can a comic about science ever be more accurate than the science itself?

So the romantic euphemism and I got together and drew a comic!

Go look at it here! (Our comic is SFW, the ads and other comics… not so much.)

It’s a simplified explanation of the dual control model, as it was taught to me by its creators, Erick Janssen and John Bancroft.

Note that adjective: simplified.

I’ve been battling with myself about where the line is drawn between “simplified” and the dreaded “oversimplified.” The art of writing about science for a general audience is being able to simplify in a way that honors the details you’re not including. The details aren’t what matter. All of the individual trees aren’t what matter. The forest matters a LOT.

The comic is a description of the forest, without talking about any of the trees.

Actually a comic or cartoon is a good metaphor. If science itself is a photograph of reality (which it’s not, but we can get into that later), then a trade book about science is a comic about that photograph, usually drawn from the photo and from life. You’re capturing the spirit of the image. In the book, I’ll often highlight one particular tree, rendering that tree with extra detail to illustrate some specific point I’m trying to make about the forest, but the forest is always what matters. You pull out the tree and tell a story about it.

Simplifying does not come naturally to most scientists. I’ve been having conversations with a dozen or so researchers over the past couple months, figuring out how to talk about their research in my book. Some folks have been very straightforward like, “You missed the point here, this part’s good, and yup, that about covers it, good luck with your book!” And others have had a harder time letting go of details that don’t serve the larger purpose of the book.

In cynical moments, I catch myself thinking, “‘Over-simplifying’ is the point at which the science becomes simple enough for a nonspecialist to understand it and find it useful in their lives.” As if the scientists want to say, “If only you understood the details, you’d see that this ISN’T explicable or helpful!” As if they don’t want their work to matter to people.

In my very darkest and most cynical moments I wonder if the inability to let go of details isn’t actually an inability to see larger patterns in the massive forest of data, that their own work truly seems both inexplicable and useless to them.

In other moments I put my face in my hands and burn with fear and shame that I’m dishonoring the science. Science is my heritage, my culture, my community. Am I abusing and exploiting it?

These moments are particularly bleak when my “simplifications” actually contradict the scientific consensus. I do it three different times in fairly major ways in the book.

I’ll give you one example:

In the book I define orgasm as “the sudden release of sexual tension.” The scientific “consensus definition” of orgasm is along the lines of this one: “a transient peak of intense sexual pleasure associated with rhythmic contractions of the pelvic circumvaginal musculature…” But I can include neither “pleasure” nor “muscle contractions” in my definition because the science has documented, multiple times, orgasm without pleasure and orgasm without muscle contractions, and of course in real life women experience orgasm without one or the other.

The consensus definition includes more detail than my definition, but it doesn’t include the details that matter, and it contradicts the science itself. It’s not helpful, it’s not accurate, and I can’t use it.

And this both crushes and terrifies me. It means that I’m not starting with the photograph itself, I’m starting with dozens of little snapshots, plus real life, and sketching a composite that is more or less entirely original.

“More or less entirely original” is not generally a good thing in science, which is conservative by design. By contradicting the consensus definition, I am putting myself out on a limb, and science has the biggest fucking chainsaw you ever laid eyes on.

But I’ll do it. I’ll do it because my definition of orgasm is the only one that I can use in good conscience; it’s the only one that covers ALL the research I’ve read, as well as being the definition that actually helps women understand their orgasmic experience (or lack thereof).

I must believe that I honor the science – my heritage, my culture, my community – by clearly communicating a definition that actually describes the entire phenomenon it’s meant to describe.

So there I am out on a limb, and either science will hack it off and let me fall… or it will grow around me to encompass the new definition.

I do it three times in the book. In each case, my “simplification” is not just about making the science comprehensible and useful to a general audience, but about rendering the science as accurately (though not precisely) as I can… even though it’s not how scientists would render it.

Anyway. The dual control model is not an example of this. I simplify without contradicting. The comic is a simplification of the chapter I wrote about it, and the chapter itself is a simplification of the science. I sent a bunch of text to Erick Janssen so he can tell me if I’m rendering his forest accurately enough for a general audience to understand it and find it useful. Fingers crossed.

Some other time I’ll write a post about how what I’ve learned from the science of science communication, is that the best way to teach about science is to tell rich, world-revealing stories. In short: to write novels.


Meanwhile, I’m having dreams about chainsaws in the forest.