How should we communicate science?


Hats off to the coursera guys and hat tip to wanderlust, I recently took up writing in the sciences  by Prof Kristin Sainani. (I would highly recommend the website aka check it to know how good it is). This was partly for of non-availability of non-computer courses and partly for my labmate(s) and professor asking for constant report rewrites.

Prof. Sainani talks about how we make scientific literature difficult to read. About cutting down long phrases, substituting simpler words, using verbs for nouns, reducing jargon, basically get to the point already? My question is, can you really get a short story out of every research paper?

I have maintained for self-defense’s sake that creative writing and exam/report writing are not the same. In creative writing, you try to communicate an idea. You weave the story to let the other person fill in the details. Like a normal conversation, it is okay if the other person gets about 50% of what you have to say. The goal here is  keep the reader engaged. Science on the other hand is exact. Research papers, more so. If one sentence is misinterpreted, if a protocol is not clearly etched out, the outcome might be completely different. We do not get synonyms to make jargon sound beautiful. AND we have space/time/attention constraints to explain every word to a noob in the field.

How do you explain your work to your liberal arts roommate or your next-door labmate? Can we excuse a veteran professor for the fresher dozing off in his class? Is the Road Romeo allowed to be a nerd?

Most people say that science is boring – that it is too dry and too much mental effort. It is ridiculous, they say, the effort you put into these things which don’t register the senses. Does this have anything to with the way we talk about what we do in the lab? After all, desk-clerk’s job to file client information is equally specific. Where did we begin to err? Are scientists inherently bad communicators?

We could begin by rambling less and sticking to generalities. We could include humor and use day-to-day references instead of science jokes. And how about counting jargon in conversation.

Can we somehow combine creative writing and research paper writing? Can we have a normal research conversation? The true test is probably a creative writer easily writing a research paper.

 

About Tuna Fish

Not one more of these again!!!
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3 Responses to How should we communicate science?

  1. I wouldn’t think scientists are inherently bad communicators at all. I’d in fact imagine that most of them (uh, is that “us”, now?) are highly capable, just that they are not completely convinced that the time/impact trade-off is worthwhile. Good communication, like good anything else, is the product of fairly intense effort, and my guess is that many scientists perhaps believe that their efforts are better employed in other ways.

    I am not sure how creative writers would write research papers, but when scientists have gotten creative, some outcomes have been quite delightful (such as Mr. Tompkins from Gamov, and much more recently, this compilation of stories from the MegaMath project: http://www.c3.lanl.gov/mega-math/stories.html – the version of Hotel Infinity as written up here is about the most dramatic and gripping presentation I’ve seen). I think somewhere on the interwebs there are lecture notes from Knuth’s course on scientific writing – if anyone is picky about good writing, he sure is! I recall reading chunks of these notes and finding them quite revealing. There was a lot of good practical advice about choosing good notation and stuff like that, too.

    The blogging culture is also bringing to us the creative (or at least the not-completely-terse) side of scientific writing – there are a number of blogs that lead by example, and make good examples of how the precise can co-exist with the imprecise (hunches, anecdotes, dead ends, etc). I think during a guest lecture in Knuth’s course, someone remarked how they like to keep it chatty, intuitive and informal in the spaces available between the theorems, but when it comes to writing proofs, they ‘terse up’. I actually like this style, the experienced reader finds it easy to skip the chatter should they wish to, for the rest of us, the material ends up becoming palatable.

    And finally there is the rare textbook that actually makes an effort to maintain the expository style while covering technical ground. I owe a lot of my interest in combinatorics to Bona’s book called “A Walk through Combinatorics”. It is beautifully written. Similarly, I feel that had I gotten hold of “A Companion to Analysis” by Körner while I was still young and gullible, I would have actually taken a fancy to the subject!

    I do feel fortunate that there are some really wonderful examples of scientific writing that is beautiful, creative and entertaining. That said, I can’t help wishing for more 🙂

  2. Karthik says:

    I quit the sciences last year because reading research papers was proving increasingly Sisyphean. It required a lot of focus and grit for extended periods but promised only a rare an uncertain payoff. While I’ve read a few good ones, I can’t say it’s ever been a pleasure. I don’t expect them to be entertaining, just engaging, keeping the reader from getting lost by carving a path through dense thorny foliage.

    It’s a bait-and-switch; I got into the field motivated by some fantastic (and fascinating) science writing.

    Neel, Hotel Infinity is a great read so far. Thanks.

  3. Aarthy says:

    Perhaps it depends on the “purpose” of the communication in each specific instance.. I have come across several blogs online where scientists communicate sufficiently well to be understood by curious individuals with different areas of expertise. However, papers published by the same individuals are a much harder read, and I don’t read them unless I have a particular interest in the exact question that the paper is trying to answer.

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