Guest Post: Make Me Feel Something, Please

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A couple of days ago I was sitting at work when my wife emailed me an article by Adam Ruben. He’s a scientist who writes a humor column for Science. This one was about science journalism. I thought: Hey, I’m a science journalist, I like funny things, should be good. But a few paragraphs in, after a snicker or two, something odd happened: a slow creeping bile of righteous indignation worked its way out of my stomach and into my chest. By the end of the piece, I was in a huff. I was still fuming four hours later on the train ride home, I ranted about it over dinner, over dishes, and that night I fell asleep imagining myself delivering scathing, witty, and well-worded responses to Adam (whom I’ve never met) in a crowded room of his scientist friends.

I’m prone to the occasional self-aggrandizing fantasy, but not usually to anger. So maybe I should back up and try to explain.

While Adam had some mildly entertaining paragraphs about inaccuracy in science coverage up front, he quickly got to the meat of the article: his “unwritten rules of science journalism.” This was basically a list of the things he doesn’t like about mainstream science writing (which have nothing to do with accuracy). Just to give you a taste, here are a couple of items:

“Start your article with a personal anecdote, even if it’s narcissistic or tangential to the rest of the piece. For example, talk about the tabloid headlines in your childhood supermarket or your daughter’s sippy cup.”

“All stories benefit from the human element, and the human of interest in your story is the scientist. So be sure to describe the scientist physically in vivid detail. Scientists love that.”

“Don’t think of what you’re doing as ‘dumbing down’ science. It is, but don’t think of it that way.”

“Finally, the best ending for your article is always—always—a cutesy ending. If you’re writing about a new species of dinosaur, for example, end by saying, ‘Just don’t invite him to dinner!’ This allows you to demonstrate common cause with the reader, showing him or her that you realize that you both slogged through a boring science article, but now that you’re through it you can wink at each other on the other side. Remember, they hated reading the article as much as you hated writing it, so by the end, you each deserve a little chuckle. Imagine inviting a dinosaur to dinner! Ha! But it’s a dinosaur!”

Of course, I’ve read countless articles about science that sound like this. I’ve even chuckled at their expense. But these are all things that good science writers do — tell a story, be visual and concrete, connect to the reader’s everyday life, use clear, simple language. We all worry about being wrong, or being too cutesy, or choosing an anecdote that doesn’t quite make the point, and snarky scientists sneering at you in Science doesn’t help.

Now, maybe this is all in good fun. It is, after all, a humor column. But it’s a little hard to take lightly given the sometimes fraught relationship between scientists and science journalists. And while I don’t know Adam at all, I think there’s something deeper going on here. The underlying message, intended or not, is this: Stop sullying science by pandering to the stupid people in the world.

In an interview that accompanies the article, Adam says, with pretty obvious disdain, “Whenever science is put into the mainstream media and there are units involved, some sort of measurement involved, the reporter always feels the need to put the units in terms of something that we can understand.”

Um … well, yeah. Those exact words are probably in my job description. Really, Adam is just bored with the formulaic use of football fields and the numbers of something that could fit in the period at the end of this sentence. But still, that’s like me being sick of small sample fMRI studies and whining to my friends that scientists “always feel the need to understand the world around them.”

And here’s the real rub: this smells elitist to me, even if it wasn’t meant that way. It’s the same feeling I get whenever someone uses the phrase “dumbing down.” The implication is that if you need those things to get it, you don’t really deserve to get it. And it’s a few short steps from there to a very dangerous thought: Some people can understand science and others simply can’t.

One of my deepest held beliefs is that science as a way of seeing the world is open to anyone and everyone. We are all capable of thinking scientifically, or — given the fact most people have other jobs, other interests, other loves — at least joining in the conversation. The people I want to reach are not dumb, they just don’t think about these things all day long. So putting things in terms of something people can understand? Nothing could be closer to the core of what I do, what I love doing.

Maybe that’s why, after reading Adam’s piece, I was lying in bed making a list of rules for scientists who don’t care if normal people understand what they are doing and assume they are too stupid to understand anyway.

But what I really want to do is offer my own message to science writers: Please don’t stop doing all those stupid things. I’m not calling for more irrelevant anecdotes or cutesy endings, but I know this: If science journalists don’t go beyond covering the facts and actually make people feel something, we have failed.

You can cover the collapse of a building or a jailbreak without worrying about coaxing your reader in, but science coverage challenges people’s ideas about how the world works. An enormous body of scientific research tells us that learning is an emotional process. Emotion is the lubrication that lets a new idea slip into your mind, mingle with other ideas, give birth to new ones, and maybe down the road lead to a new way of seeing the world. We need anecdotes and concrete examples and (not too) cutesy endings not because we’re stupid, but because we are human.

Are there sloppy examples of this? Of course. There’s good work and bad work in any profession. And I know that for journalism, this is the dangerous border of the forbidden land of overhyped fear-mongering entertainment-news. But science has to compete with worldviews that scare us, excite us, and pull on our heartstrings. Yes, we have to be fair and accurate, but if we don’t make people feel something, science coverage becomes a list of facts that most people will ignore.

In addition to being a scientist, Adam is also a stand-up comedian. In the interview, he says that he keeps his science and comedy separate. And unfortunately, in this article, we only get the comedy half. It’s clever, sure. Adam is clearly a good writer (he certainly made me feel something). But the other side of the equation is missing. There’s no thoughtful idea, and the spirit of science — curiosity, humbleness, an authentic attempt to explain something — is nowhere to be found. In the end, the piece amounts to little more than a cheap thrill for smug scientists, an empty chuckle for the less smug ones, and a righteous anger trip for at least one science writer.

As a result, Adam missed the real problem of good science writing: the difficult work of making anecdotes and jokes and metaphors and images all join in a dance with the ideas to help the reader change the way they see the world.

So here’s my plea to the science writer: Make me feel something, please. Fight to find the right anecdote, risk derision in the pages of Science, and keep making science dance with emotions in brave and innovative ways.

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Soren is the Senior Producer for WNYC’s Radiolab

Image courtesy of Flickr/doctorlizardo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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29 thoughts on “Guest Post: Make Me Feel Something, Please

  1. I suspect that you and Dr. Ruben agree more than you disagree. Although his list of rules are often flippant, his basic issue of over-selling a scientist’s work is a serious and not uncommon flaw in reporting.

    I wholeheartedly agree that scientific thinking is accessible to anyone. It is important that journalists make people aware of progress, but a great deal of work is required to go from awareness of a topic to understanding. Understanding is often required before a person can truly participate, much less contribute to the conversation.

    Having said that, journalists also serve a valuable watchdog function. Often scientists don’t understand a subject as deeply as we believe. We don’t appreciate the impact our work will have on the lives of people who aren’t part of the conversation. Beyond inspiration, a journalist’s most important function is providing the public a voice when it comes time to defend their interests.

  2. Covering the facts? I think we need more uncovering of the facts.
    (channeling Miss Emily Latella)

  3. Derek,

    Thanks for your comment. You’re probably right that we agree more than my tone above suggests. Truthfully, I have no idea what Adam himself thinks. But I also think the tone and impact of the piece (especially given where it appeared) matter and are worthy of some discussion regardless.

    And I think the gap you mention between just awareness and the understanding that real participation requires is exactly the point. Science coverage that stops at the facts leads to awareness, if you’re lucky, but that isn’t good enough. While no article is going to make someone understand science deeply, the only way to make any progress down that road is by skillfully engaging people’s emotions, getting them to see how science matters in their lives, and inspiring them to engage the topics further themselves.

  4. Unlike the Ruben article, yours made me laugh out loud:
    — “that’s like me being sick of small sample fMRI studies.”

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, your anger, your defense, and your humor. I couldn’t agree more.

  5. I feel compelled to speak up for scientists:

    Among the worst scientific sins is claiming credit for other people’s work or making claims for your own work that cannot be supported. A poorly written article can give the impression that a scientist is committing both of these sins.

    Many of the techniques available to a journalist to make a scientist’s work compelling to the non-specialist necessarily forego the nuanced and layered meaning that a scientist spends years understanding and developing. Journalism that makes a scientist’s work appropriately intriguing to the public often appears to the scientist as trivializing their work.

    On top of that, many scientists are uncomfortable with publicity or sudden popularity. While it is vital that science be accessible to anybody and that interest in science be cultivated, not every scientist is comfortable with performing that mission. It seems unfair to demand that every scientist act as an advocate for their field, even if it is necessary that someone take on this role.

  6. Derek,

    Again, you make some good points. Clearly, my post was not comprehensive, and didn’t explore the real problems in science journalism (of which there are plenty). So I’m glad you’re chiming in.

    Your first point about credit and claims is well taken. On your second point, however, I have to say that this was Adam’s mistake too: it is NOT the techniques that cause this problem, it is poor use of those techniques (or just straight poor reporting, or poor writing). The techniques, done right, are what I was trying to defend because I believe they are essential. It’s a baby bath water thing, sort of.

    I also think we should keep in mind that your final point (and really all of them) is an issue for ANYONE in the news (excepting politicians, who asked for it). And while I’m sympathetic, I don’t know that scientists necessarily deserve special treatment because they are scientists.

  7. It seems like several professions actually receive special treatment. Without a compelling need, a journalist won’t compromise the ability of a policeman, a doctor, a lawyer or a military officer from doing their job, and they will respect the ethics of these professions. Equally, a journalist wouldn’t needlessly embarrass the subject of an article, particularly if that person is inexperienced with interacting with the public.

    It is not that scientists should be treated differently than any other person, but to the extent consistent with journalistic ethics, individual’s sensitivities and standards should be respected.

  8. Hi Derek. News reporter turned science writer here.

    For what it’s worth, I think journalists with other beats often defer too readily to authority figures such as police officers and lawyers. Sure they won’t tamper with evidence or anything like that, but they can fall into a black-and-white way of thinking, painting the authority figures as heroes to fit their writing into an easy narrative, or worse, because they’re afraid reporting the truth will embarrass an authority figure who did something wrong.

    If you want an example of awful, sensationalized crime media, tune into Nancy Grace. My God she’s terrible.

    But my point is, the problem with drawing comparisons like these is that the problems may lie moreso with mainstream reporting of other beats, rather than science reporting. Best to let beat comparisons go and focus on what’s good and what’s not.

  9. Soren, thank you for writing this article. I had a similar reaction to Adam’s piece. On more than one occasion it crossed the line from funny to smug, and on over to mean-spirited.

    While over-simplification or choosing the wrong metaphors are pit falls for all writers, we DO need good writers to tell the story of science, and the scientists behind them. If you look at the work of the Yale Law School Cultural Cognition Project (http://www.culturalcognition.net/browse-papers/cultural-cognition-of-scientific-consensus.html) and others, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests a lack scientific literacy is not necessarily the reason people choose not to believe science, even when there is general consensus amongst credible scientists in a given field. Human beings are a strange combination of feelings and fact, and despite being told what the science is, will often make decisions based on values. Nothing new to this crowd. I only raise it to say that I agree Soren, we need writers to get people to FEEL something, because it appears that is the main vehicle to change. Should we be careful how we do that? Sure. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying.

  10. I found Ruben’s column to be funny. Funny in the type of way that you’re willing to spend a maximum of a full minute reading it, but no more. It isn’t humor of the highest order, and no one would have remembered it next week. It’s Science freakin’ Careers for crying out loud. It’s not exactly widely and religiously read.

    But it was still funny. It calls out many, many commonly used writing techniques in a playful poke at things we see often in journalism about science that isn’t done by very good science writers (or likely not by science writers at all!). Sure, he makes some ham-handed comments about “dumbing down” and whatever the hell an “ordinary person” is supposed to be. But it’s not made-up.

    What I see are several very talented, if not near-genius science writers who may happen to do some of these things from time-to-time treating this humor column like it’s a personal affront to their craft. Which it is not. It is a joke with a big dumb ego attached.

    Most people don’t read you, or Ed Yong, or Deborah Blum, or Maryn McKenna or the others who have come out against this. And that sucks, a lot. A damned tragedy, actually. They read ScienceDaily and whatever an intern at MotherNatureNetwork or HuffPo or the local paper turns that ScienceDaily press release into. And those people are being called out by this, a HUMOR piece, and well.

    But now it will be talked about for at least several days instead of forgotten, and lots of people will point out things that need no pointing out, and good writers will still be good writers in the end, and a bunch of crappy science material will still get put online tomorrow. Probably next to mid-grade humor columns.

  11. Joe,
    I’m sensitive to the idea that I am taking this too seriously. But many of the things on Adam’s list (stripped of the caricature and worst-case examples) are indeed things that good science writers do, and should do. More than that, they are things that young science writers should be trying to do, and it’s going to take guts to do them well. Playfulness and experimentation is easily squashed by fear. I really just want to say to someone out there trying to get good at this: forget the serious smarty-pants scientists lurking in your nightmares, be fearlessly playful whenever you can.

  12. Soren,

    I sincerely hope that no aspiring science writer or communicator could be swayed by a column that is bested in humor by the worst of The Onion’s weekly horoscopes. That’s good advice you included there at the end. I hope many use that quote; I surely will. Luckily I am not easily intimidated, but perhaps you’re right that someone else could be.

    One thing I did notice: If a science writer were to avoid doing everything that Ruben makes fun of, then we would end up just publishing the press release, or worse, just publishing the paper itself. OH GOD NO PLEASE NO…

  13. The paper is where the science is.

    Granted, accessibility is important. Certainly, everyone deserves to have the chance to participate in the conversation, particularly when they are impacted by the science. However, science aspires to finding measurable truths, and the compelling personal story of the scientist, while inspiring, does not matter to the science.

    I will, however, also grant that scientists are human, so the dispassionate weighing of evidence is purely an aspiration.

    Do you worry that journalism is too close to entertainment? Does the belief that something needs to be entertaining to be accessible mimic the scientist’s belief that some people can’t do science?

  14. Soren, thanks for sharing your reaction to Adam Ruben’s piece. I have such a knee-jerk reaction to the phrase “dumb down” that it once motivated me to dust off my crusty blog and write a rare new post (http://sandrachung.com/2012/05/how-do-you-respond-to-the-charge-that-something-is-dumbed-down/). So I am inclined to think that Ruben’s piece bugs me merely because I take it personally. But then I remember that Martin Robbins did a fabulous job skewering science writing with “This is a news website article about a scientific paper” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2010/sep/24/1). Satire is an effective way to mate unapologetic criticism and hilarity. But Ruben’s piece doesn’t come across as satirical; it reads as pure and unbalanced criticism. Furthermore, as you note in one of your comments, much of the criticism is unfair to the extent that it is potentially damaging to the tenuous relationship between many scientists and the public/media. As many writers have already established with responses to Ed Rybicki’s “Womanspace,” humorous intent is a poor excuse for perpetuating damaging stereotypes in an influential publication.

  15. I read scientific papers and write about them for a living. I worry every day that entertainment is overtaking journalism. I worry more that the vast, vast, VAST majority of people in the world could care less about science and don’t want their (tax and other) money going toward it. I doubt attitudes like this help. Heads up, scientists. Your problems are much bigger than the way a journalist decides to lead a story – whether it’s entertainment or news.

  16. Lewis Thomas made you feel something (awe, epiphany, beauty, revulsion), and he didn’t use cutesy tricks. Same with Stephen Gould. I’d like to see more of that.

  17. I was sent this link, which I believe argues the same point that the journalists here are making:

    http://blogs.nature.com/boston/2012/06/05/serious-entertainment-what-scientists-can-learn-from-stand-up-comics#comment-1143

    I find this article to be extremely annoying. There is great value and moral necessity in ensuring that all people realize that science is done by people and that anyone is fully capable of understanding and contributing to science; however, science is work.

    Science is not entertainment.

    The duty of science is to try to understand the world. The duty of society is to decide what kind of world is desirable. Society needs to choose whether it wants to be entertained or whether it wants to work to achieve its desires.

  18. The GOAL of science isn’t entertainment, but that doesn’t mean that science doesn’t contain all the elements that make a good story: humor, drama, tension, vivid characters. A science journalist’s job is to tell good stories about science. Do we need to get our facts straight? Of course! But, Derek, why would you be against us writing about science in a way that makes people want to read about it?? Why can’t science journalism be informative, accurate, and entertaining?

  19. I don’t object to people presenting the story of science as a human story, so that it is obvious that none of this is magic.

    I object to people seeing that the primary mission of scientists is to create an engaging and entertaining justification of their work.

    I worry that we will most value the scientific work which is the most entertaining, or which happens to represented by a particularly charismatic scientist or skilled journalist.

    I worry that we will stop evaluating the relative truth and goodness of a proposal and only be concerned with the appeal of the words used to put it forward.

  20. The bridge between the public and science burns at both ends with flames ignited by mismatched priorities. As a bridge mender, it pains me to see people setting fires where I’ve just put one out. Both scientists and science journalists could do more to make science outreach/communication as rewarding as possible for all parties involved, and to behave in ways that make you all want to work together more. For starters, we might take into account the fact that our ultimate goals may be utterly opposite. There’s a mismatch between what the public thinks should motivate science and what actually motivates many scientists. I believe (and many science communicators and scientists would agree with me) that science is a public resource, and that scientists have a duty to justify their work and relate it to the needs and interests of the tax payers who support our education and research. But not all scientists see themselves as servants of society or humanitarians. They may complain about having to couch their work in terms of its benefits to human society in yet another grant proposal that may or may not land the funds that make it possible for them to do what they really want to do – which is NOT to ‘waste’ time and energy on futile efforts to get non-scientists to appreciate their work. If you associate societal justification of your work with begging for money, it’s no surprise that you take a dim view of the closely related “why should I care?” element that appears at the top of a classic science news story. But you, as a scientist, hardly ever get past the title or abstract of a journal article before deciding to read more or move on. So why should we assume that a non-scientist reading a non-scientific publication would patiently read through all the details of your work in order to get to the point?

  21. I caught more than a whiff of elitism with Ruben’s post, too, and soured the piece for me. It could’ve been good satire with a few tweaks and changes, but the bit about dumbing it down threw the whole piece in a new, very poor, light to me.

  22. The underlying message, intended or not, is this: Stop sullying science by pandering to the stupid people in the world.

    This is the opposite of what I took Ruben’s to mean. It’s pretty plain he was mocking science writers into stop imagining their readers are dumb, hence the dumbing down of science by science writers. The inadequacy when faced with a Nature paper whose abstract you couldn’t grasp comes out in the writing may also play a role. Is this why we find mainstream outlets lifting lines from university press releases?

    FWIW, I’m a research scientist with a degree in science writing and recognized much of what we were taught about science writing in Ruben’s bullets. And then like here we’re told that they’re actually positives, despite what the scientists say.

    In my experience most scientists often find gross inadequacies and fundamental inaccuracies in articles about their work. Under the always present pressure of deadlines and the downsizing plaguing traditional journalism, science writers, more than most, have another hurdle to overcome: the hyper-specialization of scientific fields, especially fast-paced ones like human genetics. To write engagingly about their topic they have to actually know it with something like an undergraduate level of understanding. So what is a science writer to do with deadlines on a piece about the multiverse and another on cloning mammoths? Go formulaic (Star Trek and the Flintstones) because the background knowledge isn’t there on all the fields you want or are expected to cover with novel perspectives. I can sympathize but I think the easiest solution in an era of hyper-specialization is to train scientists to be more effective communicators, not communicators to be polymaths.

  23. Totally agree,
    i dont put my words down in paper for the public to read, instead i have the public in my face.. i know some people that tell the facts and the facts alone, and that gets them an audience bored to death waiting to get away..
    If you want people to care and be insterested in science, you have to envolve them in it! (not sacrificing the facts to do it)
    After all, all scientists became one because they saw a documentary or read a book that first cought their imagination and curiosity to know more.
    Anyone that talks about “dumbing down” has a pretty arrogant attitude, and should not be writing to the general public.

  24. There’s often a scope for pieces like this that point out the form people don’t know they’re using, but they’re usually targeted at stupider writing than science journalism. (Though I did like this one.) That said, there is a kind of lazy form some writers in the field use. I agree that science writing, as with any writing about complex subjects, must give people a reason to read more (something LWON’s format makes very apparent), and that indeed it, as with surely any writing intended to do more than bloviate, needs to make people feel something, but does it have to be humour? I think that’s the thing he does hit; the closing joke. Surely we’re talking science here and the emotional pay-off you want is not, “Ha ha, good one!” but a fifty/fifty split between, “That’s really cool” and “Wow. That’s pretty heavy. I ought to think about that.”

    One of the (many) things I like about LWON is how rarely the writers here resort to these tricks but still get those results.

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