Science and Society

Science writing is everywhere

Science writers are everywhere, or at least so it seems sometimes.


And there are numerous wonderful events and conferences, worldwide, every year, aimed at getting them (us?*) together to talk about the challenges and issues around trying to communicate science to people, well, outside of science itself.

Admittedly, within science, too. If nothing else, think of the forests’ worth of internal newsletter and glossy magazines produced by science-related organisations!

Science writers vary enormously in purpose, scope and target audience.  Some write popular science books. Some write directly for print and online publications (and write books, sometimes, too) - these number people such as Carl Zimmer amongst their ranks. Some write science blogs - Ed Yong, of course, springs to mind.  And these bloggers may be scientists themselves (such as most of the bloggers on Sciblogs!), ex-scientists, or simply people with a massive jones for science. Some write internal newsletters and reports. And, of course, some write press releases aimed at the media, with journalists then turning those releases into reports**.

There is constant, wide-ranging and often lively debate and discussion about what it means to be a science writer, and some of the difficulties inherent in taking often-complex subject matter and making it not only understandable, but engaging, without losing important detail or context.
Because that’s the thing - being wrong in science communication (not only writing but, say, announcements) can have some pretty serious consequences.  One doesn’t necessarily get to shrug one’s shoulders and say ‘oops’. It can change policy, or get scientists sued, or get people seriously hurt. It can influence, at a national or international level, what science gets funded, and how, with all the knockon effects of that.

This week, as so often happens, seems to have filled my inboxes and social media streams with a multitude of particularly interesting content around science communication. I’mma share a bit of it, I think.

(I’m also on twitter and google +, for those who want to follow my other output!)

World Science Festival

One of the more eagerly-awaited events of the year for those who’re scientifically inclined, I’d posit.  This year’sWorld Science Festival is now on. Thankfully, those of us not able to be there physically, can do so virtually.

Given that it features some of the best science communicators, and science communication, out there, it’d be a pity not to.  Right?

Also, if you’re an ars technica reader (of course you are, but just in case), you can win stuff!

Incongruous Quarterly: the science edition

I love the premise behind Incongruous Quarterly (so new there’ve only been 3 editions!)

It’s a literary adventure, aimed at publishing literary flitters, flutters, flights and other movements which would generally be considered unpublishable.  For reasons of content, length, form and subject matter. Or, perhaps, simply because they don’t fit being published in print itself***.

Anyway, the current edition, #3, is about science.  Huzzah!

There’s a mix of non-fiction, fiction and poetry pieces, covering everything from surgery room behaviour to hunting bacteria, ribosomes to weeds, and more.  The non-fiction comes in the form of  blog posts, where people write about scientific subjects which are considered unpublishable. You’ll likely understand why when you read them :)

Ribosome Spreadsheet,  written by Kent MacCarter, excerpted below and available in well-worth-it full here, is a stunning example, I think, of what is possible:

Arrival in vivo, grip the skins of/off a Robinson

Crusoe. Your child’s soul, id-wrapt, peekaboos and tiptoes at

intervals alpha columns stow. Fettered ether Parthenon

hesitates between unborn, then sorts. Rebid, a diplomat

Tell people :)  Perhaps consider a submission yourself!

You call yourself a science writer??

Christie Aschwanden is a science journalist.  She gave an Ignite talk recently, at the (US) National Association of Science Writers conference, and her talk’s proven so popular that she’s made a storyboard out of it.

She makes the point that people (members of the public, say) don’t like being told they’re wrong.  Whether it’s about climate, taking multivitamins, the effect of one’s attitude on the progress of their cancer or, well, almost any other issue where people hold beliefs, she’s found her inbox filled with people who’re upset, have told her she’s incorrect or lying, and have questioned her integrity, facts, ability as a science writer, and so forth.

And she posits a reason why people, who might consider themselves rational and intelligent, sometimes refuse to change their minds in the face of the facts.  She uses herself, and her somewhat-less-than-brilliant sense of direction as an example, pointing out that how we define ourselves can lead us to stand firmly against the facts, because not doing so may challenge our self-perception.  Particularly when it means that someone else is right, and will know about it.

I think she’s got a point. Indeed, it’s something increasing numbers of people are noticing.  We may be able to quietly change our minds, perhaps when we challenge our own assumptions, but when someone else does it?  And, worse, publicly?  Particularly when we’ve been loudly in favour of a certain viewpoint?  It becomes difficult to back down. Indeed, one’s views can strengthen, in something called ‘The Backfire Effect‘.

I take as an example the climate change ‘debate’.  It’s now been suggested [I cannot find a link currently, but the strategy was developed initially for climate change, and has since been used in American politics, too] that part of the reason so many people are failing to accept the facts, is that they feel backed into a corner.  They have no way to admit they were wrong, without losing face.  So thought is now going into how to put forward the facts about issues such as climate change, in a way which allows people to do just that: change their minds while saving face and preserving their sense of identity.  Which can only be a good thing. As people in the science community are only just starting to realise****, it’s not only _what_ one says that’s important.  It’s how one says it :)

Also, an interesting paper by the Yale Law School’s Cultural Cognition Project: The Second National Risk and Culture Study: Making Sense of—and Progress in—the American Culture War of Fact

Best Aussie science writing

Graham Reid of the New Zealand Herald has reviewed a book about some of the best Australian science writing.  There’s also a ‘2011’ in the title, but I’m not sure whether that related to its year of publishing, or means that all of the articles within were also published in that year.

Nonetheless, it looks pretty interesting.  As Reid says:

Science is a problem for mainstream media. It isn’t sexy, usually can’t be reduced to a snappy headline or soundbite, progress is glacially slow in a fast-turnaround world, there are too many big words, and its practitioners are often more at home in the lab than blinking into the light of the public domain.

But science struggles on every front to get whatever message it has out there, which may explain why this anthology of almost 30 essays by some sassy Australian writers is only the first such collection. Yet here is wit aplenty and clear communication.

Should I be able to get hold of it, I’ll definitely report back on what I think :)


Finally, it’s ScienceOnline2012!  Well, registrations have opened for it.  ScienceOnline is, as the name suggests, an international conference on science and the Web. As their website says:

Every January since 2007, the Research Triangle area of North Carolina has hosted scientists, students, educators, physicians, journalists, librarians, bloggers, programmers and others interested in the way the World Wide Web is changing the way science is communicated, taught and done.

ScienceOnline2012 takes place in mid January of next year, and if you _possibly_ can, I’d suggest going. In the meantime (and during), you can track it across social media at #scio12.

If you’re interested, you can experience ScienceOnline2011 here, in the form of videos, blog posts, tweets and so forth :)


* I’m not sure I yet get to be included in this illustrious category

** This process of science journalism does not always end well, with the result being the growing presence of Science Media Centres worldwide

*** The subject of their next edition (the deadline submission date is November 13th, 2011).  More about the subject here I can’t wait to see how it turns out, given that they’re looking for :

literary and artistic work that takes into account, and advantage of, the fact that we are an online publication rather than a printed one.
We’re interested in figuring out what we can offer our contributors and readers that a print publication might not be able to. We are not bound by concerns of page or word count; we can feature audio and video files, hyperlinks, any kind of image, downloadable files, interactive or collaborative works, as well as our usual, more basic format of simple text or image on a page. We love work that explores, exploits or messes with different media and the boundaries between them is awesome; work that doesn’t do any of that stuff (more “traditional” stories and poems) but is concerned with the same ideas or themes we’re interested in (innovation, communication, connection, alienation, etc.) is great too.

**** Everyone should be made to read Marshall McLuhan.  I’m not joking.

  • Kent MacCarter

    Thanks for the shout-out, Aimee. IQ is an exciting Canadian publication.