Idan Ben-Barak on writing clearly about complicated science
As I mentioned in my post on The best Australian science writing 2015, Iran Ben-Barak was a runner-up in the Bragg UNSW Press Science Writing Prize in 2015 with his article “Why aren’t we dead yet?” It’s an entertaining article about a complicated subject – pathogens (which are many and varied), the immune system, and how the two deal with each other.
He starts off by saying that in antiquity people thought disease was an act of God, and then, a little later on, they decided disease came from an imbalance of the four humours. Now though, he said, we have
the wonderful world of bacteria and viruses, toxins and free radicals, leukocytes and antigens and antibodies, cytokines and chemokines, MHC molecules and V(D)J recombination and hypervariable antigen binding and CD25+ regulatory T-cells and … It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.
He goes on to explain that it’s even more complicated because “diseases can be genetic, or infectious, or can be the result of the body’s own workings breaking down in one way or another” and that even this isn’t where it ends because “diseases are caused by a combination of any of the above. For instance: you can’t catch cancer from other people – except for the types that you can. Or: you get infected with malaria by mosquito bites – unless you’re naturally immune to it by virtue of a certain allele of your DNA.” In other words, it’s not a simple story he has to tell. He writes:
In the meantime, I have a problem. It’s a problem I share with any writer who wishes to drive home the point that something is complicated. Simply saying ‘It’s complicated’ not only doesn’t really convey any of the flavour, but it also sounds sort of lazy. On the other hand, this book is meant to be read by you – the interested layperson or student. It’s not a textbook, and so while laying out the complications in agonising detail would indeed make the point, the reader would suffer for it, and readers don’t tolerate this kind of behaviour anymore; I might find myself unceremoniously tossed back on the bookshelf, and it’s cramped up there.
I enjoyed his style. I learnt a lot about how complicated our immune system is and why it is so hard to find cures and treatments for the myriad diseases we contract. I also learnt the value of having writers around who can make science comprehensible to laypeople like me.