We all know, or at least have a hunch: abstractions don’t explain — they themselves need to be explained.
A word — whether a pompous scientific term like Micropachycephalosaurus (a dinosaur) or a more over-the-counter and down-to-earth Acetaminophen — is not the thing it is pointing at. It is an abstraction, a signpost.
In fact, the thing itself, say a real-life aspirin pill — the stuff you actually ingest — is of a very different order than the word “aspirin”. It’s not just that the word is not the pill, it’s that the collection of elements that are put together to do what aspirin does have no inherent name at all.
“This is not a pipe.” — Rene Magritte
In other words — and perhaps obviously — all names are made up. So even though we think we know how the pill works, how to manufacture it, what it does to the body and so on, our concept “aspirin” cannot capture the actual experience — whether the physics, chemistry, biology or everyday perception — of what we refer to as aspirin.
A thought experiment might make this more obvious.
Think of a definition for the word dog, one that would fit every particular case of dog, so that someone from outer space who has never even seen a canine could take your definition and use it to establish whether each and every creature they meet on Earth is a dog or not.
“It has four feet, furry tail and barks.”
Okay, good. But surely there are quite legitimate three legged, mute mutts that the alien would miss if he were using this definition (and if you tightened this rather broad definition, he’d overlook even more dogs), not to mention that he would mistake for a dog many barky Siamese cats and chatty hyenas.
The most important point of all though is the fact that he would miss dogs that you yourself would have no problem recognizing as dogs even though they do not fit your very own definition!
Do you see the problem?
In just the same way as you pretty much always intuitively understand but can never define your experience of a dog, you cannot define the experience of aspirin, the taste of sugar, nor what it feels like to be you, even though you intuitively know all of these.
This is because all concepts are always already abstract and general, and all experiences are always concrete and particular.
What this means, counter-intuitively, is that what we usually take for a fact — “this is aspirin” or “this is a city street” or “this is evolution” — is simply our concept about what we feel we understand, and not the understanding itself.
The reason all this matters is that it brings into sharp relief the fact that science doesn’t just discover facts — it deals in conceptual frames of reference (theories) as much as it deals in facts. It creates and re-creates understandings — by moving from the empirical to the conceptual and back– around what is considered to be valid empirical evidence at any given time.
This is called, in general, experimentation, though no scientist has ever actually used the scientific method in general — by its very nature experimentation is varied, always particular, and often downright peculiar.
What does this have to do with science communication?
Great science communicators, like great scientists, also proceed from the empirical to the abstract, asking themselves on behalf of the audience: “What problem does this theory or innovation respond to — what is the specific problem it solves?” or “How does it re-frame the problematic or take us past some difficulty?” or “What new problem does it make possible?”
Strong science communicators always think in terms of and work from the empirical problem to concept-theory, which enables them to explain the need for introducing made up scientific abstractions in the first place.
Weak science communicators, on the other hand, rarely leave the concept-level and so tend to write as if what is merely an abstract idea is true in fact — also known as reification of the abstract — and thus become enamoured with explanation: “How does this theory explain time?” or “What does the theory say about evolution?” or “What is a human being?”
These bad or static science questions presuppose that we already understand the object of inquiry by treating as real what is merely speculative or conceptual — aspirin or dog, in our first examples, time and evolution above. And then proceed to explain scientific findings as if the concept was experience itself, and science was merely a question of measuring or inventing these by this time merely mental or abstract objects.
See the difference?
Always proceed from the actual problem — whether conceptual or practical — to the science (the abstract) and not the other way around. This means that when doing science communication we must not try to “explain the science”, which is how science communication is often understood and approached, but to explain actual experience — hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, etc. — using science.