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Am I Making Myself Clear?

Christopher Brodie

AM I MAKING MYSELF CLEAR?: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public. Cornelia Dean. Harvard University Press, $19.95.

Am I Making Myself Clear?, by New York Times science writer Cornelia Dean, is a guidebook for scientists on talking to the public. It expands on a series of science-communication seminars that Dean delivered to a Harvard audience, although she’s careful to say that her small volume is not scholarly, technical or thorough.

Rather, she has aimed to create a useful guide, one with helpful pointers for researchers who interact with policymakers, the public and journalists. She succeeds at meeting this important goal: The book brims with insight and expertise based on a career at the pinnacle of science journalism. Dean’s easy style and casual authority are irresistible, and research scientists and engineers will realize quick benefits from such a practical, illuminating guide. But creating something useful was only the first of her two goals in writing the book—and the less important one at that.

The greater mission, as Dean lays out in the introduction, was to “convince researchers that communicating their work and the work of others to the lay public is important for society—and a valuable use of their time.” She skillfully marshals facts and narrative to support this proposition, and as part of the choir to whom she is preaching, I found her arguments compelling. There are important reasons to broaden the expectations for scientists so that some form of public engagement becomes a professional obligation. But there are significant obstacles too, including the inertia of the established culture of science and institutional practices that fail to reward—and sometimes even penalize—such engagement. It’s too soon to tell whether her call to action, added to similar calls from Al Gore, Bruce Alberts and Alan Leshner (among others), will tip the balance.—Chris Brodie

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