Good Science Writing Explains How Things Are Known

Strong claims with citations are not evidence without a good explanation.

Posted Apr 26, 2018

A big problem I notice in a lot of science writing and in many of my student's essays is the following: The writing often makes strong claims and provides nothing more than a citation to support it.  

For example, we might read this: "When police deal with too much information when examining a case, information overload can lead them to support pre-existing biases (Kaplan & Dougherty, 2008)."  

That's a strong claim. If its true, it's a big deal.  Readers will often find themselves asking, "How exactly do Kaplan and Dougherty know this?"  "What study did they run?" "What's their data?"

It would be better to unpack the claim by explaining how Kaplan and Dougherty know this.  The writing could say: "Kaplan and Dougherty (2008) presented real cases to 1000 police officers in New York City and found that the more information the case had the more likely it was that the police officers came to differing conclusions." 

This obviously isn't the same claim as the one made above. It's actually better. It's better because it's what we actually know instead of a claim that is too strong. 

This is also why scientific writing should try to rely on the original research.  If Kaplan and Dougherty is a popular nonfiction book about crime, then citing them will lead your readers to doubt you even more, because Kaplan and Dougherty just cited someone else.

To avoid the problem: Unpack Strong Claims by Explaining the Research

Science writing needs to convince the reader. It can do this by explaining how certain things are known.  It should not just attempt to claim that certain things are known.​