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.
Image courtesy of Flickr/doctorlizardo