Historical Expertise

Should Science Writers Read Historical Material?

A recent article in the Guardian asked once again: “Should science journalists read the papers on which their stories are based?” This article grew out of debate at the Royal Institution “Scientists and journalists need different things from science” (see the storify version of that debate).

A recent debate about whether or not science writers should read scientific papers.

Apparently there was considerable disagreement about whether or not journalists writing about science should read (be able to read?) the scientific papers, the sources as one commenter put it, on which they were reporting. Reading the abstracts and the press releases was generally thought not to be sufficient. Many of the scientists and a number of the journalists insisted that people writing about science should read and work to understand the scientific papers on which their stories were based.

An analogous question that doesn’t get asked is: Should science writers, journalists, and scientists read (be able to read) and understand the historical sources on which their stories are based?

To admit that both those questions are meaningful is to recognize that history has a distinct expertise and that reading recent translations or excerpts of historical sources is not sufficient.

[Reposted from PACHS.]