February 3. 2011
Tim Radford
4 Crinan Street
London N19XW

Dear Tim Radford:
I must apologize for not agreeing with your piece “Of Course Scientists Can Communicate NATURE vol. 469 no. 7330 January 27, 2011 page 445.  There are two meanings of “communicate.”  One is, “To confer information.”  The other is, “To exchange information.”  I cannot agree that a person can be “good” at communicating without being good in both senses of the word. 

Of course scientists are good in the first sense primarily for a reason that you do not give: they have to get their grant applications accepted.  They have ample motivation and get plenty of practice. 

In the broader sense they fail.  It is called “professionalism;” anyone who is not a paid researcher is a crank unworthy of consideration.  This has not always been the case.  Albert Einstein did excellent work as an amateur. 

The cranks among us are distracting.  Their most irritating quality is not so much that they are immune to evidence as that their ideas are seldom new.  As the name implies, they turn the same old crank. 

But scientists do not distinguish between the threadbare unaccepted idea and the new one even though in theory they are always on the lookout for a new way of accounting for data.  If the idea does not come through professional channels it is simply cranky. 

I tend to come up with new ideas.  I’ve had a couple patented.  One was so outrageous that the patent office said it would not work so my lawyer had to fly to Washington and show them the thing in action. 

Unpublished, it is of course of no interest to scientists even though it has some advantages that might be useful.  When I read something by an expert who is in a field that covers something I have thought about, I write a letter.  Some experts answer, particularly in the humanities.  “Hard” scientists almost never do.

As a physician I must communicate.  I listen to the patient as well as trying to make facts clear to the patient.  A minister listens as well as preaches.  A lawyer listens.  These along with the humanities academics are your true professionals.  If a patient has a problem that I am not able to manage I try to make an appropriate referral.  It is not the patient’s responsibility to find the specialist; it is mine.  He or she is welcome to try, but I must be ready to do it.  I have only once had a scientist say, “You should talk to …”  I did, and the man I was referred to said, “I’m sorry you drove all this way.  I have nothing to offer you.” 

My own interest at present is the prejudice against marrying cousins.  Not only can genetic problems be screened for, it turns out that there is a fertility advantage.  For more go to nobabies.net and look at the posting of December 24, 2010.  Actually it’s the whole web log.  And this letter is going there, too.  Millions of women will cry themselves to sleep tonight because they cannot get pregnant.  The blame lies with old fashioned prejudice.  Now I would think that would be plenty of motivation, but no dice.  White lab coats cover hearts of stone and tickle ears stone deaf.  Yes I have found a couple of exceptions out of the scores I have sought out. 

Journalists are not good at communicating either.  They will research an issue, but have no interest in ideas, only the sayings of newsworthy people.  The rules of a letter to the editor are 1) it has to be a response to something published in that paper in the past week or two and 2) it must be too short to explain a new idea.  Newspapers are dying because of it.  The internet is not nearly as appealing as a medium, but opportunities for feedback are common. 

What do you think?


M. Linton Herbert MD 

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