“My goal is to feed their curiosity and keep their attention, to not overestimate their knowledge but not underestimate their intelligence. I just want them to read and enjoy the experience.”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Ed Yong
Where are you based?
Who do you work for?
A clock-watching git who never gives me praise and insists that I work weekends. Also, I strongly suspect that he’s sleeping with my wife. (I’m a freelancer.)
What type of science communication do you do?
I write. I write on my blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, which is hosted at National Geographic. I write long features for publications such as Nature, Wired, Aeon, Scientific American and New Scientist. I write news stories for Nature and The Scientist. Sometimes, I do talks, like this and this.
You might describe these activities as “science journalism”, “science writing” or “science communication”, and some people seem to spend a lot of their mental energy on deciding which of these terms are appropriate, and how they differ from each other. Then again, those people probably aren’t spending any time doing any of the three, so they’re easily ignored…
Who is your main audience?
I write at a variety of places, so my audiences are the sum totals of whoever reads National Geographic, Nature, Wired, and so on. A mixed bunch, then.
I also ask my blog readers to de-lurk and describe themselves once a year. Some of them are scientists trying to find out about stuff outside their fields. Others are high school students who were sent my way by their teachers. Some are people who love science but work in unrelated or tangential fields. Some have no science background, or not even much of a science interest, at all. A mixed bunch, then.
Here’s my alternative vision. I try to pitch my writing at someone who was last exposed to science when they were in secondary/high school. They’re intelligent, thoughtful, and curious about the world. They’re also time-starved and distractible. My goal is to feed their curiosity and keep their attention, to not overestimate their knowledge but not underestimate their intelligence. I just want them to read and enjoy the experience.
Better still, I want them to keep coming back for more, not because I’ve unlocked some sort of mystical interest in science that some communicators assume just exists in everyone and is waiting to be unleashed (hint: no), but because they just like the writing. Consider William Langewiesche, one of my favourite writers. I’ve loved his stories about piloting and snipers and surfing. I don’t actually care about any of those topics, and I still won’t seek out information about them, but for a brief chunk of time, I learned a little more about those worlds because of his skill as a writer.
Also, in the online era, when it’s very easy to share stuff with your friends and family, my “audience” could be several degrees removed from the people who stumble across my work—students, relatives, whatever. If you can write stuff that people will not only read, but pass along? Yahtzee. Here’s an email that I got a month ago, with some bits redacted to not give away anyone’s identity. Basically, this is the business. This is what keeps me going:
“I am an author, and my current WIP is a young adult series about a boy with [X]. As I do not have a science background, my research has been slow going…at least it was, until I stumbled on your article, “Will we ever regenerate limbs?” So I just want to say thank you. Your writing is amazingly clear and concise, interesting and informative. I was never interested in thresher sharks before, but I’m interested now. I’m introducing my four kids to your writing, and I’m planning on reading all your articles from now on. They’re great fodder for plot ideas.”
How did you get into it?
It’s the old story of boy meets science, boy gets to know science, boy tells science he kinda likes it, boy gets frisky with science, boy learns that science is actually a needy jerk and involves a lot of repetitive drudgery and it was so not his fault that the bin caught fire and really where is this all going, boy quits science and just spends the rest of his life talking about it to anyone who will listen. There’s a more detailed story here.
Why do you do it?
This is usually the bit where people give highfalutin’ rationales about conveying the beauty of science to people or improving the public perception of science or fostering rational thinking yadda yadda. Sure, a bit of that is true, but if we’re being honest here, there two more proximate reasons why I do this.
One: I really, really like the Intellectual challenges of explaining complicated things in simple terms, of structuring and writing a good story, or of finding an accessible route into an otherwise opaque topic. Concocting a good metaphor, or writing a good turn of phrase, or clicking a narrative together—these things are just raw joy.
Two: When I like something, I feel compelled to tell other people about it. That makes me different from almost no one, except the thing that I like often happens to be science.
Why do you think science communication is important?
Most fields of human endeavour are entirely focused on us, our lives, and our products, which I’ve always found a little narcissistic. I love science for the fact that it’s by humans but not necessarily about us. It includes everything from subatomic particles to microbes to ecosystems. It’s cells and genes and molecules and volcanoes and fossils and forces. I love it for its ability to take us away from ourselves for a bit.
But it’s also an area whose many qualities are not immediately obvious to people who don’t know a lot about it. There is an untold amount of beauty, elegance and wonder in science but it takes some unpacking to find it because it can be counter-intuitive, confusing, and completely inaccessible. I don’t need to be a musician or a scholar of music to find beauty in a Bach sonata but I do need to have some knowledge—often quite a lot of knowledge—about evolution to understand why it’s such a beautiful and powerful idea. I think good writers can help you get that visceral emotional reaction without having to jump through all the preceding hoops. Or shorter: I think science communication is important because it ain’t gonna communicate itself…
Why do you think the power of stories is important in science communication?
Because it’s 6 in the morning and I’ve just driven to Heathrow, where I’m now sitting as I write this. My eyes are dry, I’m tired, I haven’t had a coffee yet, I have basic motor functions but little else, and I want to punch anyone within range. I have a full season of Breaking Bad on my iPad and a Michael Chabon novel in my bag. The last thing that I want to read is a stodgy textbook-esque explanation or a rambling polemic. I barely want to read anything. It’s a miracle I can see.
But I’ll take a good story. I’ll always want to read that.
What do you love about science communication?
The fame, glory, money, drugs, cars and women. It’s just relentless. When will it end? I can’t even stand up.
What has been your favourite project?
There are a few long features that I’m particularly happy with, including a piece on swarms for Wired, one on ants, chocolate and plant diseases for Aeon, and one on Bob Paine’s science dynasty for Nature. I just think that the structure, writing and science clicked into place well.
I loved doing this Lost Lectures talk on mind-controlling parasites and this Radio 4 one on the microbiome. The latter won an award that honoured the late Stephen White, who taught the two-day science communication course that convinced me I wanted to do science writing for a living.
And last but definitely not least, I’m very proud of my blog Not Exactly Rocket Science. It’s been instrumental in my career, it’s won awards, and most importantly, it’s been a source of continual joy for 7 years.
Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?
Yes. I’m currently working on features for Wired, PBS Nova, Nautilus, and the Wellcome Trust’s upcoming magazine Mosaic. And something cool that I cannot talk about; no, it’s not a book.
Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?
Not all science is worth communicating. Some papers are terrible. Some scientists are full of shit. Some lines of research are ill-advised. You basically know this, but you will forget it because you sort of see your job as that of an interpreter or a cheerleader. But that pom-pom-waving, kumbaya-singing, isn’t-this-all-wonderful school of science communication is basically doing your readers are disservice and you will realise this in a few years’ time as you watch studies that you unquestioningly wrote about getting retracted, refuted and critically mauled. So, you’ll get a bit cynical. You’ll approach new discoveries more cautiously, you’ll ask around for more opinions, you’ll start to spot obvious flaws, you’ll be more selective in what you cover, and your eyebrow-flexing muscles will become strong and butch.
It would be grand if you just skipped straight to that bit.
You can follow Ed on Twitter at @edyong209