Often the most surprising notion to put to non-scientists is the concept that scientists do not report the world as it is, rather as they see it. They frequently put a spin on their findings and weave a story which adequately conveys what they believe is going on in a particular system. Philosophers of science have even more fun discussing the terms ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’ than they do of ‘representation’. In the book ‘The Log From the Sea of Cortez’, John Steinbeck documents a collecting trip he took with his biologist friend Ed Ricketts around the Gulf of California. The text by Steinbeck and Ricketts is copyrighted 1941, long before (British) universities employed public engagement officers to encourage scientists to discuss their work with the general public.
There is a curious idea among unscientific men that in scientific writing there is a common plateau of perfectionism. Nothing could be more untrue. The reports of biologists are the measure, not of the science, but of the men themselves.
After likening the scientific community to a cult–“…the little men in scientific work assumed the awe-fullness of a priesthood to hide their deficiencies, as the witch-doctor does with his stilts and high masks…”–he then writes,
It is usually found that only the little stuffy men object to what is called ‘popularization’, by which they mean writing with a clarity understandable to one not familiar with the tricks and codes of the cult. We have not known a single great scientist who could discourse freely and interestingly with a child. Can it be that the haters of clarity have nothing to say, have observed nothing, have no clear picture of even their own fields? A dull man seems to be a dull man no matter what his field, and of course it is the right of a dull scientist to protect himself with feathers and robes, emblems and degrees, as do other dull men who are potentates and grand imperial rulers of lodges of dull men.
John Steinbeck, ‘The Log From the Sea of Cortez’ (1960, p.134).