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.