Speaking to… Jason G Goldman

“As a writer, you can’t really ever see the reaction of your audience to the things you think are really cool. You can’t hear them laugh at your jokes and bad puns. But you can when you’re giving a talk, and as a writer, that’s invaluable.”

jason-g-goldman-science-communicationThis is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Jason G Goldman


Jason G. Goldman

Where are you based?

Los Angeles, California

Who do you work for?

I’m freelance at the moment. My regular gigs are a blog with Scientific American, a roughly fortnightly column with BBC Future, and just a few weeks ago I began writing a weekly column at Conservation Magazine. I also contribute pretty regularly to the blog at Nautilus Magazine, and I’ve been writing for the Advances section of the Scientific American print magazine for the past few months. The last couple years I’ve also been an Associate Editor at ScienceSeeker, where my main responsibilities have been to coordinate the weekly selection of editors’ picks and to cat-herd the editors themselves. While there I also oversaw the first “ScienceSeeker Awards.”

What are the ScienceSeeker Awards?

It was a contest in which people nominated their favorite blog posts that were written in 2012, and a group of judges selected the best. Winners received small cash prizes. Read more here and here. In the future, the ScienceSeeker Awards will actually be combined with the Open Lab project. More info on that will come soon, I think.

What type of science communication do you do?

Primarily writing. I also take a lot of photos (for fun), and enjoy when I can use one of my own photos to support my writing, but I identify mostly as a writer. Video and youtube are fascinating for me, but for now I’m still in the thinking-of-ideas phase. I’m so used to writing 800 or 1000 or 1500 word articles. Could I translate those skills to writing a 3-4 minute video script? My friend Joe Hanson says I can. I’m still experimenting. And as for what sorts of things I write, I like to write about things I find cool or interesting or surprising, and I like to draw connections between current events and the scientific literature. It’s what Ed Yong has called the “wow” beat. I’ve also gotten the chance to do a few radio and TV interviews, and those are always really, really fun. So is giving talks. As a writer, you can’t really ever see the reaction of your audience to the things you think are really cool. You can’t hear them laugh at your jokes and bad puns. But you can when you’re giving a talk, and as a writer, that’s invaluable.

How would you translate the written word to the screen?

On-screen visuals become more important. While words – that is, what you say – also matter a great deal, you can say less and communicate the same ideas because you can use imagery to do part of the work. At least, that’s my intuition. As I said, this is something I’ve only just begun to think deeply about.

Who is your main audience?

Anyone who will listen to me long enough to learn something! It’s so hard to get a sense of who your readership is beyond metrics like what sorts of browsers they use and what search terms they used to land on your piece. I try to assume that my readers don’t necessarily have a scientific education beyond the high school level, but I also think its important not to patronize them. There’s an important difference between a reader’s intelligence and his or her knowledge. You don’t want to underestimate their intelligence, while also not overestimating their knowledge. I do know that students sometimes use my writings in their school research, so I try to keep that in mind with my writing. My blog (and other writings) is family friendly.

How important is it to use metrics to understand your audience?

I think it’s good to start with at least having a sense of who your intended audience is. Are you writing for other scientists? For people within your own field? For kids? Families? Practitioners of some sort? The question of whether your actual and intended audiences overlap actually coincide is a separate one. I’m not certain that traditional web analytics can be all that useful for that sort of question, but there are other ways to find out who your audience is: you could just ask them, you could try to see who is sharing your work on social media, and so on.

How did you get into it?

I was reading science blogs back in a time when you could just about read every new blog post written about science every day. I realized that I wasn’t necessarily reading what I wanted to read. There were some excellent psychology or cognitive science blogs that occasionally covered animals (like Dave and Greta Munger’s excellent Cognitive Daily), and there were some great animal- or biology-focused blogs that occasionally covered behavior or cognition. Around the same time my own research interests were changing. My masters research involved conducting MRI studies of reading and dyslexia, but what I really wanted to do was investigate the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind. So I thought, “hey, I can totally be a science blogger.” I used the fact that I was increasingly reading more in the animal cognition literature as an excuse to write blog posts about papers. Thus was The Thoughtful Animal born, on WordPress, in January of 2010. It wasn’t my first blog, but it was my first science blog. In March of that year I was invited to join Scienceblogs.com, and that was the start of my realization that I could perhaps leverage my “writing about science in my so-called free time as a graduate student” into a career.

Was it difficult to start writing about the science, or did it come naturally because of your interest in it? 

The difficulty for me wasn’t in writing about science, it was writing about science in an accessible, engaging way. It was in learning what are the sorts of details that are worth including and what are the sorts of details you can leave out. Do your readers want to know the intricacies of the statistical tests that were used in a given experiment, or only what the take-home message was? Should you describe every control condition? (Part of figuring this out is knowing who your audience is; see above) The next step, for me, was to begin to figure out how to infuse narrative into my writing. That is an enormous challenge itself, and it’s one I’m constantly trying to work on. That is, how to tell a story about the science rather than simply describing the science.

Why do you do it?

It’s fun. I really enjoyed research, but as I progressed in grad school I began to realize that the academic life wasn’t necessarily for me, for many reasons. In science, you really have to push hard on one particular question (or set of questions) for at least a few years at a time before switching gears and exploring other questions. But as a writer, I can jump into an entirely different set of questions every couple days. I also think that science communication simply really important. More on that in the next question.

Why do you think science communication is important?

David Attenborough recently said in an interview, “You can’t operate as a sensible voting member of a democratic society these days unless you understand fundamental scientific principles to a degree.” Indeed, the communication of scientific ideas to diverse audiences is critical for shaping policies in areas ranging from species protection and restoration to sustainable agriculture, fisheries management, energy use, and dozens more. For some people, perhaps learning more about the animals we share our planet with can be an entry point into understanding that science is both important and interesting.

What do you love about science communication?

It’s a constant challenge. Forget the fact that you need to understand the nuances of the research you’re trying to explain, or that you need to figure out an interesting, engaging way of explaining it. Both of those things are fun challenges to negotiate, but then there’s the part where the science communication ecosystem is evolving. The technologies we’re using today are going to be obsolete soon enough and we’ll have to learn something new. Science communicators working in a world fueled by YouTube and Instagram, powered by smartphones and tablets, have to think creatively about how to leverage the web and other technologies to construct their narratives and to deliver them to their audiences. Science writing is no longer limited to blog posts, feature articles, or books, but also occurs in the form of Facebook status updates and tweets. The so-called “death of print” has meant that science magazines exist both as print and digital entities. Blogs increasingly look like magazines. Some of the best (and worst) examples of the e-book “revolution” are science-based. And science writing – that is, the use of text – is but one part of a broader science communication ecosystem, and increasingly appears alongside photography, graphics, comics, videos, podcasts, animations, and mobile apps. It complements interactive media like timelines, maps, and games, and shows up even in museum or zoo exhibits. It might be becoming harder to actually make a sustainable living doing this – that’s what I’m told, at least – but it seems like there are more opportunities to actually communicate science than there perhaps have been ever before.

Do you think the world of science writing is doing well to keep up with this technological revolution?

Absolutely! There are a lot of very clever people who are experimenting, tinkering, figuring out how to leverage every new technology for science communication. It’s very exciting to watch and to participate in it where I can. Even just a casual perusal of The Atavist‘s offerings is a testament to the innovation in science communication. I’m a big fan of what they do. There’s also a great deal of more informal science communication that’s thrilling to watch. The official twitter account of the Mars Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) has nearly 1.5 million followers! The National Zoo’s Panda Cam is still going strong. These are different forms of science communication than your more traditional books and magazine articles and even blog posts, but they are science communication efforts nonetheless.

What has been your favourite project?

I’m really enjoying my new column at Conservation Magazine, it’s given me a chance to take a bit of a contrarian perspective on some big, thorny, controversial issues in conservation (like trophy hunting, for example). My sense of accomplishment was perhaps biggest as the result of serving as guest editor for the 2010 edition of Open Lab, the annual anthology of the bets science writing online. After nearly a year of effort, the feeling of holding The Open Laboratory 2010: The Best Science Writing on the Web – made of actual, dead trees – in my hands was pretty nice.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

I’m always, always pitching new stories to my editors. I’m excited about organizing ScienceOnline Brain, a psychology- and neuroscience-focused ScienceOnline conference, which will take place in summer 2014 in Los Angeles.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

There is at least one different path for every science communicator out there. The most widely-applicable advice is perhaps also the most obvious: read a lot, and not just science, and not even just non-fiction. And write a lot. Get started with blogging. Those early days in the relative obscurity of WordPress may seem tough – and they will be – but nothing is more important than simple practice. “Practice,” as a dear friend of mine likes to say, “makes better.”

Okay, one more thing. I think watching movies is useful too. Movies are arguably one of the most popular and successful forms of narrative storytelling in our culture today, so its worth paying attention to things like structure and rhythm and scene-setting while watching movies, and even TV shows too.

You can keep up to date with Jasons’ many activities via his Twitter feed at @jgold85 or visit his website.