As part of the research for that blog post I've been reading all the reviews of his book and I came across an interview with Mukherjee on the Smithsonian website [Siddhartha Mukherjee Follows Up Biography of Cancer With “An Intimate History” of Genetics].
Here's an interesting answer to an important question ...
Those quotations also humanize the topics, which in The Gene, often have names that might intimidate a casual reader: transgenic, mitochondrial lineages. Family history and historical narratives bring the abstract science of genetics to life, as well. How do you balance the science with the narrative?The scary part about the question is that even on the Smithsonian.com website the questioner thinks that terms such as "transgenic" and "mitochondrial" are intimidating. That's what we're up against if we try to write for the general audience. Apparently, the only way to bring genetics to life is to avoid the science and concentrate on history and family stories!1
Readers are never casual. They come into books extremely informed. Just like you and I can sit in a musical performance, and while we may not be musicians ourselves, we can detect a false note immediately. I think readers detect false notes very quickly. I believe that we are hungry for this information. We need to be able to have a language that is not simplistic but is clear enough, simple enough.
I like this quote form one of my mentors: "If you can't describe what you're doing in science to a fifth grader using language that is easily understandable, it's probably not worth the effort of what you're doing.” Even if you're working in string theory, you can basically describe why you're doing what you're doing, what the basic method is, and why it's important. You may not be able to get to all the details, but I think striking the right balance is important.
Mukherjee's answers are interesting. In the first paragraph he claims that his readers are extremely informed. He claims they can detect "false notes" very quickly but we know this isn't true. Mukherjee's book is full of false notes, especially his writing about epigenetics. The fact that the book is #1 on the bestseller list tells us that his reader are NOT extremely informed. They are gullible and easily swayed by rhetoric and style.
The second paragraph is also informative. I don't think you can dumb down science to the fifth grade level. If I'm interested in how much of our genome is junk, for example, it's going to be very difficult to explain this problem to a fifth grader in any meaningful way. Mukherjee is being extremely naive if he thinks he can accomplish this goal. He certainly didn't do it in his book—you can read the entire book (592 pages) and still not be able to correctly explain what a gene is. (The title of the book is "The Gene.")
We know that educating the general public about science is a problem. A fifth grade level knowledge of evolution, for example, is not enough to make informed decisions in the modern world. Almost all adults in our society are graduates of high school. In an ideal world we should be able to explain what we're doing to adults at the high school level. If we do a good job, we should be able to elevate them a bit above high school level as we explain our field.
We all know that's not going to work, probably because the average high school graduate is nowhere near a high school level of education in the sciences.
Can you explain what you're interested in to a fifth grader in any meaningful way? I bet you can't if you're working at the frontiers of knowledge.2
1. Mukherjee writes about schizophrenia and bipolar disease in his own family.
2. Creationist can do it. That's because they're already at the fifth grade level.