pierre laszlo

The necessary reconstruction

Because it is so widespread, one has to dispel first a naive misconception. According to that view, the only talent needed for communicating science to the public is the ability to translate technical terms into words of the natural language. Indeed, simple and clear expression is required. If a necessity, it is nevertheless not sufficient.

To remove the technical wrappings surrounding a piece of knowledge does not magically turn it into an item for communication. There are other major obstacles to diffusion of knowledge outside the sphere of its origins. They are not removed by recourse to an interpreter, who will translate from scientific discourse into everyday language. The notion of a Third Man, of the popularizer as translator, is a myth. Too often, it is a mere screen for intellectual laziness, even more on the part of the emitter than on the part of the receiver of the message.

For this message to get through, a prior reconstruction is demanded. In order to induce and satisfy the interest of your public, you need to steer clear of the style of the initial message, that to fellow-scientists. It was couched in legalistic, argumentative, polemical, assertive or simply didactic terms. You have to renounce all of this usual rhetorical apparatus in favor of a simple narrative. Put another way, you should move from the objective to the subjective.

This is not the place to elaborate, but didacticism is the major culprit in the production of popularizations which are mediocre and which fail to hit their target. Narration is the most-traveled avenue for effective knowledge-sharing. "Imagine yourself explaining your work to your grandmother" is an excellent rule of thumb.

Indeed, it is more important to transmit the thrust of living science, its systematic self-doubt, the wonders of both nature and of making sense of it, than bits