One Who Cares6 min read

I had the priv­i­lege of attending the National Science Writers Conference this weekend, which was con­ve­niently about a forty minute drive from where I live. The mem­ber­ship heavily tilts toward sci­ence jour­nal­ists, but the­o­ret­i­cally includes anyone in the sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion field, and I con­sider myself to be one of those any­ones.

The opening ple­nary was a debate about whether sci­ence writers are respon­sible for building public trust in sci­ence, and the par­tic­i­pants were extremely well-spoken and made sev­eral good points. In fact, while the majority of the audi­ence was in favor of the sen­ti­ment at the begin­ning of the debate (by informal vote), this was switched to against by the end, which delighted me; I love to see this kind of open-minded flex­i­bility, of which there seems to be pre­cious little, of late.

In the same audi­to­rium fol­lowing the ple­nary was “Apocalypse how? The chal­lenge of writing freshly about huge intractable prob­lems.” I have won­dered myself many times how to do just such a thing, and was excited to hear the dis­cus­sion.

The panel con­sisted of two writers and an editor; Kathryn Schulz (New Yorker), David Quammen (National Geographic and many books), and Virginia Hughes (Buzzfeed Science Editor), all with sev­eral impres­sive arti­cles and credits to their names. The dis­cus­sion wan­dered a bit, but there were a few gems I thought I could incor­po­rate into a good blog post. When the time came for ques­tions from the audi­ence, I decided to bring up some­thing in my notes that the panel had not yet approached, in hopes of get­ting some insight and maybe even moving the dis­cus­sion into a dif­ferent space.

So I screwed up my nerve and stood up. I was right next to the micro­phone and I made sure one person got there before me and slid into line. I got more ner­vous the longer I stood there — what if I messed up the ques­tion? — but I promised myself when I signed up for this con­fer­ence that I would try some­thing new, and this def­i­nitely qual­i­fied. When it was my turn, I said, more or less, that while we all love how messy and nerdy sci­ence is, myself most def­i­nitely included, how do we com­mu­ni­cate sci­ence to those who aren’t nec­es­sarily sci­ence lovers; how do we make this knowl­edge inter­esting to them?

I could tell about halfway through that I was not being well-received, but that’s never stopped me before, so I fin­ished what was at least a well-phrased ques­tion.

And was rewarded with sev­eral sec­onds of dead silence.

Broke the panel. First ques­tion I ever asked at a con­fer­ence and appar­ently I took a big fat dump.

The par­tic­i­pants stared at me as though I had run over their dog. All their dogs. David Quammen actu­ally looked phys­i­cally ill.

I wanted to sink into the floor, but the floor was not coop­er­ating. I thought about step­ping down, but decided I stood by my ques­tion, so I stayed at the micro­phone and waited.

Finally, Quammen answered, blus­tering that he didn’t see a need for that sort of thing, that pan­dering to people who wanted to know “what’s the bottom line” was not his busi­ness and not what we as sci­ence writers should be doing. Schulz was a bit kinder, sug­gesting that being able to make it per­sonal to someone, even in an exis­ten­tial sense, could pro­vide that access point, although she, too, expressed an unwill­ing­ness to strip sci­ence of even a single iota of its won­derful nerdi­ness to make it of interest to someone out­side our sphere. After a few more words that I don’t remember (by that time I was just hanging on until they fin­ished and I could slip back into obscu­rity) they moved to the next ques­tion.

Up to this point, I had been looking for­ward to sticking around for lunch, meeting more people, get­ting to another panel. After my ques­tion fail, though, I felt like I’d had the wind knocked out of me. I had been all but dis­missed, the ques­tion con­sid­ered inap­pro­priate. Whatever the point of this panel was, this con­fer­ence was, I had clearly missed it com­pletely. Was this another Asperger’s mis­take? What just hap­pened? What had I done wrong? I mean, clearly some­thing, even I could tell that much, but what, exactly?

It seemed like I had sug­gested demeaning our­selves — and sci­ence, appar­ently — in pur­suit of a point­less goal, that of speaking to a non-scientifically-minded audi­ence about sci­ence. A bridge too far, even insulting. How dare I? Who was I to cross that line (I guess there’s a line?), some lowly grad­uate stu­dent no-one had ever heard of or seen before who’d never written any­thing of con­se­quence? After lis­tening to a few “appro­priate” ques­tions, and before the panel ended, I decided I didn’t want to be there any more and I picked up my tote and walked out.

I do not think it is demeaning to explain why some­thing is impor­tant without going into all its delightful but messy sci­en­tific attrib­utes of ques­tion and theory and ques­tion again, of the crooked line through research, of its incre­mental nature and nec­es­sary removal from the world we see around us; if someone wants that kind of insight, I respect­fully submit they know where to find it. I can’t get on board with the idea that sci­ence writing is only about writing for people who are already inter­ested in sci­ence. Yes, of course, that audi­ence is impor­tant, and I am one of that audi­ence, in fact, who enjoys sci­ence arti­cles written for people who like sci­ence.

But in this day and age, there are many people out­side this bubble who need to know why the gut micro­biome and antibi­otic resis­tance and algae blooms are impor­tant, and we are not reaching them. The void is instead being filled by people who create their own facts, by people who don’t know what they’re talking about, by people who only want to push a view­point and actual sci­ence be damned.

And if we, as sci­ence writers, are not willing to step into that void, then we have abdi­cated our respon­si­bility as jour­nal­ists, as writers, to dis­sem­i­nate this infor­ma­tion, to help non-scientifically minded people under­stand what these things are, what they mean.  If it’s not our job to try to reach the people out­side our circle, whose job is it?

I would argue that all people need to know these things, not just us, and it would help if we did not appear to be talking down to them and trying to make them feel stupid by refusing to have a bunny slope. I believe that you don’t have to have gone to col­lege or mem­o­rized a for­mula or passed a stan­dard­ized test to under­stand these crit­ical, preva­lent mat­ters. And if we insist on a price for admis­sion, a sci­en­tific back­ground that includes under­standing acid-base chem­istry, caring about the stan­dard model, and get­ting the joke about the rabbit in the Pre-Cambrian, we are never going to con­nect with the people who need our knowl­edge and writing skills the most.

We are gifted with lan­guage. We are uniquely equipped to describe what it is, how it works, and why it’s impor­tant. I don’t under­stand why doing this for a wider audi­ence is con­sid­ered beneath us. On the con­trary, it should be our guiding prin­ciple. We are writers with sci­ence back­grounds; we can always punch up, and I’m not saying we should stop. I would add, though, that it is through our ability to go in the other direc­tion, to main­tain sense and pur­pose while doing away with unnec­es­sary detail, exclu­sive jargon, self-serving pro­lixity, that we can be of the most ser­vice to those around us.

We gain nothing by seques­tering our­selves in an all-or-nothing ivory tower, dig­ging in our heels and insisting that there’s only one way to under­stand sci­ence, and that it is the way it is under­stood and taught in acad­emia. We are in the minority, and if we don’t turn out­ward, dis­mantle the check­point system, and allow access to all back­grounds and knowl­edge bases, we will lose this war against “alter­na­tive facts” that so many are up in arms about.

Just because you’ve decided that the only way to really under­stand taking some­one’s life is to do it with a sharp-edged blade in close quar­ters doesn’t jus­tify bringing a knife to a gun fight.

You’ll just be dead and you won’t have taught anyone any­thing.

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  1. I’m amazed at the response to your ques­tion; I would have stood up and applauded you for it. Of course it’s the job of sci­ence writers to bring sci­ence to the gen­eral public and make it inter­esting. Who else is there to do it?
    Actual sci­en­tists are boring and gen­er­ally unable to com­mu­ni­cate. Sorry you were received so badly. I have a couple of Quammen’s books, so am sur­prised at his reac­tion.

  2. This is heart­breaking to read. I haven’t gone to col­lege yet but I have keen interest in all types of sci­ence. What you asked I believe it’s absolutely vital. It’s sad how many dis­miss sci­ence about global warming or med­i­cine. Just the two most common exam­ples I see.

    The internet is amazing but I think it’s sadly largely con­tributed to mis­in­for­ma­tion, quacks pro­moting thier cures with fake sci­en­tific facts preying on peo­ple’s fears. To most of the pop­u­la­tion it sounds cred­ible. I see it more with med­ical sci­ence but I know most people just don’t think of the envi­ron­mental impact of whats going on around them.

    I view the earth as a ecosystem (I assume it’s con­sid­ered one) and it seems so unbal­anced with the large amount of lack of sci­en­tific med­ical edu­ca­tion and envi­ron­mental neg­li­gence. I’m afraid of the impact of society as a whole if things don’t change.

    I could write so much more but overall I think it’s scary the ques­tions you asked were brushed off. I would have thought it would have been well received.

  3. I think that the fact that you stumped the panel with your ques­tion proves that you are a step beyond them with your seeming out-of-the-box inquiry. You posed them a ques­tion they hadn’t thought of before. Rather than see the very valu­able merit in your ques­tion they dou­bled down in their old school elitist ways. Unfortunate for them, but don’t let it hinder you. Step bravely out into the uncharted ter­ri­tory and explore, exper­i­ment, and reach. You have this amazing con­cept and I see the pos­si­bility in it. Seeking to edu­cate the whole rather than a slice is valiant and com­mend­able. I, for one, would be reading your word and expla­na­tion alter­na­tive arti­cles.

  4. If I have read this in the right con­text I see how you stumped the writers. They think they are already reaching the less intensely sci­en­tific minds, which their acco­lades sug­gest they are doing a good job at. They com­mu­ni­cate in the lan­guage of sci­ence so some knowl­edge of the sci­en­tific lan­guage is required to under­stand their reports. Readers will have to have some sci­ence savvy to even begin to under­stand; I don’t think the panel see sci­ence for begin­ners as their forte. The story form of sci­ence is catered for by sci­ence fic­tion writers that cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion of pos­si­bil­i­ties without the burden of math­e­mat­ical or log­ical effort.

  5. “Science” means a System of Study — so… That covers every human attempt at learning.
    Much of spreading the love of learning comes from an empathic rap­port of one’s own feeling, which is often dif­fi­cult to suc­cess­fully convey via text. Conveyal of tone in text without emoti­cons is worse. (Is con­veyal a known word? Do I pos­sibly mean con­veyance? Oh well.)

  6. Not sur­prised, you came across the Thought Guardians. read John Ralston Saul, they are every­where guarding every pro­fes­sion. You sug­gested that Which Must Not Be Done–sharing.

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