Sunday, August 06, 2023

Subatomic Writing: 6 Fundamental Lessons to Make Language Matter

Jamie Zvirzdin. 2023. Johns Hopkins University Press. [260 pages, including index. ISBN 978-1-4214-4612-7. US$29.95 (softcover).]

“The demon wasn’t as ugly as I’d feared, although the cheerful IKEA lighting and the sun-yellow rug in our library can make anything seem cozier, even a blue-skinned night fiend (p. 7). A very dubious quotation from what is overall, a textbook about grammar, style, syntax, and punctuation—a summary and application of rules like those in The Chicago Manual of Style or Strunk and White.

In Subatomic Writing: 6 Fundamental Lessons to Make Language Matter, Jamie Zvirzdin outlines her knowledge of advanced writing in detail and provides students with exercises at the end of each chapter. By day, Zvirzdin is a science writer and educator at Johns Hopkins University and, by night, a program analyst for the University of Utah.

Her unique approach incorporates her knowledge of the mechanics of grammar and science with her love of narrative, action, and mystery into a one-of-a-kind textbook. Zvirzdin’s imagined demon is modeled after the famous hot/cold sorting demon of the brilliant physicist James Clerk Maxwell. The author uses her fabricated “demon” to suggest the metaphor of the book that “particles of language are like particles of matter” (p. 4). And when her house cat is “Schrodingered” (disappears) upon the threat of NOT creating a manuscript, Zvirzdin is forced to comply. To get her cat back by Halloween night, she composes six lessons. In each lesson, she takes a physics concept and likens it to some aspect of writing. Some of her metaphors work better than others, but for the reader it is the process of thinking about the validity of each that makes the book achieve its goal, to provide clarity and a source of communication between these elusive subjects that so desperately need each other for mutual success.

For example, there is a problem with her metaphor that likens writing to collisions between little balls: “Because if all the world is to be explained mechanically in terms of little balls (molecules, electrons, photons, gravitons, etc.), then the only way one ball affects another ball is if the little balls hit. If that is so, collision becomes the essence of physical interaction” (p. 16). Scientists who research molecular motion and thermodynamics will recognize this as an overgeneralization about their topic—most molecules do not behave this way and that is why equations like the ideal gas law are just that—for unreal, ideal situations.

After several chapters of rather exhaustive definitions of physics terms (like quarks and leptons), Zvirzdin concludes her textbook with a return of her demon. To conclude, the mystery of the “Schrodingered cat” resolves itself when Zvirzdin submits her manuscript to the demo, and the cat miraculously reappears. A clever application of the statistically disappearing feline of quantum mechanics.

The narrative approach to Subatomic Writing provides humor and a breath of fresh air in an otherwise arduous, backbreaker science communication textbook. Zvirzdin tackles two challenging subjects by likening them to each other hoping to bring them in closer collaboration: a demon of a task.

Julie Kinyoun

Julie Kinyoun is an on-call chemistry instructor at various community colleges in Southern California. An avid reader, she enjoys reviewing books that help her become a better educator.

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

Book Review: Partial Truth

Partial Truths: How Fractions Distort Our Thinking

James C. Zimring. 2022. Columbia University Press. [ISBN 978-0-231-20138- 4. 244 pages, including index. US$28.00 (hardcover).]

In a world of exponentially growing data in all subjects, fractions and percentages are more important for both official and casual communication. In Partial Truths: How Fractions Distort Our Thinking, James C. Zimring claims that everything from scientific research to new age beliefs are distorted by bias created from numbers. By omitting sample size, failing to create appropriate data, or even manipulating existing data, our society derives faulty conclusions. His analysis of how and why this happens examines evolutionary human psychology and how misperceptions can lead to propaganda and polarization of society.

In this twelve-chapter book divided into three sections, Zimring lays out his arguments about data misperceptions. In Part 1, he explains how anecdotal evidence can persuade people with a sample size too small for valid conclusions, called “ignoring the denominator” (p. 17). A relevant example of this occurred when then President Trump claimed the United States had more cases of Covid-19 than other countries because we were testing more people. Trump ignored the denominator by failing to communicate that our rate of infection (cases per total number of people tested) was higher than other countries. Zimring goes into more depth on possible ways the data could have been collected and analyzed to derive different conclusions.

Presentation of data is just as important as our perception of it. Zimring’s focus on human psychology and perception renders his title choice a bit misleading—the book might more accurately be called Partial Truth: How Fractions and Human Psychology Distort Our Thinking. One simple psychology concept introduced and carried is that of a heuristic. “A heuristic is a process by which human minds rapidly solve complex problems by replacing them with analogous but simpler problems” (p. 32). These mental shortcuts can play tricks on our minds and influence how we formulate conclusions. Confirmation bias is another important psychological concept that “... is not a belief. Rather, confirmation bias is a process by which we reinforce our beliefs—any beliefs—regardless of origin or accuracy” (p. 42).

Part 2 focuses on how heuristics, confirmation bias, and other tendencies influence the interpretation of data that often leads to faulty outcomes. Focus areas include identification of criminals, invasion of Iraq, interpretation of coded messages in ancient texts, new age methods, evolution/natural designer arguments and, most importantly, the physical sciences.

Part 3 discusses how we can try to influence the way people think and avoid harmful polarizations of disagreement often based on the same available data. Methodology includes “epistemic network models” (p. 178) of actors in simulated social networks enacting various scenarios. Social networks analyze the effects of human tendencies, including confirmation bias and heuristics to arrive at conclusions.

In conclusion, Zimring summarizes, “We need the availability heuristic, and confirmation bias, and all of the other forms of misperceiving the fraction described herein. They fuel our advances as well as lead to our demise” (p 201). A contradictory statement of sorts alludes to the complexity of trying to decipher something that should be logical and yet is not.

Julie Kinyoun

Julie Kinyoun is an on-call chemistry instructor at various community colleges in Southern California. An avid reader, she enjoys reviewing books that help her become a better educator.