Telling Science

Pat Shipman
May 01, 2001

I am one of that peculiar breed known as science writers. In fact, I belong to the strangest minority of science writers, for I was a scientist for years before turning to writing. I believe very strongly in what I do: I tell science. Although there are those who feel my writing career is a waste of a good scientific mind, I believe that by telling science I make a real and substantive contribution to both science and writing.

book cover for The Man who Found the Missing Link

What is telling science? Telling science is the same as telling a story, except it is a very important story that affects all of our lives. I want to root my stories in my readers' minds so deeply that science will flourish there in perpetuity. To me, science is more than a body of knowledge, it is a way of thinking. Born of curiosity, nourished by discovery, science is a marvelous way of finding stuff out, of making sense of the world.

One of the reasons I think telling science is so crucial comes from my research background in human evolution. Since our evolutionary origin, the survival and well-being of our species has depended upon our abilities to observe, to analyze, to synthesize, and to remember information about the world around us. Science is a way of doing that. Science offers us ways to seek and gain understanding, which are profoundly human aims. When I tell science, I am seeking both to impart information and to teach others how to "think" science. It is a truism—and even a truth—that any single piece of scientific knowledge is subject to revision after more evidence has been gathered. Some use this premise to argue that learning scientific "facts" is therefore a waste of time, since they are all uncertain and will change eventually. I disagree. The problem is simply that reality is a wonderful and terrible and complicated thing and we aren't always smart enough to grasp all its nuances at once. It is wiser to allow for revision in case reality becomes a little clearer in the future.

The science writer, then, takes on a dual charge: to communicate scientific knowledge and to show how science is done, thus infecting the reader with the virus of scientific thinking. There are many justifications for this charge. One of them is that it is a duty. A discovery unshared is lost. And if public funds are used to further the discovery, then certainly there is an obligation on the part of those who accept the funding to transmit their findings to the public. If science is able to improve our world, either by making sense of things or by allowing us to alter reality, then science, like language, must be shared.

There is also a danger to exclusive science, to hidden science. People dislike and distrust the possessors of powerful and secret knowledge, with good reason. How are we as scientists to quell or forestall that resentment and suspicion? By telling science.

Doing science often requires developing an esoteric vocabulary, learning incomprehensible procedures, mastering Byzantine mathematical techniques, and memorizing obscure acronyms. Of course, if scientists talk and think about ideas or entities outside of the common experience, they must invent new language. But there is no reason that jargon must go unexplained—and every reason why it should not. The jargon itself is a moat, the abstruse concepts a wall, that together keep the public from storming the gates and taking possession of scientific knowledge and practice. This is exactly the opposite of what I would advocate.

I maintain that the deliberate failure to explain scientific jargon, principles, and discoveries to the general public is downright wicked. The failure arises, I think, from a fatal combination of arrogance and laziness, in the presence of an unfortunate lack of empathy. There is nothing I resent so fiercely as someone who says, "It is too complicated for you to understand"—unless it is someone who adds, insultingly, "Don't worry your pretty little head over it."

I also think that concealing science and making it exclusive are ultimately hostile to the aims of science itself. Why do scientists do science? Because science is fun, science is neat, science is "about" discovery. Who wouldn't want to share that with everyone who will listen?

Pat Shipman, Ph.D., is adjunct professor of anthropology in the College of the Liberal Arts, 315 Carpenter Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-2509; This essay was excerpted from the 2000 A. Dixon and Betty F. Johnson Memorial Lecture in Scientific Communication of the Eberly College of Science. The Man Who Found the Missing Link, was published by Simon & Schuster in January.

Last Updated May 01, 2001