An interview with trade science authors of 2012

1 minute read

The Guardian hosted a conversation among several authors with new trade books on science last year, including Steven Pinker, Brian Greene, James Gleick, Joshua Foer and Lone Frank: “Science writing: how do you make complex issues accessible and readable?” They share many experiences and insights about the need to make scientific concepts clear to a general audience.

I liked this answer from Steven Pinker about the limits of analogy in science writing:

Analogy is enormously powerful. In fact, one could argue that we understand everything except for the physical world of falling objects by analogy. If you look at our language it's almost all metaphorical. But, there is a difference between literary metaphor and scientific analogy, and that is in a literary metaphor the more connections there are between the figure of speech and the thing in the world the richer and more wonderful it is, and in the scientific analogy if there are too many ways in which you can relate the analogy to the world, that makes it a bad analogy, not a good one. Analogies have to be chosen and explained carefully. You've got to point the reader to the correspondence, point for point between the thing in the world you're explaining in terms of your analogy. To be whipsawed between one analogy and other so you don't know what point is doing the work, that's what can make an analogy misleading.

Also, this response from Joshua Foer is provocative:

What you're supposed to be doing in a science book or popular article is distilling, finding what is essential and communicating that. That's not just an act of storytelling, it's an act of thinking and it requires a kind of clarity of communication that not just the scientists but academics in general have moved away from and I think it makes them think less clearly.

I agree with that. The act of writing here on the blog generally clarifies my thinking and makes me a better analyst. The beauty of blogging is that writing more about a topic really does build a better conceptual understanding of it, even if you are writing for nonspecialists. What I find frustrating is that I don’t have time to write about everything I’d like to understand better!