I have paperwork to do today getting ready for the Intel Science Talent Search (STS). Of course this means I am busy surfing the net for interesting rubbish to soothe my brain in lieu of doing actual work. (And now I am writing about not doing any work. What an awesome role model I am.) I came across this gem of a quote today from Alun Anderson, a former editor at New Scientist magazine.
…science is the most interesting thing in the world, and if you don’t agree with me just fuck off….
Sometimes people pull quotes out of context. Here’s the context so you can see it’s not a mistake. Mr. Anderson really meant to say this. Anyone who who doesn’t have an interest in science is a "fucking idiot".
Science writing used to be slightly apologetic: [puts on whiny voice] "this is all going to be terribly difficult, but I’ll try and make it easy for you". Like they’ve sugar coated something you don’t really want to take. Our goal was to really change that – change the people and the ideas – to be self-confident. Science often suffers from this sort of cringe factor – "I’m a boring scientist, you probably don’t want to talk to me". My policy was if you’re talking to someone else the approach is: "what’s happening in science is the most interesting thing in the world, and if you don’t agree with me just fuck off, because I’m not interested in talking to you". You had to have that kind of attitude. That tended to be the kind of attitude of people in the arts: [in snooty voice – think Brian Sewell] "Of course I am doing something interesting", so I took the same attitude. If you’re not interested, I don’t want to explain to you – you’re just a fucking idiot, so get out of my way! And it worked, because if you write like, "I’m really interested in this, it’s not only interesting its really important. If you can’t see this, you’re probably a moron!" It works. It has to be true to a degree. Otherwise it’s just piped bullshit, or triumphalism or something. The thing is, it is really interesting and important. People from the sciences do often have massive inferiority complexes.
The full text of the interview with Alun Anderson can be found here.
Folks outside the UK don’t often have experience with New Scientist. It’s a popular science magazine, but it isn’t aimed at science illiterates. It’s sort of like Scientific American for the English (Scientific Britannica?). New Scientist is released weekly, while Scientific American is released monthly. The US and the UK each have an ultimate science journal. In the US it’s Science published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In the UK it’s Nature published by the Nature Publishing Group. These periodicals feature a mix of highly technical articles for specialists and more approachable summaries for anyone with an interest in science.
All of these journals employ layperson’s summaries. When a common scientific word comes along, they usually don’t explain it since they assume you’re educated enough to know it. When a more fancy word comes along, they may give you a quick reminder of what it means just to be polite. (An educated person will probably have heard it, but she may not have thought much about what it means.) When a highly technical word comes around, something is wrong with the space-time continuum. Specialized words should not appear outside of articles written for specialists.
Which brings me back to the STS. Page 5 of the 9 page application asks for a 100 word max. "Layperson’s Summary".
Summarize your project in layperson’s terms. Your explanation should provide easily understandable background, procedures, conclusions and relevance. The summary will aid readers, including administrators, journalists and the public.
A student last year called this the "abstract for dummies". Note quite. Dummies don’t need any kind of summary. They won’t understand anything you’d say to them anyway. What she should have said was, a layperson’s summary is like an "abstract for the ignorant". I know that ignorant has a negative connotation, but it shouldn’t. Let me quote the cowboy humorist Will Rogers.
You know everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.
A physicist will know a lot of physics, but he may not know a lot of biology and vice versa. Write the layperson’s summary of your biology research in such a way that even a physicist could understand it. Ignorance is a part of life. No one can know everything about everything.
Ignorance is also a part of science. If everything was known, there’d be no reason to do science. I refer back to Will Rogers who sounds like he’s talking directly to a scientist about to publish a paper.
An ignorant person is one who doesn’t know what you have just found out.
Once you’ve discovered something new, it’s your duty to tell everyone about it and reduce the quantity of ignorance in the cosmos. If you don’t, you haven’t completed the scientific process and the cosmos will seek revenge. (The quantity of ignorance is also known as dumbth, buy the way.) Writing about your research in incomprehensible technobabble does not get you off the hook. Thus the need for a layperson’s summary.
A layperson’s summary should be well written. Anyone from any walk of life who is of reasonable intelligence or better should understand it. (That’s 50% of the earth, by the way. Just thought I’d remind you.) I wouldn’t take this quite as far as the physicist Leo Szilard did. When asked by a biologist how he should explain his work to a non specialist, Szilard said…
Assume infinite intelligence and zero prior knowledge.
I like quotes. You can quote me on that.