“Am I Making Myself Clear?” Absolutely!

12 10 2009

Cornelia Dean’s new book Am I Making Myself Clear?: a Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public does a great serviceamimakingmyselfclear to scientists, as well as journalists and the public. For one thing, it offers a concise guide for scientists to public communication from one of the country’s most distinguished science writer-editors. Dean brings to the book her extensive experience at arguably the world’s premier newspaper for science coverage, The New York Times.

Dean makes a compelling case for scientists’ involvement in public issues, declaring that “if they participated more in the public life of our nation, if they dropped their institutional reticence and let their voices be heard beyond realms of scholarly publication, they could … inject a lot of rationality into our public debates.”

Her chapters on the nature of the news business and the worsening state of science journalism not only help scientists understand what is an alien realm to most of them. Dean also offers a valuable inside look at the thinking process of a professional communicator wrestling with how to responsibly communicate hot-button scientific issues. For example, she writes how she developed a concise statement on the issue of evolution: “I eventually worked out the wording that allows me to sum up the situation, I believe accurately: there is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution as an explanation for the complexity and diversity of life on earth. I use this language often when I write about evolution. But I am criticized for it. On some Web sites, creationists call it ‘Cornelia’s Creed.’”

The book also offers a wealth of insightful journalists’ tips on working with an editor, interviewing subjects, writing op eds, crafting letters to the editor, working with editorial boards, and writing accessibly about science. My favorite writing tip: “when writing in English, a language derived from German, strive to use words with German roots in preference to words with Latinate roots. Talk about cats not felines, or water that is safe to drink rather than potable. Don’t inhale and respond, take a breath and answer.” Also valuable is her perspective on how to effectively and responsibly work with public relations people to disseminate news of one’s research findings.

Her chapter covering the bumpy road from print to online journalism offers readers a cautionary road map charting the hazards, warning that

online journalism is developing standards that differ, sometimes wildly, from what some journalism scholars call “the discipline of verification,” a hallmark of the mainstream media. That discipline can give way to a “journalism of assertion” in which people post, often anonymously, erroneous, defamatory, vulgar, or mindless observations that would rarely, if ever, gain attention at a respectable news outlet.

And for those scientists contemplating writing a popular book, Dean offers the pithiest piece of advice I’ve ever encountered on the subject: “Don’t think about writing a book unless you really cannot help yourself.” If, indeed, you cannot help yourself, Dean’s guidance on navigating the publishing world and working with a collaborator are invaluable.

No scientist should consider plunging into the messy arenas of the courtroom or Congress—testifying as an expert in court, or before a congressional committee—without reading Dean’s chapters on those subjects. Her clear explanations of the pitfalls and techniques in such endeavors will no doubt rescue many scientists from missteps and make them far more effective.

It is fortunate that the publishers decided to make the book’s cover a distinctive orange, so that it will be easily locatable on the great many scientists’ bookshelves where it deserves to reside.

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