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Who is your audience? May 13, 2007

Posted by Johan in Links, Off Topic.
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Explaining science to a new audience is extremely challenging. We’ve all had to suffer through idiotic undergraduate textbooks (with a few notable exceptions), because the authors are grappling with an intrinsically difficult task. I used to blame the authors for this lack of clarity, but in reality, most journal articles are written in much the same way.

Scientists are not professional writers. The skills that enable you to succeed as a researcher do not necessarily include the ability to write lucidly, and although people who manage to present their ideas in an accessible way tend to have a greater impact, this is by no means necessary to succeed.

A recent post at Epidemix (via Slashdot) asks why Wikipedia sucks at science. Thomas Goetz cites a few good examples of how topics like epigenetics or mitochondrial DNA are presented in a form that is much too technical for anyone who isn’t already familiar with the topic (and presumably, wouldn’t need the Wikipedia entry).

This sounds familiar. I remember trying to figure out what this “Connectionism” stuff was all about, a few years back. The Wikipedia entry I just linked (along with the one on Neural Networks) only taught me that connectionist modeling is extremely complex, and can only really be understood by mathematicians and computer scientists. It wasn’t until I read an excellent book on the topic that I realised that the basic principles of connectionism are actually extremely simple.

I’m not blaming the Wikipedia contributors any more than I blame the authors of some of my most awful textbooks. The strength of leaving science writing to experts is that unlike journalists, the scientists won’t get anything wrong. The downside is that sometimes any non-expert will struggle to understand the content, no matter how accurate the description. Like one of the commenters of the Epidemix post said, this is sometimes referred to as the curse of knowledge. It is very difficult to step back from your own expertise and assume the perspective of someone who knows nothing about your area of interest.

I’ve experienced this difficulty myself lately, as the Fan Club has taken a more technical direction with regular write-ups of research papers. I try to write each post so that someone with only a basic grasp of psychology and/or neuroscience can get the point of the article, but I’m painfully aware that I just don’t succeed sometimes.

For instance, take my recent post on the spatial sensitivity (ie resolution) of different parts of the face-processing system. In order to grasp the paper I blogged, you probably need to be familiar with:

  1. The geniculostriate visual stream, in particular the lateral geniculate nucleus
  2. The retinotectal visual stream, and its connections to the posterior parietal cortex and the amygdala
  3. The known functions of the fusiform face area and the amygdala

I spent the better part of the post trying to explain these concepts, but in reality this is probably too much information to convey in a single blog post. I know from my own experience that any post where vertical scrolling is necessary gets skimmed at best.

Most of the bulk in my own posts consists of attempts to explain the basics that the research relates to, so one obvious solution would be to drop the explanations and focus on concise, technical posts for a specialised science audience. The alternative is to choose topics more carefully – clearly some articles are better suited for blog posts than others, regardless of sheer scientific merit.

Broadly speaking, science blogs are found at either extreme: some prefer to assume an expert audience (e.g., The Neurocritic), others try to be more inclusive (e.g., Mind Hacks). I’m not sure yet at which extreme the Fan Club should be, but I know that being in the middle is no good. As an undergraduate, I simply don’t yet have the expertise needed to make meaningful technical contributions, so inclusiveness may be the way to go.

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