Opinion: The medium is the massage

ScienceThe art of good science writing (including in the history of psychology) is in making complex ideas seem simple, translating concepts from past producer to contemporary consumer without a loss of meaning. We might say, in other words, that good writing helps novel ideas fit the preexisting cultural narrative. This intuition has recently been rephrased and concretized in a short review published in the May 18 issue of Science, which summarizes findings from research in developmental psychology. And it includes an oft-forgotten reminder: what the reader brings to a text shapes their resistance to its message.

The review discusses the American experience of science. In its breadth, it is fairly limited. (Following the currently en vogue but pejorative stance most recently popularized by Dawkins, and discussed last week in The New Yorker, the authors seem to imply that religion makes you stupid.) But it also makes some helpful points.

Indeed, as the review concludes: “developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations” (p. 997). Hence, we are reminded of something we all know, but are rarely taught: epistemic “alignment” is an important factor for historians (and other science writers) to consider in constructing arguments and presenting data for consideration by a mixed and varied audience.

And the need to meet this requirement, I would argue, is part of the value of having trained historians to function alongside experimentalists. There is a need in society for those who can clearly communicate the importance and implications of found-truths without meaning loss; for those who can chart the treacherous path between belief and knowledge without alienating their audience, be they lay or professional.


About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.