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Best-selling authors talk about writing on science for lay audience

Four best-selling authors with impeccable academic credentials shared some of the secrets of their success last Thursday at a forum on "Academic Discourse in the Age of Popular Media," organized by the Media-in-Transition project.

"Science selects for poor writing," said Stephen Jay Gould, professor of zoology and geology at Harvard University and author of more than a dozen books about science written for a lay audience. People who are good writers are not usually directed toward science; instead, people who are poor communicators, "sitting in their basements with chemistry sets," tend to take that route, he said.

Other panelists at the forum were Alan Lightman, the John E. Burchard Professor of Science and Writing and author of two novels, Einstein's Dreams (Warner, 1993) and Good Benito (Warner,1995); Lester Thurow, the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Professor of Management and Economics, author of The Future of Capitalism (Morrow, 1996) andThe Zero Sum Society (Viking Press, 1981); and William Calvin, professor of behavioral psychology at the University of Washington and author of How Brains Think: Evolving Intelligence Then and Now (HarperCollins, 1996). Professor Gould's books include Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown (Random House, 1998) and The Mismeasure of Man (W.W. Norton and Co., 1996). He also writes a monthly column for Natural History magazine.

The forum's planners set out to explore the question of how an academic can become a writer of best-selling books, and whether he or she then loses credibility with colleagues in the ivory tower. Saleem Ali, a graduate student in urban studies and planning and organizer of the event, conceived the idea for the forum while pondering the fate of the late astronomer Carl Sagan, who experienced widely different receptions by the public--his articles in Parade magazine and his television series The Cosmos were enormously popular--and by the National Academy of Sciences, which refused to make Dr. Sagan a member.

As one might expect, the forum's speakers didn't feel compelled to stick to that concept, but instead allowed their generally entertaining remarks to range across a wide array of topics, from Professor Thurow's pet peeves with the media to Professor Gould's vilification of the passive voice.

Professor Lightman, who said he writes out of a sense of need or even compulsion, started things off on a thoughtful note by asking what it means to be an intellectual today and then providing two divergent visions. He invoked Ralph Waldo Emerson's definition of an intellectual as "the world's eye" writing out of obligation to himself, as well as Edward Said's idea that an intellectual writes out of obligation to society, "to advance human freedom and knowledge."

In his remarks, Professor Gould challenged some myths about science and writing. He debunked one--that science is unpopular and therefore difficult to write about--by citing the popularity of tropical fish collecting among blue-collar males, the wealth of knowledge held by members of horticultural societies, and even the "mental might" required of five-year-old children to correctly spell dinosaur names.

Science as that which explains the material world "has never been unpopular. It's always had an enormous following," Professor Gould said. Technical academic treatments of science are a different matter, he added.

He then attacked the notion that a scientist departs from true intellectual endeavors when he or she writes for the general public. Science writing for a lay audience can be done well "at full conceptual complexity," he said, making it an extension of the humanistic tradition. The primary difference between his own writing for colleagues and for a wider audience is the addition of jargon for his comrades in academia.

Professor Thurow attributed his own desire to write to his need to have fun. "When thinking about what to do with your life, you ask yourself, 'What's fun?' People who write like to write," he said. He gained early communication lessons listening to the sermons of his clergyman father over and over during childhood, until he began critiquing them mentally, asking himself, "If I were my father, how would I say it better?"

Academics, he said, often write abstrusely in an attempt to prove their intellectual superiority. Nevertheless, "there's nothing that anybody does that can't be communicated to people" if one does it well.

The news media are usually not the venue for academic communication, Professor Thurow continued. The press wants debate rather than thoughtful discussion, he said, so he often avoids acting as an expert for media. They might call and ask "is it the end of the economic world? And all they want is a 'yes' or 'no,'" he said. Then they find someone who says the opposite and "they think that's economic discussion."

An audience member asked how (or if) one can explain to a reporter that nobody has a simple answer to a particular question. Thurow responded that he doesn't participate in programs like Crossfire, nor does he do legal trials, because answers generally are not reducible to 'yes' or 'no.'

Professor Gould, in a more positive approach, said that he spends a lot of time giving background to journalists to help them understand an issue--or to realize that our understanding is actually incomplete. "I write whole books on why nobody knows" the answers to some questions, he quipped.

Professor Calvin, the behavioral psychologist, said he once feared the criticism of his peers when he wrote for a lay audience, but discovered that it's "more likely you'll be invisibile to them. Scientists generally read outside their fields," he said, and may not realize you've written a popular book.

As the only panelist to admit to having written on a topic far afield from his specialty, he offered the following anecdote. When he wrote an article for Atlantic Monthly last summer on abrupt climate change, he expected harsh criticism from climatologists. Instead, the mail he received contained gentle rebukes along the lines of, "Well, it's really a little more complicated that that."

When asked how it's possible to engage MIT science and engineering students with writing and the humanities, Professor Thurow said you have to get students to take those areas seriously. In economics, he has learned to give them a lot of problem sets because they take problems sets very seriously at MIT. "If physics gives five problems sets, you give seven," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 24, 1999.

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