Via the excellent Arts and Letters Daily, I found this piece by science writer K. C. Cole on dealing with editors in the popular press. She and others in her field have had their difficulties over the years when writing about things that even the researchers involved are confused about:
Editors, however, seem to absorb difficulty differently. If they don't understand something, they often think it can't be right - or that it's not worth writing about. Either the writers aren't being clear (which, of course, may be the case), or the scientists don't know what they're talking about (in some cases, a given).
Why the difference? My theory is that editors of newspapers and other major periodicals are not just ordinary folk. They tend to be very accomplished people. They're used to being the smartest guys in the room. So science makes them squirm. And because they can't bear to feel dumb, science coverage suffers.
She points out some of the problems - that many scientific discoveries deal with things that are more or less invisible to the ordinary senses, happen on time scales that are too short or too long to be easily perceived, contradict some common-sense notions of what must be right, and so on.
There's also the problem that, as she correctly observes, that sometimes there is no description in lay language that can really explain a topic. My guess is that pure mathematics suffers from this the most: try explaining the Reimann zeta function in one coherent paragraph to someone who doesn't know much math. Following right on math's heels, as usual, is physics, but its weirder aspects can have a gee-whiz factor that makes up for their difficulty. Meanwhile, the fields I spend my time in (chemistry and biology) have their incomprehensible moments, but I think that they're amenable to explanation most of the time.
Which brings up a challenge. I've been trying to think of the most difficult thing to explain in chemistry to people who don't know the field. Since I have readers in both camps, I'll invite the pros to suggest some tough topics, and I'll tackle, in reasonably de-geeked language for the general readership, whichever one gets the most votes. The chemists can then comment on how accurate the explanation really was and suggest modifications, and we'll end up with something that might be useful. If this idea proves popular, we'll run one every so often and put it in a new category page.
I may come out of this looking like an idiot, but being willing to run that risk is an important part of my research style. Let's see how it works in the blogging business. Topics, anyone? I'd suggest something with a good mix of usefulness and broad interest along with general public incomprehension (NMR might be a good example).