Science communication can be hard in the face of politics around climate change, vaccines and other issues that rile people’s emotions.
Last year I read Clear and Simple as the Truth, an excellent book on writing by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner which is hard to track down, but well worth the effort. You can read the introduction here.
The book makes a compelling case for presenting truth in the ‘classic’ style practised often (though certainly not exclusively) 18th century French and American writers. Writing in this style has faith in its audience; that if the communication is clear, simple, direct and truthful, an audience can’t help but accept it as fact and agree with the writer.
In the authors’ view. truth is the vital underpinning of all communication. Truth is not something that a person can coherently argue against, and the clear presentation of truth leaves no room for the mistakes of understanding that the above debates and others like them rely on for oxygen. Truth exists outside argument. It is not altered by argument or convincing. To perceive truth is to be convinced.
The book ends with an examination of different pieces of writing, including two quotes on the relationship between truth and belief:
Truth can never be told as to be understood, and not be believ’d.
– William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
The authors place Blake’s quote against one from philosopher and mathematician Pascal:
En montrant la vérité, on la fait croire / To present truth is to have it believed.
Blaise Pascal, Pensées.
Which do you prefer?
Though the sentences express very similar ideas at first glance, Thomas and Turner criticise the innate ambiguity of Blake’s quote – whether or not truth can be understood is contingent on whether it is possible to explain truth and have it be understood.
They prefer the self-contained second statement. Presentation is separate to truth; if the audience does not believe what is sees or reads, it is a failure of presentation. They write:
Truth is perfect. It can gain nothing by being perceived. It is therefore disinterested. It has no motive for deception. It cannot present itself falsely because it does not present itself at all… Truth cannot fail any test. It can only be misperceived and mishandled, But nothing is lethal to it.
It is not a stretch to apply the same statement to scientific fact specifically. But the world we live in feels often seems like it doesn’t have the patience or openness to ideas to erase that ambiguity. How can we be sure it is possible to make some people believe facts when they show no interest in them?
But the problem here is not the belief; it is understanding. Here Blake’s hedged statement has one thing that is reassuring for science communicators. By acknowledging understanding, it gives us an avenue to cope with failure and an answer to this worry: to make people believe the findings of science, it is essential they understand the process of science. We can explain findings in the simplest of terms, but unless we help people to understand the why and how of stories about the politically contentious areas of science, we will always struggle to have them accept the most important (and usually most-explored) part, the what, and the what should we do.