Thankfully, some scientists have devoted their careers to bringing these topics to the public through eloquent writing and charismatic public talks. Effective science communicators should have two primary goals in their work: first, to translate these crucial issues in an informative, honest, and unbiased manner. Second, they should be able to impart a wonder and awe for the natural world that can stimulate people's excitement and curiosity. Communication is more than mere education: it is a nuanced interchange between information and public perception.
We have no shortage of scientists like this, though they are distributed unequally across disciplines. Publicly salient issues—such as climate change, vaccines, and alternative energy—tend to be well-represented amongst science outreach today, but other fields are left wanting. Here I've chosen five scientists, living and dead, that I feel best represent the highest achievement in effectively communicating the issues of scientific concern that matter most to me. I look up to these men an extraordinary amount, both for their keen intellects and their passionate love for their work.
1. William Beebe
This early 1900s American naturalist was many things—marine biologist, explorer, entomologist, and writer, to name just a few—but I admire him most for his work in ornithology and conservation. As a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, Beebe was a fierce and tireless advocate of respect for the natural world, and with his writing was able to generate a great deal of public interest (and funding) for protecting habitats. Perhaps his most unique achievement was in predicting the existence of a four-winged feathered dinosaur, based on his embryological observations of vestigial “leg wings” in pigeons—almost a century before Microraptor was unearthed.
Beebe would end up discovering several hundred aspects of animal behavior and ecology then-unknown to science, and himself described one new species of bird and dozens of fish. In 1909, he embarked on an expedition that would take him all across Asia in order to document all of the pheasants of the world, which would eventually culminate in his world-famous Monograph of the Pheasants. His vignettes on the lives and loves of these secretive animals are among the most moving ornithological writings I've had the pleasure of experiencing.
"And the next time you raise your gun to needlessly take a feathered life, think of the marvelous little engine which your lead will stifle forever; lower your weapon and look into the clear bright eyes of the bird whose body equals yours in physical perfection, and whose tiny brain can generate a sympathy, a love for its mate, which in sincerity and unselfishness suffers little when compared with human affection." The Bird, its Form and Function, 1906.
2. Richard Dawkins
The writings of Richard Dawkins, more than any single other person, were responsible for nurturing my own interest in evolution as a teenager, an interest which has gone on to define nearly everything about my life today. I have mixed feelings about his outspoken atheism and sometimes questionable Twitter behavior, but the man can write. Oh, can he write.
Some of you must be familiar with the unique feeling of enlightenment one encounters when reading something that bridges a conceptual gap for the first time. It is a pleasurable little "ah ha!"; it is a feeling of awe, like light has been thrown onto something shadowed and now you can see that it is rich and textured. Nothing I've read since has compared to my first exposure to Dawkins's writings on evolution, particularly The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene. I knew that evolution was true long before I picked up these books, but I didn't know it was so damn beautiful too.
"The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite." Unweaving the Rainbow, 1998.
3. Hans Eysenck
When Eysenck was punched in the face by a protestor after delivering a lecture on the role of genes in IQ at a major university, he did not stop writing. Nor did he stop after receiving bomb threats for the same; nor when his research was grossly misrepresented again and again. Eysenck, who grew up in Germany in the early 1900s when the Nazis were coming to power, knew the value of free speech and open discussion. His hatred of Hitler drove him out of Berlin and to England, where he was free—relatively speaking, at least—to pursue his research and writing.
A brilliant psychologist of many talents and interests, Eysenck is most well-known for his work in personality and intelligence. He was highly prolific throughout his life and authored 80 books and over 1600 journal articles before his death in 1997, when he was the most cited psychologist at the time. From his unwavering defense of empirical objectivity in psychology to his open criticism of the Nazis, Eysenck was a man of unquestionable courage. His writings on individual differences, many of them by now quite old, remain some of the most lucid and sensitive texts on these topics available for the general public.
"We may not like the facts, but they are stubborn; facts are the products of nature, and scientists are merely the messengers who seek and pass on the messages nature has for us." Intelligence: A New Look, 2000.
4. E.O. Wilson
Wilson is another prolific researcher who found himself embroiled in controversy. An entomologist, naturalist and writer, Wilson pioneered the field of sociobiology, which postulated a biological basis to all forms of social behavior, including that of humans. This field, with its implications for a deterministic origin of human behavior, has been met with resistance by many since its inception in the 1970s. This has come in the form of endless opposition by writers like Gould and Lewontin as well as less civilized criticism, such as being doused with a pitcher of water by protestors when delivering a speech at an AAAS symposium (he then gave his talk soaking wet).
Wilson, like Dawkins, is a writer whose early work I prefer to his later. His treatment of mankind’s place in the universe in his 1979 Pulitzer Prize winner On Human Nature is fantastic, as is his 1997 book Consilience. Wilson’s earliest intention with applying sociobiology to human behavior was the hope that the "consilience" of biology and culture would produce more communication between the sciences and the humanities—an optimistic but worthy goal that some thinkers are still pursuing today.
"Pure knowledge is the ultimate emancipator. It equalizes people and sovereign states, erodes the archaic barriers of superstition and promises to lift the trajectory of cultural evolution. But I do not believe that it can change the ground rules of human behavior or alter the main course of history's predictable trajectory." On Human Nature, 1979.
5. Steven Pinker
What Dawkins did for me with evolution, Pinker did for evolutionary psychology. Pinker, a polymath like the others on my list, has written in a number of fields from cognitive science and language to history and cultural evolution, but central to all of his work is the concept of a biologically meaningful human nature. He too is no stranger to controversy, and is renowned for writing with elegance and gentle humor on topics that many find troubling. My favorite of his publications, and that which I find most important to the subject of science communication, is his eponymous evisceration of "the blank slate": the idea that individual differences in human behavior are primarily shaped by culture and experience, and are therefore infinitely tractable.
Pinker's writings have inspired me above just about all else to reconsider my own career path. If this isn’t the highest goal a science communicator can hope to achieve, writ large, I don’t know what is. Studies on individual differences—especially those with social consequence—need to be disseminated by scientists who both understand how the mind works and also have the integrity to follow the data wherever it leads. To the extent that I am interested in science communication, I feel that this juncture of science and public awareness needs more defense and interpretation than climate change or evolution.
"The foundation of individual rights is the assumption that people have wants and needs and are authorities on what those wants and needs are. If people's stated desires were just some kind of erasable inscription or reprogrammable brainwashing, any atrocity could be justified." The Blank Slate, 2002.
Who are some of your favorite science communicators, and why? What do you think makes for particularly effective (or ineffective) science communication?