Scientists Should Be Less Objective When Writing about Their Research

Geobiologist and Author
Science writing, or the way scientists describe their research, purposefully removes the human element, but this is what readers want most, says career biologist Hope Jahren.
  • Transcript


Hope Jahren:  So science writing is spectacularly dense and it contains very specific words. It's almost always done in the third person. So we have conventions associated with how we do the writing right down to which verbs we use and the tense that we use. It's very rare you can use the first person and what that does is it really explicitly depersonalizes the experience, the person, the person who did it I stirred the beaker is taken out. Beakers were mixed for four hours at 415 degrees. It's as if no people were involved. The stuff just happens. So it's a process that both condenses the information, intensifies it and depersonalizes it. So it is writing but it's a very specific style.

Now that's not what a reader wants who wants to know you, who wants to empathize with you, who wants to visualize themselves participating in this sort of thing. It's not that kind of language that you use to reach across time and distance and age in order to talk to somebody who has spent their hours and their days and there lives very, very differently. And yet there should be some common ground because what we're doing is important.

People have to be able to visualize the activity in three dimensions. They have to be able to visualize not just the work itself but the person doing it. And I think by sharing the stories of how it feels to make those mistakes and how it feels to have those successes and what drives you when you fail and what drives you when you work and there's no progress. And how it is juggling all the other pieces of life while you do science. I think that gives the kind of picture that people can realistically look at and say I could do that or I could do that but I wouldn't want to or I want to do that and maybe I could do it. So I think that's the story that we're obliged to tell if we really believe that we need more people to embrace science and devote their lives to it.

I think it's very common that scientists or technical people have an artistic side. Sometimes they are very accomplished musicians. Sometimes they have very fine tastes according to art or design. And often they've spent a big chunk of their childhood or they're growing up years trying to get in very good at those activities. And I would encourage people to think of that as a latent skill. Maybe that isn't called into use every day at your job, but maybe it should be. Maybe we are narrowing ourselves. I only say that because I love stories. I love to read stories. And I don't to get to talk about my favorite novels very often in my job. And then I wrote a science book where I actually talk very specifically about my favorite novels and different lines from them that occur to me while I'm doing science and how doing science actually helped me figure out what these very ambiguous quotes finally mean. And I sort of put those two things together and I've gotten a very satisfying response that overlapping those interest, which I always had, has resulted in something new and special and interesting. And I can't help but think of all the artistic talent that exists in all the scientists and technical people that I know that is got to be some kind of untapped resource that could enrich everything they're doing. And I just want to encourage people to go back to that part of themselves and take a chance on expressing it. And I don't know what the hybridization is for you but I'm pretty confident that it's worth exploring.