A crash course in how to write about psychology, as taught by small children.
One of the great myths of journalism, or any kind of writing, is that you can smoothly move from one subject to another, Mr Benn-style, and still speak or write with some degree of authority on the topic.
Anyone who’s read clueless news reports or ‘hot takes’ by people who can barely use a microwave, let alone explain how one works, will know this is a myth. It’s up there with centaurs, spoon-bending and Guardian articles without spelling errors.
‘The Cult of the Amateur’, while beloved by journalists who think they can master any topic before deadline, is a dangerous one. It risks spreading both disinformation and a sense that news media can’t be trusted. Worse still, it can make topics seem far too opaque and complex for the public to comprehend.
How Not To Write Badly
Still, in their role as an interlocutor (apart from being able to spell that word), there comes a time in every journalist’s life when they need to write about a topic they are unfamiliar with, but still need to do a half-decent job when covering it.
The Science Communications scene tries to cheat its way out of this by recruiting people who can both write and have degrees on the topics they will be writing about. But this asks too much, not least because it’s unlikely most graduates can do both. Writing is hard and sometimes impossible to learn. Someone can get a first in a science topic, but still not be able to write for toffee, though their Harvard referencing game will no doubt be on point.
I do, of course, speak from experience, having tried to knock shape, structure and sense into often vague and shaggy dog prose by people who can build a nuclear reactor in their sheds, but seem surprised when you try to school them on structure, readability or, frankly, legibility. “Engineer Syndrome”, where expertise in one area means you end up thinking you’re competent in other areas, is a real risk, not least because it might lead to you looking very, very foolish.
I, of course, have the double disadvantage of coming from an arts and humanities background. This makes some STEM types – even some social scientists – assume I’m either a fraud or an idiot. Proving them wrong is, of course, one of life’s pleasures. But writing about the sciences from a non-science perspective is still very much like bringing a shark to a water polo session if you don’t know what you’re doing.
All Our Yesterdays
In my current role, at CRAE, I often find myself having to promote psychological and neurological research to the masses (or, at least, whoever’s on Twitter these days) in a way that is clear but accurate, accessible but thorough. I also edit the work of people who are very good at psychology, but who don’t have formal training in writing for a broader audience. Writing can, in fact, be very painful and humbling; rewriting doubly so.
It is, however, easy to do if you know how. For those of a certain vintage, like many of the exhibits at UCL’s Petrie Museum, and Spectrum owners, there are three excellent examples to refer back to. While clunky in hindsight, Newsround (a BBC news bulletin for children) and Tomorrow’s World, both provide great examples of ways to explain complex ideas in a way most people can get.
Ceefax News, and other teletext services, showed how you could summarise big topics with a very tight word limit. But they are little known these days, and may require a lengthy trawl through YouTube and the Web just to see them in action.
A Feynman Indeed
A far better model is one I use myself. Put simply, can you explain your topic to a five year old? This was an approach developed by the physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988) whose long career included major discoveries in quantum physics and his thorough investigation of what caused the 1986 Challenger Disaster.
He also understood the need to not just have big ideas, but to be able to communicate them clearly. Apart from the physics side of things, he was also very keen on working out the best way to teach physics to novices. And what better novice than a five year old?
Five year olds have many advantages, beyond being easy to carry. Their minds are developed enough to understand how the world works, and how it doesn’t. They learn quickly and think clearly. And they lack all the baggage adults carry around, like hubris, learned helplessness and nostalgia. A five year old can just about get their heads around anything if you find the right way to explain it to them. They may be aghast at the end, but that’s grown-ups for you.
But apart from being able to clearly explain something, Feynman’s approach is useful in another way. He argued that if you couldn’t explain it to a five year old, this did not just reflect badly on your ability to communicate, but your grasp of that topic in the first place. In other words, if you can explain it to a five year old, this also means you understand it yourself.
I always try to bear this in mind when I write and edit material on psychology. The question isn’t whether I know what, for example, intersectionality is, but the best way to understand it. By answering that question, I also start to learn how to explain it. As it happens, both the best journalist and scientist in the world has only just started school.
By Alexander Hay, Research Communication and Engagement Officer, CRAE.