All of the truth


Photo by Nic McPhee via Flickr Cre­ative Commons.

How do you know what to leave out?”

That’s what one of the mas­ters stu­dents in Northeastern’s Three Seas Pro­gram asked me and my col­league Lori Lennon when we talked to his class about sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion the other day. The student’s con­cern, like that of many sci­en­tists, was whether he could ever really tell a sci­ence story well if he had to tailor it to a gen­eral audi­ence. He was afraid that if he couldn’t tell all of the facts then none of the facts would suf­fice. I’m mar­ried to a math­e­mati­cian, so I know how hard this can be for people who spend much of their lives trying to make acutely accu­rate state­ments. (My hus­band can barely say good night without a disclaimer.)

I didn’t have a good answer for this stu­dent. I told him that the audi­ence will likely deter­mine which details are most impor­tant and which to leave out. But here’s the thing about sci­ence writing that we some­times forget: it’s not much dif­ferent from any other kind of writing. Okay, sure, you’ve got to break down some pretty com­plex topics into sim­pler, bite-​​size pieces. And yes, you have to deal with the cruel fact that most people out there don’t want to hear what you have to say. But choosing what to leave out and what to leave in has always been a problem for writers, regard­less of their genre.

I’m reminded of an essay about memoir writing by Annie Dil­lard, which I read in high school and which has stuck with me all this time because it made so much sense:

If you prize your mem­o­ries as they are, by all means avoid — eschew — writing a memoir. Because it is a cer­tain way to lose them. You can’t put together a memoir without can­ni­bal­izing your own life for parts.…I’m willing to turn events into pieces of paper. After I’ve written about any expe­ri­ence, my mem­o­ries — those elu­sive, frag­men­tary patches of color and feeling — are gone; they’ve been replaced by the work.

In some ways, this is true about all writing. Poets have been saying it for cen­turies. Emily Dick­inson said it when she sug­gested we “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” Wordsworth, too. In Preface to Lyrical Bal­lads he said that “poetry is the spon­ta­neous over­flow of pow­erful feeling rec­ol­lected in tran­quility.” The pow­erful emo­tion is the real thing — it’s akin to the sci­en­tific dis­covery, the com­pli­cated mol­e­c­ular pathway, the high speed par­ticle col­li­sion. You can never fully rep­re­sent these con­cepts through words alone, so you must instead create some­thing new that does a part of the explaining, enough of it for now. After all, as Dick­inson said, “The Truth must dazzle gradually/​Or every man be blind.”

If you want to engage the com­mu­nity in your sci­ence, you need to do it without blinding them. But this doesn’t nec­es­sarily mean you need to leave any­thing out. You need use the tools at your dis­posal — metaphors, analo­gies, exam­ples — to tell all of the truth, slant.