embarrassment ever since". Not so.
  • On page 255, Kean claims that Paganini was not a composer. Even I, a classical music dilettante, know that Paganini wrote many works.
  • On page 267, Kean translates the French idiom "étrangler le perroquet" as "strangling the parakeet". But "perroquet" mean "parrot", not "parakeet", in French. The word for "parakeet" is "perruche".
Kean is not the only one at fault. I also blame the publisher (Little, Brown). Didn't this book get any fact-checking at all?


MNb said...

Ugh. That's the kind of stuff you can look up on internet even if you live in the middle of the jungle like me.
Nice guy or not, I don' want to spend my Surinamese dollars on easily avoidable errors like these.

John said...

"Didn't this book get any fact-checking at all?"

No, of course not. Why would it?
Staff fact checkers expect to be paid.