Thursday, March 3, 2011

I'm Certain . . .

Lately I’ve been thinking about the problem of being right, at least in the context of science writing for kids. Scientists, along with the non-scientists who write about science — whether for adults or children — assume a position of authority, intended or not.

It’s difficult not to. After all, we’re passionate about our subjects (I’m including myself in the non-scientist-who-writes-category) and intent on impressing our readers with whatever amazing facts we’ve learned in our own research. And the competitive landscape is full of writing that presumes an absolutely authoritative tone even though (or because) it’s promoting remote viewing, telepathic conversations with dolphins, or young-earth creationism.

Why should real science present itself with any less authority?

Because that’s not the way science works. Science advances as good ideas — theories — are replaced by better ones. “Better” meaning explanations that more closely fit what can be observed and tested. Sometimes the change is incremental. Other times it’s revolutionary, and it turns an existing explanation on its head. In any case, change — progress — has come about because established ways of thinking were not simply accepted. They were questioned, and subjected to all sorts of clever tests and trials. You can be sure that many scientists are pleased whenever cracks appear in a paradigm, because it presents an opportunity to propose a better explanation.

How, when we write a book about astronomy or dinosaurs do we get explain how little, in some ways, we actually know? Or how what we do know may turn out to be wrong? (Oh, by the way, I know what I said before. But the universe won’t contract. It will expand forever until all the stars go out. And dinosaurs had feathers.) All while explaining that we really do know a great deal, and we know it because science is such an amazing tool for understanding the world.

I don’t know the answer. For a writer, striking the right balance between doubt and certainty may a matter of intuition. Or maybe I just like the irony of that solution.


Christina Wilsdon said...

Too true, and a daily struggle. One doesn't even have to go back to the Cretaceous or light-years into space to bump heads with the (delightful, complex, intriguing) challenges in science writing...all you have to do is be writing about "what is the longest centipede" or the like, and immediately you will find there is even controversy or uncertainty there. (You end up nearly having to write, "The snickle-faced tomb centipede is the longest centipede among centipedes with crossed eyes" or the like because there's always some other centipede vying for the title...).

Linda Zajac said...

I like to think that I'm writing about a snapshot of science in time and that snapshot is backed up by the latest research. It is as accurate as it can be given the facts today. Some high school aged magazine articles I've done recently have offered more than one theory, leaving it up to the reader to ponder the facts. However, when writing smaller pieces like PBs, there is not much room for this approach. While we busy ourselves putting pen to paper, science continues to move and evolve. Some things never change and some things always change.