The data sandwich isn’t an audience-digestible meal: Tips for science writing

I’ve recently been reading piles of wine science communication texts: viticulture and enology extension newsletters, research articles in Wine Business Monthly and Wines and Vines, and university press releases and news items, among others. Many, many of them exhibit the same dysfunctions: the data sandwich, the shape-shifting audience, and inconsistency in rhetorical framing.

Those are three different ways of referring to the same problem, but each addresses a different audience. “The data sandwich” takes the point of view of the reader. The shape-shifting audience speaks to the author. Inconsistency in rhetorical framing appeals to the researcher. If I wanted to exemplify the problem, I’d now define “data,” “audience,” and “rhetoric.” And then I’d launch into a number- and jargon-laden discussion of how my data illustrate that many science writers (scientists in particular, though by no means scientists alone) don’t hold on to a single picture of who their readers are and what those readers know while writing a piece from beginning to end. And then I might conclude by saying that my data suggest that this is a concern of which it’s worth being aware.

Many science-focused articles begin with big, broad, often obvious, contextualizing statements about wine. The rest of the first paragraph or two introduces concepts and defines terms that are almost certainly familiar already to someone who’s been working in the wine industry for a while, or who took a chemistry or microbiology class in their V&E associates’ program, or who read Wine Business Monthly on and off last year. Having set the scene, the author, somewhere around the third paragraph, begins describing their recent research project as though they’re talking to the guy in the lab down the hall instead of the person they were talking to a paragraph ago who’d never taken Wine Chem 101.* Two to ten paragraphs later, when the details of that project have been exhausted, the author concludes with a paragraph or two about how it all means that we should be aware of something, or that whatever-it-is is more complicated than previously thought, and very important.

Let’s say we’re writing about new research on anthocyanin development in the vineyard. In the first paragraph, I’d describe why red grape color is important in winemaking. In the second paragraph, I’d define “anthocyanin” as one type of a class of molecules called phenols and describe how anthocyanins are mostly responsible for red wine’s color. In the third paragraph, I’d begin talking about how empirical evidence has recently demonstrated that deficit irrigation may intensify color density in Australian Shiraz not only by upregulating anthocyanin synthesis via unknown mechanisms but also by stabilizing the flavilium form of specific anthocyanins via hydrogen bonding with flavanols whose biosynthesis is also upregulated**, and I’d keep that up for a while. I’d finish either with a short paragraph about how the role of anthocyanins in wine color development is very complex and it is necessary for scientists to understand these relationships in order to more accurately model wine color, or suggesting that deficit irrigation might help winemakers reach stylistic color goals.

Anyone who was actually well-served by the first two paragraphs is floundering in deep water for the middle part of that data sandwich. Anyone who could follow the middle bit was bored or insulted or at least skimmed or skipped the first two paragraphs. And anyone who stuck with it to the end might be wondering why they bothered.

We’re used to this. We see it a lot. Because it’s so common, it’s easy to ignore and not remember that there are better ways.

There are. The solution is even relatively easy. First, envision who’s most likely to read what you’re writing, what they do with their days, and what they probably already know about your topic. Next, decide what you hope they’ll get out of reading your piece. Write with those ideas in your head. Then, crucially, revise. Go back through the whole thing and after reading each sentence ask yourself: did I slip up and use a word or take for granted a concept my reader won’t understand, or explain something they surely already know? Did I end having told them what the point was, and preferably finishing on that note?

You may or may not have to guess a bit to get started, depending on whether you’re writing for a publication with a pretty well-defined readership (a newsletter that goes out to regional growers and winemakers, for instance) or a broader one like Wine Business Monthly, where you can still guess most folk are familiar with intermediate-level wine terms, or the local newspaper, where you can’t. But if you make a decision and stick with it, you’re less likely to confuse your readers even if you’ve guessed wrong.

Regardless, you’ll have avoided creating an indigestible data sandwich, or asking your audience to shape-shift as they read, or been inconsistent in your rhetorical framing. However you’d like to put it, you may have saved your well-intentioned reader from toughing it out only to find that they’re not sure how all this is relevant.

*Or, if a non-scientist writer/reporter is doing the talking, they describe the research on which they’re supposed to be reporting using the terms the scientist used when they talked last week or in the peer-reviewed research article that just came out.

**Cortell, J. M., Halbleib, M., Gallagher, A. V., Righetti, T. L, J. A. Kennedy. 2005 “Influence of vine vigor on grape (Vitis vinifera L. Cv. Pinot Noir) and wine proanthocyanidins.” J. Agric. Food Chem. 53 (14): 5798-808.

DNA tests don’t do anything, or, how to read wine science news

Yesterday, a headline appeared in my email inbox, courtesy of Wine Business Monthly’s daily run-down, that read “DNA tests defeat wine barrel fraud.” About four different reactions crossed my mind more or less simultaneously.

1. I doubt it. Sounds like journalist hype.

2. Took them long enough; haven’t we had that technology for awhile now?

3. DNA tests don’t defeat anything. People defeat things.

4. Nifty!

I mightn’t have thought any more about it. But having spent the past week or two tearing apart assorted wine writings for evidence of how we make science happen in words, it seems I can’t just read anything anymore without asking: what do these words DO?

The headline is from a Wine-Searcher brief about new French technology to identify the geographic origin and species of barrel oak. But, really, the article is about the French asserting that they’re better than everyone else. The first three sentences of the piece outline, in very general terms, what the DNA tests do: researchers have genetically profiled enough oak trees to create a database against which new samples can be compared. Extract some kind of genetic information from tiny bits of barrel, compare that genetic “fingerprint” against the database and look for matches, and you’ve figured out where the oak used in the barrel originated.

I’m actually elaborating on what the Wine-Searcher piece said from general knowledge of how genetic testing works because the article spent its remaining 29 sentences describing how this technology fits into maintaining the cultural superiority of French oak over Hungarian oak. I’ve put it that way for a reason.

The DNA test itself might (maybe, in a very limited way) be value-neutral. But the way the test is constructed and used embodies the values of the researchers and the networks of interested industry members and funding agencies and organizations surrounding the researchers. The test determines geographic origin. Which geographies are important? Were American oaks included? We don’t know, because it wasn’t relevant, i.e. the French aren’t much worried about American fraud. How finely-grained do we want to make our distinctions in those famous French forests? The test isn’t value-neutral. The test is part of a network of people and organizations and values and priorities and economies and things. And in this case, the test has been enrolled in a program of asserting that French oak is both different and better than Eastern European oak. And that unscrupulous barrel makers are threatening consumers — and the integrity of the industry — by trying to pass off inferior stuff as the genuine article. So the headline actually is accurate (sorry, me #1 and 3), even if it left out some bits. The full version: “DNA tests” created by French researchers are enrolled in a program,  funded and commercialized by the leading French wine research institute INRA and the French Institute of Technology for Forest Based and Furniture Sectors (FCBA), “defeat wine barrel fraud” and increase the value of French oak.

But the article goes on to say that coopers aren’t so sure that this technology is useful after all. Barrels are complicated with many different pieces. Testing all of the pieces would be expensive and cumbersome. Not testing all of them wouldn’t necessarily prove anything useful about the barrel. The Wine-Searcher piece sets up the common dynamic: scientists say that new technology will help; industry people (coopers, here) say we’re not so sure. Maybe the coopers aren’t willing to be enrolled in that INRA- and FCBA-led program. INRA has decided that their participation doesn’t matter. Their own news release says, with certainty, that the test “will be an effective deterrent against fraud and will promote traceability measures with wood industry stakeholders.” Who’s right? Not really important. The important thing is the conflict. Everyone isn’t on the same page, which means that moving forward will be sticky.*

I’m not suggesting that the Wine-Searcher writers should have done things differently, though just a little more detail on the tests in that first paragraph would have gone a long way. It’s impossible to tell how much information these scientists and their tests can give us about a particular barrel: country-of-origin and species, or what forest, or what part of a forest? The headline overstates the case, but that’s journalism and readers know the genre: the title grabs our attention so that we read and figure out that the headline isn’t exactly true.

“Scientists craft DNA tests to verify wine barrel identity claims” — a more accurate headline — is cumbersome and less effective as an attention-grabber. If we want to be precise about it, we can say that the headline uses metonymy, a specific figure of speech in which a part of something stands in for the whole, more complicated thing. “DNA tests” stands in for “scientists who have developed and conducted DNA tests.” Cognitive linguistics says that metonymy doesn’t confuse readers; no one is running around out there thinking that DNA tests have evolved sentience and will be lobbying for the right to vote or applying for drivers’ licenses (I hope).

So if my point isn’t to call out journalists for promoting scientific inaccuracy — something I do often enough, but not today — what is my point? That words construct and reflect how we see the world. Wine researchers are plagued by the persistent failure of winemakers and growers and assorted other industry non-scientists to do what science clearly says is the right thing. We know that overhead sprinklers are a terrible way to irrigate grapevines in Eastern Washington state, so why are growers still using them? Why do people do wrong things against their better interest, even when they’ve been told that they’re wrong? First, because those industry non-scientists see pieces of their own complex networks that the scientists don’t/can’t/won’t see. They’re probably not being unreasonable (probably; everyone’s unreasonable sometimes); they’re working with different considerations. Second, because “science” is never just “science.” Science is always part of value-laden programs into which winemakers and growers and coopers may or may not want to be enrolled. The science isn’t just right; the science is part of an agenda. Third, because words make technologies real to people. We interact with ideas, scientific and otherwise, through words. Words tell us what ideas can and can’t do. And, in this case, words have helped criminalize Hungarian oak…and made a new French technology a good deal more limited and parochial than it might otherwise.



*The French have a habit of developing great, or at least new and complicated, ideas at the administrative level only to have them fail majestically at the implementation level because everyone else/the common people/the people actually affected by the technology saw problems the administrators never considered. See Aramis and the 1970’s attempt at French electric autobuses, among others. Or maybe everyone does this sort of thing and we just have a habit of noticing the French cases.


Science versus expertise and winemaker trust (and chickens)

I recently wrote an academic manuscript on, among other things, winemakers’ attitudes toward the relative importance of scientifically-supported information and information from personal experience. Some I’ve interviewed trust the science first, last, and always. Some trust experience (theirs or a neighbor’s, but usually theirs) and question the science, and many more fall into more complicated patterns somewhere in-between. To make it clear from the outset, my research takes the stance that none of these attitudes is better or worse than any other.

On what I thought was a completely unrelated topic, I took an hour out of PhD-ing to walk to the library for a book on chicken keeping on Saturday morning. I’d discovered a relic of a chicken coop at the house I’m renting and, as of yesterday, it has two new occupants*. Browsing around on the internet mostly told me that I wanted the coherence and completeness and ease of use that a book could offer.

My tiny neighborhood library had five books on keeping chickens (which tells you something about the neighborhood). Two were memoirs of woman-chicken romances; not what I needed. One was a tiny and poorly type-set volume that tried to cover ducks and guinea fowl and turkeys too; I set that aside. That left two for serious consideration.

I flipped through the much larger volume: professional and impersonal tone, readable text, black and white diagrams, detailed discussion of the various pelleted foods available and exhortations about how to choose the appropriate variety in the few pages I skimmed. The smaller: personal with lots of references to the author’s experiences, strongly authoritative, readable text, cheerful color pictures. I skimmed a page about kitchen scraps as feed with statements like “my chickens can tell the difference between real food and fake food, so don’t try giving them those plastic rolls you get on airplanes” and “people will tell you that citrus is bad for chickens and I’ve never had any problems but you should probably avoid it.”

I took home Jennie French’s Guide to Chooks** and left the Someone’s Guide to Backyard Fowl on the shelf.

On the walk home I realized what I had done. I had chosen the neighborly voice of “well, I tried it this way and it worked for me” over “poultry scientists agree that…”

I had decided between experience versus (not and, but versus) science. I didn’t want to believe that my chickens needed a diet of > 90% commercial feed plus a few kitchen “treats.” I assumed that that advice descended from nutritional guidelines developed for crowded battery farms looking for maximally efficient short-term egg production. I’m different. I want to live with my chickens, all two of them in their jungly run. The research doesn’t apply to me. But Jennie French talking about keeping chickens on her Australian avocado farm…Well, her farm is hot and dry and my garden is cool and wet, but at least she’s being sensible about chickens as productive members of a household.

I’d done exactly what so many of the winemakers I’ve interviewed do: decide that the research probably doesn’t apply to me and trust the more experienced peer who knows how it really is. Even though I’ve been thinking about this stuff (i.e. where stuff = my research on winemakers’ use of/attitudes toward science) for months now, my chicken book experience clarified two things:

1. I didn’t trust that the research applied to me because I couldn’t tell whether the research applied to me. The book didn’t tell me enough about where it’s authoritative recommendations came from for me to know whether or not to believe them. I heard exactly the same thing from winemakers about many of the recommendations in trade magazines: we need more. So, as a writer, the question becomes: how do I provide enough context to be useful?

2. I decided to trust the authoritative recommendations that were closer to what I wanted to do. I was looking to those books not just for information but for validation, to know that the half-formed plan in my head was probably okay and wouldn’t produce immediate chicken death. I sought confirmation, not challenge, because I didn’t want to have to change too much.

Old-fashioned science communication assumed that the scientists were enlightened, people who didn’t agree with them were backwards, and if they were only told about science they’d agree with it anyway (the much-maligned “deficit model”). It treated scientists like a different species of person or, rather, treated non-scientists like they weren’t quite right in the head. I wonder if guys who preached (and still preach) that model ever take home the neighborly chicken book.


* The ladies are hand-me-down trial chickens — a bit elderly, not laying for their previous owner, and acquired for free — so, backyard poultry enthusiasts, forgive me for not knowing their details. Mixed-breed both, I think: one smallish standard-looking red one (maybe a Shaver-RIR mix?) and one larger but still light white-blue girl with a bit of a fluffy head. And don’t worry. They’re getting a good, high-protein-with-oyster-grit feed alongside pumpkin seeds and rutabaga peels and outer cabbage leaves.

**Chooks = chickens down-under. For all their laid-back attitude, folks seem to want to abbreviate everything around here.

Pro-alcohol research and improving wine science communication, one PhD at a time

Yesterday, Tom Wark snarked off (I mean that nicely, Tom) about “alcohol ‘researchers'” who seem to think that wine, beer, and spirits are social evils to be restricted and discouraged as much as possible. I’ve read plenty of papers that appear to start (and finish) with that agenda, but not all “alcohol researchers” are anti-alcohol. In fact, you could call me an alcohol researcher.

More properly, I’m a wine science communication researcher. (Yes, I know that that’s a mouthful.) While at one point I researched the microbiology of wine production, I now look at how wine research information moves around the industry among scientists and writers and winemakers and growers (and sometimes even consumers). I’m trying to understand how scientific ideas about winemaking and growing come to exist in the industry. When science moves from a peer-reviewed scientific article to a trade magazine, what changes? What can those changes say about how we can better design experiments and better communicate their results. Of course, I can’t say how all of this communicating is important if I don’t know what winemakers and growers are reading and using — and, to my shock, no one seemed to know (if they do, they’re not telling). So I’m also investigating how winemakers and growers navigate the morass of resources available to them: what they read and listen to, who they talk to, and their frustrations about the process. If you’re a winemaker, vineyard manager, or someone in a similar role, you can help me out by taking ten minutes to complete a short survey around those questions. (The link is also tacked to the top of this blog). Finally, I’m writing a popular (that is, not academic) book about how the story of wine is also the story of the sciences, from physics to medicine and everything in-between. More on that later.

I probably don’t need to argue for why wine is worth researcher’s time as a public good to promote instead of a social ill to eradicate, but it’s good to note that it’s fundamentally about humanity as much as science. Wine is a food nourishing to body, mind, and spirit when taken in appropriate quantities. It’s also a cultural icon and a historical treasure. If you want to talk to me about restricting wine because too much alcohol can kill you, your agenda had better also include restricting access to and advertising of butter and cheese — because too much saturated fat can kill you — and honey and jam — because too much sugar can kill you, too. Then show me your thoughtful plan for accommodating the essential cultural and social roles that all of those foods play around the world.

My research is aimed, at the biggest picture level, at making scientific research more efficient, but it’s also about helping people make better wine by improving the information available to them. Besides, when getting a PhD involves wine, science, and writing — and rhetoric, and philosophy, and talking to winemakers, and trying out living in New Zealand — it’s hard to see how things could be much better.