Talking Universe Blues, Part 3


(This post is the third in a three-part series. The first and second appeared the past two Fridays.)

“What can we as scientists do to better communicate science to the general public?”

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.

*  *  *

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,, that “tries to explain in simple but direct terms why evolution, big bang, etc., must be taken seriously.”

Credits: (top); Wikimedia Commons

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13 thoughts on “Talking Universe Blues, Part 3

  1. I think people confuse science with engineering;the learning and the method of learning with the use of the knowledge gained.Scientists, especially those who teach science,no matter the discipline, should emphasize “The Way of Science”,instead of facts and the coolness of those facts.

  2. Dear Richard,

    The peer-reviewed format is not natural. It came out of so many years of work. That may be actually damaging to the image of science in general.

    For example, JJ Thompson’s work on the electron charge-to-mass ratio is really very confrontational — he, firmly in the particle camp, was arguing strongly against the waves camp in Germany. His exposition does not even veil the contempt he had against the other camp.

    In some sense, having that is not exactly bad, it is just very difficult to argue against, and I am, of course, not advocating for such presentation. Galileo’s presentation as a dialogue was very incredible too, and is a lot more accessible to laypeople (But of course, it is still too confrontational).

    Part of the pros of the peer-reviewed neutral tone is that it is easy to objectively absorb the information. However, it will not address one of the points of scientific communication: Why do you know what you know? How? And what makes you make this guess that you have found to be correct?

    In the grand scheme of things, I am still of the belief that we are doing our very best to communicate. The problem I see is that the other side is not keen on putting the effort to even learn. How can that be even reasonable at all? Hard work is underrated, clearly.

  3. Half the country reads at or below a sixth grade level. A third of the adults in this country never progressed beyond the concrete operational stage. A quarter of adults don’t know the country America gained its independence from.

    It’s painfully obvious that a large minority of this country functions at the level of sixth graders. They have the knowledge, abilities, and psychology of ten y/o’s. How can you expect them to understand evolution when they don’t accept the germ theory of disease? How can you get the to accept global warming when they don’t know what the periodic table is; they don’t know the difference between a molecule and an atom? How do you get them to understand the Big Bang when they don’t understand even Newtonian gravity?

    Scientific outreach in this country needs to be far more basic than it currently is. Screw bringing the population into the Twenty-first century. I’d settle for bringing them into the Nineteenth!

  4. I can wrap my head around the existence of billions and billions of galaxies with trillions and trillions of stars, all which are counted with numbers that are far beyond my ability to perfectly visualize.

    And thanks to my childhood fascination with science fiction, including some very bad pulp magazines, I can even imagine countless variations on the evolutionary processes needed to create that which may be defined as “life”.

    But for some reason, and you can call it a self-limiting belief if you like, I simply cannot find any way to convince myself that there could ever be more than one universe.

  5. By accident and design, I’ve spent most of my adult working life training scientists of all persuasions to communicate more effectively, albeit within an academic context — to complete degrees, get published, garner capital, and/or teach & present more effectively. For the past 18 months, I’ve spent lots of time on Friendfeed, listening in on and talking with scientists (STEM, by and large). Years of conversations with scientists has not helped me answer the question “how do scientists want to communicate?”. Recently, a geologist laughed agreeably with my contention that most scientists would rather bring you into the lab, share a beer, and walk you through you through their research than actually write. She also appreciated my template-like approach to writing science which makes the process less mysterious, even when I admit that while such an approach helps organize the process, it doesn’t make for fine communication nor does it represent the variety of what actually gets published. While I coach scientists through the writing process, I find myself asking the same questions you ask of an audience: what do they want to know? What do they not know?

    The idea of science-as-narrative is the one that many of my discussion partners most detest. They hate even the small part of narrative forced upon them in Introductions; they claim to experience science as a leap from one island of data to another, constructing connections, of course, but not _narrative_ ones. They experience themselves as enmeshed, in a web of data, spinning spokes from one node to another, not as actors in a cause-effect sequence. As someone who’s championed the narrative approach for almost two decades now, this has been a most disturbing realization. It is especially hard on the reader who most certainly does not experience science as a data web; even the scientists who most dislike the narrative analogy recognize in their own science reading that narrative certainly makes the process easier: we do not, in fact, just enter into someone’s data stream the way we can traipse into their story line.

    Another side effect of my job is to approach each discipline like an ethnographer rather than as an writer, per se. Part of this approach may be due to an undergrad degree in anthro and socio linguistics; part from years training non-native adults, mostly science-y types, to speak English. My utter failure to understand physics has also supported this tack: I can “see” multiple layers of meaning/structure in every sentence but have tried and failed three times to understand space-time. There is no kinaesthetic “aha”, no moment of recognition. I can only enter anthropologically — try to understand the world from the physicist’s point of view, take their boundaries and objects as “facts” to build with, and see what happens from there. I don’t think I can understand physics as a narrative because I cannot experience its beginnings and ends in a meaningful way — quite literally. This isn’t a failure of high school math; it’s just the reality that my brain is configured to get language, to feel it the way musicians claim to feel music. Where physics is concerned, I am the 10-year-old dunce some of your commenters scorn. (I’d feel bad about this except that from my perspective, as a PhD in linguistics, I find most physicists have pitifully uninformed ideas of what language “really” is — I try not to hold the 10 years lack of specialized education against them; after all, they can only know what they were taught in school;-)).

    I’ve gone back to rooting in motivation instead of form: why do scientists want to communicate? While in grad school, a popular idea amongst ESL pundits was that each of us has an inner voice, a single unifying character through whom we would communicate if only that voice were discovered, nurtured, given the form to set it free. If this inner voice hypothesis were true, I reasoned, then my STEM grad students should identify themselves as scientists — perhaps this would give me a path through their stubborn refusal to cooperate with writing for reader comprehension. I put together a study; the results were an uninterpretable mess. I perservered and went the route of qualitative inquiry. The results were enlightening. It turned out that my scientists were willing to learn how to write in direct correlation with their perceived professional need to talk with people not of their kind. In other words, if the scientist believed professional success hinged on whether non-scientists would understand the science and act on what they understood, then the scientist was quite willing to learn to write well (agronomists and botanists, for instance, who needed local farmers to change poor agricultural practices). If the scientist saw him/herself as only needing to discuss ideas with like-minded peers, then s/he cared not at all about learning to write well. This was the case with most of the theoretically-oriented.

    The upshot is that the desire to communicate well with any audience was a personal decision rooted in social needs — it had little to do with how they felt about being scientists (many didn’t identify themselves as scientists at all, despite clear use of science methodologies) or an inner scientific voice. It had everything to do with how they imagined getting their jobs done. Forcing a scientist who “just” wants to be a scientist to write anything other than competent scientific prose (and even sometimes that) stikes me as cruel — and a waste of resources. Asking an audience to understand years of specialized work in 45 minutes and getting angry when they don’t is also a waste of time — Not everyone wants this task: scientists frustrated by the fact the audience doesn’t have their years of education are not good candidates (I’ve always wondered at this particular anger — what good would all those extra years of schooling be if the audience already knew everything before you opened your mouth?).

    Your post begins with the question of what “we” scientists can do to improve communication with the general public. I think the “we” is the wrong starting point — it doesn’t respect the heterogeneity of scientists themselves. I agree that research and outreach are not the same thing — neither are research scientists and outreach scientists. The trick will be to enhance the relationship between those two — the research scientist who finds the outreach message too simple and the outreach scientist struggling to make the theoretical less abstruse.

  6. This has been an amazing–and, for me, enlightening–conversation in the Comments section. Thank you all for bringing such elegance of thought and expression to this page. Alex Kim, whom I quoted in this post, sent me an e-mail today in which he beautifully articulated what the job of the science writer might be: “to entertain and educate the public by presenting the impersonality of science while highlighting the humanity of the pursuit of science.”

  7. I don’t begin to have an adequate response to you, Micky, but that’s fascinating. I can believe that scientists don’t want to write narrative, and I can believe that they see themselves as part of a web, not part of a story. I guess my fundamental response is, I’m glad I’m a writer and outside the whole problem.

  8. Reinforcing the comments above, I note travelogues and travel guides are distinct genres.

    One can do a narrative of someone’s life (eg, what is like to be a graduate student), of a project, of a field. But it’s not a good form for research papers. Nor to describe the knowledge of a field. And not a sufficient one to describe the significance of some contribution.

    The research summaries at the beginning of Nature and Science illustrate the later done well. A bit of narrative. But more, abstracting over the web of knowledge.

    The ubiquitous thesis defense remark that “my parents have no idea what I do”, seems a failure of abstraction. Well, of narrative too.

  9. As a child i hated physics and, as I thought I am incompatible with it I decided to be physician. Lately I read a few books of above popular science about the multi-verse and i found them so fascinating I cannot but regret that I do not have the mathematical skills to take the reading to another level

  10. A small group of us at the astronomy club produce a half hour monthly TV show. At first, i attempted to write out a script for a show. Eight hours later, we had a script that took eleven minutes to read. And it was awful. It wasn’t that the script was bad. It was that it was too long to memorize, and it sounded awful reading it. We quickly shifted to a white board in the studio with the outline. I try real hard to not look at the white board.

    Half an hour is not very much. One of the segments is “Term of the Month”. I researched a term. I ordered the results by interest and such. At the end of three minutes, whatever didn’t get said was dropped. Often, there’s some social thing, some recent event, or some history that can be used to frame the term.

    I had a real dislike for definitions in school. They were presented, you memorized them, there was no context, and after the test, you never needed them again. Ever.

    One of the things we struggle with is that, in science, it’s easy to get things wrong. It’s like you drop 50 IQ points when the director says you’re being recorded. Stupid things pop out of your mouth. The script might have been right, but it’s better to let a few mistakes through than read it.

    Our audience is somewhere around that 6th grade non-scientist level. But we want it to be interesting for the high school grad, and it’d be nice to have something for the engineer. One of the better stories from this perspective was findings from the Cassini mission orbiting Saturn. In fact, i only talked about the moon Titan. Most people haven’t heard word one about it, including engineers. There’s a story. Voyager couldn’t see the surface with its cameras, and therefore Cassini was designed with new instruments – an infrared camera and RADAR. And we detected ethane and methane rain, lakes, a change of seasons, sand dunes, cold volcanoes, and more. No math. It’s OK if the viewer doesn’t know how RADAR works. We’d covered the infrared spectrum in a prior show, but you didn’t need to have seen it.

    And we also have done shows about what is happening in the neighborhood. A high school observatory was refurbished and is open to the public for business.

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