How Do You Communicate Complex Scientific Ideas To Laypeople?



How do you go about communicating complex scientific ideas to laypeople? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Jeff Goodell, Author and Contributing Editor at Rolling Stone, on Quora:

I love scientists, and but lots of them are really bad at talking about their work. Too many charts and graphs and data points and nuances of physical processes that most regular people have no clue about. I really work hard to figure out a way to understand their work without getting myself too lost in the process. I always keep in mind, “Why is this important?” and “What is the big idea here?” Because I write so much about science, people often ask me if I have a degree in biology or chemistry or physics. I don’t. I have a degree in English. And I feel like that has been a real blessing for me, not only because it taught me a little bit about how to write intelligible sentences, but also because it gives me the license to ask a lot of really stupid questions when I’m reporting a story. And being unafraid of asking really stupid questions is, I’ve discovered, a really important quality in journalism (and life).

I also do my best to write about scientists as human beings, as people who are exploring really important ideas, but who are subject to the same competitive pressures and insecurities and character flaws as the rest of us. Seeing their work in this light helps me understand their motives, and, often, the significance (or insignificance) of their research.

Finally, it helps to write for a publication like Rolling Stone, where science is part of a larger conversations about politics and culture, and where I really have to figure out a way to say things in plain language or not say them at all. When a profile of Drake is one page away from your story about sea level rise, you gotta be sharp and to the point or your readers will move on pretty quickly.

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