How to Talk about Science to the Public – 1. Don’t Insult the Intelligence of Your Audience
About ten years ago I wrote the Einstein article for the new edition of a major encyclopedia. It shall remain unnamed, but you would most definitely recognize it. I enjoyed the challenge and am proud of the product, both because such writing is important and because it is hard work. One must be engaging, intelligible, and concise. Academics must resist the urge to splurge on words.
Writing this article was, however, harder than it should have been, because my editor kept repeating the old journalist’s mantra about writing to the level of the typical fourteen-year-old. We fought. I resisted. He won. He demanded plainer language. He insisted on tediously pedantic explanations of what I thought the reader would see as simple, even if slightly technical concepts. He struck whole paragraphs that I thought were wonderful and he thought were too arcane. Time and again I said that the real fourteen-year-olds I knew could easily understand points that he thought beyond the reach of his imaginary, teen reader. I don’t think that I made a friend. I taunted him by noting that the reader confused about concept X could simply look up the article on X elsewhere in the same encyclopedia. Impolitic, yes, but I couldn’t stop myself. Naughty Don.
A few years later I was asked to do a series of lectures on Einstein for the company then called The Teaching Company and now re-branded as The Great Courses. This was a totally different and far more enjoyable experience, largely because the smart folks in charge at The Great Courses start with a very different assumption about the audience. They asked me to imagine an audience of college-educated professionals, people who loved their student experiences and were hungry for more. Of course, one still had to adjust one’s writing to the level and background of the audience, as one must do with any class one teaches. That is a trivial truth. But what I knew about those kinds of students in my classes was that they wanted to be pushed and challenged. They wanted to be taught new things. They didn’t run in fear of difficult concepts and ideas. Like athletes striving for a personal best, they enjoyed the hard work. The muscles ache, the brain needs a rest, but the achievement makes it worthwhile. Most important is that such students appreciate one’s flattering them with the assumption that they have brains, that they are smart, well-educated, and able to rise to the moment.
I am really proud of the lectures: Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian. The uniformly positive feedback confirms the point that the intelligent student, reader, and listener can and wants to understand more than journalistic mythology asserts.
My old encyclopedia editor friend will object, I’m sure: “What about all of the others, the ones who didn’t have a college education or weren’t even ‘B+’ students?” Well, yes indeed, what of them? They are a numerous lot. And if one has the crime “beat” at the local newspaper or writes the “Friends and Neighbors” column, then, yes, ok, I suppose that one must write down to the level of a poorly-educated, fourteen-year-old.
But is that the audience for those of us who write about science for a general public? I hope not. Is it elitist of me to say that I don’t want “Joe the Plumber” making science policy for the 21st century?
I like to think of the main target audience for good science writing as the educated, scientific laity or those (such as smart high school students) who are soon to become part of it. These are the neighbors and fellow citizens who must be involved in the national and global conversation about science and technology for the future. These are the people whose voices should count in debates about climate change, biotechnology, space exploration, and cyberconflict. These are the people for whom we must learn to write and speak.
They deserve our respect.
(Subsequent posts in this series will address more specific challenges in writing about science and technology for the general public.)