Thursday, August 13, 2009

Too Much Information

When I was mulling over a career change to science writing in 2003, I found myself in an electronics store near a couple of twenty-something guys looking over some new gadget or another. The way they tossed around words like "gigahertz" and "megabytes," it was distressingly clear that they had no clue of the awesome intellectual content that was embedded in the device they would spend a few tens of bucks for. My desire to reveal to them what they held so casually in their hands helped to push me onto my new path.

Ironically, I've hardly written since on what allows people to design and build gadgets in which billions of transistors to work reliably together at a cost of maybe $0.000001 each. I have written a few stories on isolated experiments on one-off devices that the researchers hope could someday transorm technology, even though most of those speculative devices will never find their way to your pocket. But the reality is, most people are happy to use the real technology with no understanding of how it works.

You might think it would be different in biology. After all, everybody has (or is?) a body. Everybody gets sick, or knows someone who has. But the sad truth is that the detailed mechanisms of biology, as intricate and wonderful as they are, are no more interesting to most readers than are the details of their iPod. Sure, something complicated is going on in there, but as long as it works, who cares? And if it doesn't work, how likely is an average person to be able to figure out what to do about it?

So the intricacies of signaling networks or RNA interference, like those of electron velocity saturation or speculative execution, are likely to be forever consigned to a nerdy backwater. But there are still technical issues that people should understand, and that they will want to understand when they have proper motivation and context.

At the highest levels, for example, technical details are directly relevant. You don't have to know anything about discrete cosine transforms to know that an over-compressed jpeg image develops square blocks and ghosts of sharp edges. You don't have to know about cross-linking in cell walls to know that antibiotics are effective against bacteria but not viruses. And more accurate understanding can have important consequences. Fewer people using antibiotics when they are useless would delay the development of resistance. The way we view the biological mechanisms of drug abuse or homosexuality changes how we regard our fellow human beings.

Even without practical importance, though, even fine-grained technical details can be philosophically profound. The DNA sequences that we share speak to a deep connection and common history among all living things. The hive mind of social insects gives us new ways to think about our societies--and our brains. These insights deserve to be part of our common culture. The challenge for a science writer is to communicate their essential significance without overwhelming readers with unnecessary details.


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