post by Bill Gardner
I'm at the 2010 AHRQ meeting in Bethesda. AHRQ put on a session for their grantees on how scientists should write for policy makers. I've been to several of these, and at this one there was the usual complaint from a scientist that it was against his principles to "dumb it down."
But that phrase is misleading. (And maybe scientists would find a broader audience if they didn't begin by sneering at it?) Writing about science for non-scientists isn't primarily a matter of simplifying what you have to say. It is about learning a different craft of writing. Here are some differences between writing for health policy and writing for science.
- Scientific writing is defensive. The elaborate methodological qualifications in scientific articles are fortifications against the criticism of various specialists. And they make no sense to anyone who doesn't know how to make the attack in question. You need to learn to focus on the methodological caveats that are critical to the credibility of your data.
- In any setting other than a journal, most scientific diction is bad writing. Examples: the frequent use of the passive, the avoidance of the first person, and those weird words that no one else uses ("paucity", "plethora").
- Your audience has no more time than you do. Get to the point.
- Most importantly, to get a nonscientist's attention, you have to frame your results in a context that the reader understands and is motivated by. Example: if your audience is Washington policy intellectuals, they may have little direct interest in standards of evidence in evidence-based medicine. But they might if comprehending those standards helped explain the potential role of the Independent Payment Advisory Board in the Affordable Care Act. To understand what motivates your audience, you have to learn something about the discussions they are in already, that is, you have to read what they read and what they write.
There is nothing dumb about this.