Jane Says: Keys to Sharing Anthropology

I love anthropology and, since you’re taking the time to read this, you probably don’t hate it.  When we love something, we want to share our enthusiasm for it with others.  Sharing my passion for the scientific study of humankind has been a driving goal for the past 15 years.  As a result, I ask everyone – anthropologists, students, teachers, writers – for their opinion about what makes good popular science writing.

A few years ago, I had an opportunity to ask that question of Jane Goodall, one of the most successful popularizers of anthropology and primatology ever (please see www.janegoodall.org for more about her life and work).  Dr. Goodall graciously offered three pieces of advice:

  1. Get your facts straight.
  2. Listen.  Present all sides, particularly of contentious issues.
  3. Tell a good story.

The first point about getting your facts straight is obviously important in all forms of communication.  It’s especially critical when writing for the internet, where anyone can say anything.  Bloggers, in particular, are responsible for policing themselves, and each other.  Factual accuracy is the basis of trust.  If an author makes frequent errors, you have good reason to question their trustworthiness and conclusions.  On the other hand, an author with a record of straight facts has earned some level of trust.  I hope to gradually earn your trust with future posts here.  If I get a fact wrong, I know I’m going to hear about it in the comments section – that’s a strong incentive to get it right!

Regarding the second point, I can think of at least two practical reasons that writers should be good listeners:

  1. Listening helps ensure fairness in addition to accuracy.
  2. Understanding opposing viewpoints helps a writer construct stronger arguments.  Of course, not all contentious issues have equal and opposite sides (evolution vs. intelligent design, for example), but many do, and anthropological authors gain credibility by covering multiple perspectives.  This doesn’t mean that we can’t “tell it like it is,” we just have to show that we’ve evaluated other possibilities before forming conclusions.
  3. The third point, telling a good story, requires a special kind of person able to bridge the gap between fact and narrative.  Scientific researchers are often not the best communicators of their own research.  We’re fascinated by our own sub-specialties and research questions, but intimidated by the task of translating it into something that anyone else might possibly want to read.  People like Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Jared Diamond, and Jane Goodall excelled as both scholars and popularizers – which is why I was excited to ask Dr. Goodall for her advice, and so thankful for her answers.

These are just some ideas off the top of my head.  What about you?  What would you add to these three points?  Whether you’re a writer, a reader, or both, what do you look for in good popular anthropological (and general science) writing?

7 thoughts on “Jane Says: Keys to Sharing Anthropology

  1. Jared Diamond? Might want to update yourself about this character. Mr. Diamond is an embellisher of facts, and an outright liar. He supplied the public with his own made up ethnographical data.

  2. I met Dr. Diamond last year during an evolutionary anthropology seminar at Washington State University – Vancouver. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to ask him the science popularization question that I asked Jane Goodall. Can you provide links or citations to support your claim that he’s an embellisher and liar? Accusing someone of fabricating ethnographic data is serious, and I invite you to back your accusation up with some evidence.

  3. Thanks for the link. It’s ironic that the journalistic investigation against Diamond and his 2008 New Yorker article “Vengeance is Ours” was led by the widow of Stephen Jay Gould – another person I cited as a successful scholar and popularizer of science. Whether Diamond embellished his account or was misled by his Papuan informants, it’s clear that he did not get his facts straight in this instance. This illustrates the difficulty of balancing accuracy with telling a good story. Accuracy without a good story risks boring the reader. A good story with questionable facts can lead to a defamation lawsuit, as happened with Jared Diamond. I’m curious to see how the lawsuit plays out. Thanks again!

  4. In fact there were no “informants,” only one. Jared Diamond talked to nobody about any clan or tribal warfare except his personal driver. This personal driver is the one who brought the defamation lawsuit against him.

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