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:
- Get your facts straight.
- Listen. Present all sides, particularly of contentious issues.
- 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:
- Listening helps ensure fairness in addition to accuracy.
- 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.
- 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?