By Richard Panek | March 4, 2011 | 13 Comments
This question didn’t stump me, but, I admit, the answer did elude me at first. I started talking about how writers are dependent on the good will of scientists in communicating what they do to the general public. I said that scientists should be eager to talk with us—which, in my experience, they already are. I said they should see it as almost a civic responsibility—which, in my experience, they already do. And I said that writers should be careful about how accurately they portray the nuances of science—which, in my experience, they sometimes aren’t. But from the looks on some of the faces in the auditorium, I didn’t seem to be adding much to the conversation, if only because I was talking about the writer’s role in better communicating science to the general public. The question, however, was what can scientists do. The scientists in this room wanted to know—really, really wanted to know.
Earlier in this Q&A, at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a scientist had asked for my thoughts on how to improve high school science textbooks, and I had been stumped because I didn’t know that high school science textbooks needed improving. Elsewhere on the tour to promote my new book, the occasional nonscientist would ask me a question that would stump me—“Is there gravity in other universes?,” for example—because, as long as the existence of other universes remains speculative, there isn’t an answer to know.
But how to think about those questions involves the same idea that I seemed to be circling now, in struggling to answer what scientists can do to better communicate science to the general public, and it was in fact the same idea that I had been discussing for the previous 45 minutes. It was the very topic of my talk that afternoon: science as narrative.
What does the scientist know? What does the scientist want to know? What does the scientist learn? And then:
Now what does the scientist know? What does the scientist want to know? What does the scientist learn? And then:
Now what does the scientist know? And so on. Ad infinitium. Or ad until the day we die, anyway.
Science is a narrative loop. In that respect, it’s no different from how we experience most endeavors in our own lives. To a nonscientist, science might seem daunting and esoteric and impenetrable. And often it is daunting and esoteric. But impenetrable? Not necessarily. Not if you think of science as just another human endeavor. Not if you think of the scientist as someone with whom we can stand, shoulder to shoulder, asking the same human question, over and over: What’s next?
The tale will begin with the scientist—the character in our story—approaching a problem and possessing a body of knowledge. That’s the premise. What does our character want to know from the universe? That’s the conflict. What does our hero learn? That’s the resolution.
The telling of this tale might involve a digression into how the existing body of knowledge got here. That’s the exposition, and it builds generation by generation via the same three-step process. What did this generation or that generation know? What did they want to know? What did they learn?
And the telling of this tale will involve the scientist making incremental progress (or racing down blind alleys) via the same three-step process. That’s the advancement of the plot.
But it’s all the same story. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl.
And it’s not just the same story. It’s the same way of telling of the story—of how we think about stories. Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis.
What does the reader know? What does the reader want to know? What does the reader learn? And then:
Now what does the reader know?
After the talk at Berkeley Lab, I received an e-mail from Alex Kim, one of the scientists in the audience who I knew from my research, though we’d never previously met. “Scientists,” he wrote, “live our work lives as narratives but almost never present our scientific findings in that way.” Part of the problem, I imagine, is the (appropriately) rigid format of peer-reviewed literature. But research and outreach aren’t the same thing. The outreach part of the problem is simply how we think about science—or how we don’t think about science.
Our educational system doesn’t present science as a narrative. Scientists too often don’t present, or don’t have the opportunity to present, their science as a narrative. Which brings me back to the writer’s role.
What do science writers know? The science. What do we want to know? How to better communicate it. What do we learn? Let’s find out.
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David H. Bailey is the mathematician who asked the question about what scientists can do to better communicate science. “We scientists,” he later wrote in an e-mail, “must personally take more responsibility for communicating scientific research and issues related to science to the general public.” Toward that end, he told me, he previously had started a website, sciencemeetsreligion.org, that “tries to explain in simple but direct terms why evolution, big bang, etc., must be taken seriously.”
Credits: Spokenstories.org (top); Wikimedia Commons