Trying To Put Humanity Back Into Science
Recently I attended a science writing seminar which, I thought, was fairly helpful–not just for people who want to go into science writing for a living but for those who want to communicate their science more effectively. A looming question that people got worked up about was: Why aren’t there more humanities in the sciences?
One big problem I see is that the two different disciplines (humanities and science) rarely mesh with each other. It’s not that they are fundamentally incompatible but that the individuals in each of those disciplines don’t go out of their way to cross the “border”, i.e. to go to the other side in an attempt to understand others’ thinking or to try to make themselves understood to a wider variety of people. Many science people think of the humanities as a joke, whereas people from the humanities (or the lay public for any matter) completely tune out the science lecture wondering what the entire point of it is. Albert Einstein and George Elliot? One might as well start blubbering gibberish.
Another obstacle for science writing is the stigma of writing itself among parts of the science community. Oh look at him, they’d whisper. He’s not doing science anymore. He’s a writer now. It’s as if being a writer was something tainted, something that makes the scientist akin to an Untouchable in the Indian caste system. Ah, if only people could understand that one could do science and write–there is such a thing called “time management” that would solve the problem.
So why should scientists care about communicating their work to the public? Well, I’m sure people want to know what research their money is going toward, after all, they’re not paying taxes just for your intellectual edification. The funding of modern science no longer resembles that of the past; scientists these days aren’t rich lords with money to burn or sycophants who come under the patronage of monarchs or rich families.
Scientists also have a duty to inform the public. Some ill-trained journalists may make the latest findings sound like proclamations from God just because someone with a Ph.D. said so–but science isn’t some far removed religion that one takes statements on faith. Science is rooted in culture, in society, our everyday lives–from plastic surgery to transportation to growing crops–and people have every right to question it.
And finally, there is the freedom implied in such writing. What purpose does it serve to keep most people ignorant? Science writing fosters the attitude to ask questions and be more open which can spill over into other areas of life. And openness will inevitably lead to progress.
Some articles about a new magazine dangerously treading the line between science and “hipness”–Geeks need not apply: Science is chick in SEED magazine and Seed, a very silly new magazine.