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All of the truth


Photo by Nic McPhee via Flickr Creative Commons.

“How do you know what to leave out?”

That’s what one of the masters students in Northeastern’s Three Seas Program asked me and my colleague Lori Lennon when we talked to his class about science communication the other day. The student’s concern, like that of many scientists, was whether he could ever really tell a science story well if he had to tailor it to a general audience. He was afraid that if he couldn’t tell all of the facts then none of the facts would suffice. I’m married to a mathematician, so I know how hard this can be for people who spend much of their lives trying to make acutely accurate statements. (My husband can barely say good night without a disclaimer.)

I didn’t have a good answer for this student. I told him that the audience will likely determine which details are most important and which to leave out. But here’s the thing about science writing that we sometimes forget: it’s not much different from any other kind of writing. Okay, sure, you’ve got to break down some pretty complex topics into simpler, bite-size pieces. And yes, you have to deal with the cruel fact that most people out there don’t want to hear what you have to say. But choosing what to leave out and what to leave in has always been a problem for writers, regardless of their genre.

I’m reminded of an essay about memoir writing by Annie Dillard, which I read in high school and which has stuck with me all this time because it made so much sense:

If you prize your memories as they are, by all means avoid — eschew — writing a memoir. Because it is a certain way to lose them. You can’t put together a memoir without cannibalizing your own life for parts….I’m willing to turn events into pieces of paper. After I’ve written about any experience, my memories — those elusive, fragmentary patches of color and feeling — are gone; they’ve been replaced by the work.

In some ways, this is true about all writing. Poets have been saying it for centuries. Emily Dickinson said it when she suggested we “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” Wordsworth, too. In Preface to Lyrical Ballads he said that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling recollected in tranquility.” The powerful emotion is the real thing — it’s akin to the scientific discovery, the complicated molecular pathway, the high speed particle collision. You can never fully represent these concepts through words alone, so you must instead create something new that does a part of the explaining, enough of it for now. After all, as Dickinson said, “The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind.”

If you want to engage the community in your science, you need to do it without blinding them. But this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to leave anything out. You need use the tools at your disposal — metaphors, analogies, examples — to tell all of the truth, slant.

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