New writers and people writing for a science subject with which they are unfamiliar, especially those who don't have a science background, frequently fall into the trap of using inappropriate layperson terms in their paraphrasing of scientific concepts. These manifest in two ways: (A) Using a pronoun that appears to be descriptive of the answerline but in fact has either a separate meaning in science, or is just inappropriate for that topic. (B) Using verbs that are inaccurately applied to a concept and/or change the meaning of the clue. Don't simplify a clue without verifying that the paraphrasing you use represents what you're trying to say in a precise and lossless manner. This becomes especially important in math and CS, where layperson terms like "property" or "condition"* or "construct" or "proved" or "scenario"** can have completely different meanings or be non-applicable. Mathematical statements are precise for a reason!
Several different writing problems can arise for people with science backgrounds, with the most pervasive one being complacency. This happens when writers feel so comfortable with a topic that they trust their memory and neglect to fact-check clues. Although it substantially speeds up question-writing, depending on where their knowledge came from it can have negative consequences. Here are a couple other traps:
- Personal class notes. These are especially pernicious because they give the illusion of accuracy and unambiguousness. Unfortunately, even at the graduate and professional level coursework is not thorough enough to justify relying on just class notes or even lecture slides. A good example of this is using a symptom or sign that your med school courses really hammer home as being an indication of a particular disease. You might feel that this means it's specific, but a lot of the time a less common or linked disorder can also manifest with that phenotype. A less widespread issue occurs when your notes are just wrong. It could be from inaccurate transcription, a blatant error from the professor, or outdated information. Here are some examples from professors in my graduate courses:
- the "lysine zipper" present in c-fos.
- KLH is derived from "some sponge".
- an excited claim that ubiquitinated Notch is uniquely translocated to the nucleolus – this nearly made it into a NASAT tossup I wrote but was discarded when further research revealed that this was at best a mischaracterization of the process.
- Furosemide is "calcium-wasting" – while this is certainly true, it is not the only ion furosemide "wastes", and it's actually way better-known for wasting potassium.
- Trusting packets. Oh god please do not do this. Quizbowl is rife with errors and ambiguity, especially in the sciences. Just look at the selection of questions pointed out here that will stay unchanged in the database. A quick look through Quinterest at recent college-level bio tossups reveals things like:
TU on T cells. *All* nucleated cells present MHC I, but T cells are way better known for having antigens presented to them.ACF regionals 2014 wrote:"These cells present the major histocompatibility complex."
TU on RBCs. Literally a five-second look at the carbonic anhydrase wiki page would have shown this to be non-unique.NASAT 2014 wrote:"One enzyme found in these cells converts H2O and CO2 to H2CO3."
- Literally every clue in the ACF regionals 2016 tossup on "organ transplant rejection".
TU on ethylene. Everything except the last word in this sentence can apply to multiple things!Penn Bowl 2015 wrote:"In the biosynthesis of this compound, Met Adenosyltransferase converts methionine to SAM, which is then converted to ACC."
Somewhat tangential to all of this is answerline choice: it can be really difficult for someone who isn't actually a scientist to identify topics that are actually important, let alone clues. Unlike in many other categories where secondary and tertiary literature is fine to learn from and pop culture distillations can still be at least somewhat useful for learning clues, math and science really aren't going to be represented by non-academic sources in a way that provides adequate information. They provide surface-level material on things that aren't covered in science courses, and they neglect the information that one would learn in even an introductory class on the subject. Another issue I've noticed with layperson articles and books is that they focus on the history of a subject more than the actual science of it. Authors tend to romanticize STEM things when writing for a general audience – just look at all the books on the Fibonacci sequence*** or golden ratio or HeLa cells or string theory that relate their respective focuses to exciting ideas like black holes and time travel and a cure for cancer without addressing, for example, what Einstein's field equations look like or how a derangement in a c-myc pathway might potentiate unchecked cell division. Could these provide a good introduction to a subject? Sure! But when it comes to writing questions for a higher difficulty, make sure the items discussed in a popsci work aren't inflated in importance to fit a literary narrative. Just because IFLS or NDT or Michio Kaku talk about something doesn't mean it's necessarily actively studied or widely important, or that they've even accurately characterized it.
*Eg: to describe max flow (how does condition fit for even a layperson's understanding?).
**Eg: to describe the halting problem.
***Popsci authors LOVE this because it's got cool historicity and the sequence is easily visualized and it has all these romantic connections to nature -- but it's not important in the real world to real mathematicians. And why would it be? Most mathematicians don't study the history of math, or try to connect their research to nautilus shells.