Communicating science to the public, as we try to do on this blog, is difficult. The challenges are many, but none so great as to find the right level at which to pitch the story. We try not to get too mired in details lest we lose our readers, but those of us who come from a background steeped in scientific investigation are often tempted to do so simply because of the seductive elegance of the science.
Over at Atlantic Correspondents, David Shenk speaks directly to this point with a piece entitled “On the Art of Nonfiction” – essentially the text of a speech that he recently gave at the “Great Nonfiction Writers Lecture Series” at Brown University.
Most “scientists” think that they understand their science better than you. But the people who stand among the trees rarely have a good sense of the whole forest.
It took me a long time to understand this point, which may be the most important thing to understand about “science” writing. On the surface, it seems preposterous that an English-major pipsqueak like me could understand something about Alzheimer’s disease that some of the world’s great Alzheimer’s scientists don’t understand. And there’s obviously a lot of detail that would take me many years and several advanced degrees to comprehend.
But there is an advantage to not being steeped in detail. There are things that you can see when you’re flying overhead at 10,000 feet that you simply cannot see when you’re walking on the ground. It’s certainly not a matter of being smarter than the experts, but trying to map together a larger terrain in a way that most of them are unable to.
This is particularly relevant to communicating neuroethics. Our objective on establishing this blog is to share with our readers the sorts of issues that we grapple with on a day-to-day basis here at the Core. Our crosshairs are aimed at two audiences simultaneously: our academic colleagues in the field, and, in at least equal measure, the public at large. While it is a struggle for us to make sure that our message is understandable by the ‘lay’ public, it is exceedingly important. After all, it is the impact of advances in the neurosciences upon individuals and society as a whole that we care about.
So as we travel down this road together, please feel free to let us know how we are doing. Just because we are ‘experts’ doesn’t mean that we have all of the answers. In fact, the more feedback that we receive from the general public the better we are able to achieve our objectives. After all, we all have a stake in the outcome of this experiment.
PS: I love the image of David presenting himself as ‘a pipsqueak’. We sometimes feel that way too.