Over at Cocktail Party Physics, Jennifer Ouellette shares her thoughts on good science communication
I’ve learned over the course of my varied career that the trick to all good science communication is being able to boil a complicated science story down to its most basic components — the “core narrative” — to which one can then add layers of detail and complexity to tailor the narrative to a wide range of target audiences.
The main point I tried to get across in that first workshop is that this is not the same thing as the “dumbing down” epithet that many physicists like to fling at popular approaches to difficult subjects.
Beside the fact that physicists (and scientists of all stripes don’t-think-you’re-getting-off-easy-you-chemists) like to call things “dumbing down” simply because it makes them seem smarter than they might be, I think Jennifer is exactly right: the best popular science I remember reading never felt like they were dumbing things down for me. (In this way does the best popular science share a similarity with the best children’s literature?) I don’t remember reading “Godel, Escher, and Bach” and thinking it was oversimplifying the Church-Turing thesis. I don’t remember reading “A Brief History of Time” and thinking Hawking was pulling his punches (although I do remember I disagreed with him on all sorts of topics.) “The Turing Omnibus” from my recollections was certainly not about dumbing things down: it’s where I first learned about computational complexity classes, analog computers, and the busy beaver problem. The explanations I remember were not contrived and oversimplified, from my perspective, but seemed like actual objects the scientists were working with, explained without technical jargon and complicated analysis, but with their scientific heart still beating.
But this got me wondering. Once upon a time, I was a great consumer of popular science. I’m fairly certain I read every popular science book in my hometown library (along with the books all the books on pseudoscience as well.) But over the years I’ve read less and less popular science. Why has that been?
Well maybe, I think, it is because I now know more about science and so, what was once not a “dumbing down” of the science, now feels like a “dumbing down.” If I reread “Godel, Escher, and Bach” would I now see it in a different light? And I wonder if maybe I’m not the only one who feels like this? Is there an audience of sophisticated popular science writing that may not appeal to the twelve year old with no background in science that I used to be, but the scientist I currently am? Popular science for scientists? I wonder. (*Ducks* as cynics and pessimists let loose with a torrent of negative comments 🙂 )