This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind


An interview with Mary Roach

Here is my article just posted to the BSR Blog - check out the original version here.

Science is fascinating. At least, I think so. But maybe I'm not the best person to ask, given my position as a PhD student and academic minion researcher. While the idea of spending an afternoon coding an artificial neural network sounds fantastic to me, I am ready to accept that the large majority of people out there would think otherwise. Perhaps a better person to ask would be Mary Roach, a writer who manages to take complicated scientific ideas and paint a picture that is both understandable and amazing (often hilarious too). She has covered topics ranging from investigation of the supernatural to the history of sex research, and she has built an impressive body of commentary on the scientific process.

We at the Berkeley Science Review are always looking for ways to learn about science communication, so we invited Mary to come and tell us about her experiences. After the seminar, I had a chance to speak with her one-on-one about her feelings on science writing. For the record, Mary doesn't call herself a science writer (though the rest of the world probably would). "I’m actually a little uncomfortable with the label because I so revere the work of people like Carl Zimmer or Stephen Jay Gould," she admits. "These are people who are really smart, and they're writing at a much higher level for people with a science background." Mary holds a degree in Psychology from Wesleyan University, but is decidedly not a science geek by nature. "Compared to the people I’m interviewing, I know nothing."

If not a science writer, then what is she? A look into her methods might shed some light on the situation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she turns to the same information resource that we all do. "If there’s something I want to pitch, I’ll do a lot of poking around on the internet seeing what’s out there," she explains, giving me yet another data point supporting my theory that Wikipedia can make us all geniuses. As for inspiration, Mary suggests that our day-to-day lives have enough gems embedded in them to come up with all kinds of interesting stories. To drive home this point, she told us how she got an idea for a story on meditation: "I saw an article about the war in Mozambique, and they mentioned that the president of Mozambique is deep into transcendental meditation. I thought 'this is perfect, because this is a guy who is really stressed out.''

The topic of her writing is only one part of the puzzle. Mary also emphasized the importance of focusing on the personality and character of all the researchers in her books. "I think it’s really important to try and find somebody interesting that can help the article move like a story." While a scientist's quirkiness and natural humor can certainly make her job easier, she reveals, "What usually makes them compelling is their passion for what they do." This, I think, is one of the most important points that any science writer can get across in their writing: that we pursue science because we love it. In Mary's travels throughout the scientific community, she manages to tap into the wealth of curiosity and interest that researchers have, and these emotions strike a chord in the minds of her readers.

Why do such ideas resonate? Mary suggests that it's these feelings of astonishment, amazement, wonder, awe, that are common to all of us, regardless of how many academic degrees we've got. "Curiosity and wonder seem like they should be part of normal human nature." And it is these qualities that allow Mary to learn so much from scientists. When asked about how her status as a non-scientist changed the way she interacts with her interviewees, she replies, "I think it’s relaxing in that they don’t feel competitive. I'm just somebody who’s interested in what they do."

At the end of the day, Mary loves what she does; she loves learning about new ideas, interviewing new people, and carving her own adventure into the world of science. As she puts it, "I have an excuse to step into all these worlds that I otherwise wouldn’t know anything about. I actually make a living doing this! It’s really fun!"



The often sorry state of science journalism…

I wish that this article by Martin Robbins didn't exist.  Unfortunately it does, and even more unfortunately, it's nearly dead on in its portrayal of the dark side of science journalism.  Granted, not every writer succumbs to the temptation of these hackneyed storytelling devices, but the truth of the matter is that science journalism necessarily requires a different kind of reporting than is usually seen in the national media.

Without getting too heavy in here, I think that the problem largely stems from the lack of scientific background that many of our science journalists have, and from the fact that our scientific community is often so reluctant to reach out to the public themselves.  I'm not saying you need to be a theoretical physicist or anything, but possessing a set of skills and experience that surpasses a general interest in the field is probably a necessary part of writing to the general public in an informed and unbiased manner.

That's how it should be, but it seems like these days science journalism is plagued by the same things that are slowly taking over all kinds of journalism - sensationalism, half-truths, misunderstanding, and unthorough reporting.

So why, do you ask, does this pose a particular problem for the scientific community?  I would argue that science has a particularly strong stake in being perceived as "unbiased and objective" in its assessment of a given situation.  This is an image that the public seems all to willing to throw out the window these days, and it is particularly hurt when science reporters make wild claims about weak scientific findings that have yet to be replicated or fortified with further research.  I don't know how many times I've read the headline that some new "breakthrough research cures cancer in mice," but I do know that I've yet to see cancer rates drop to zero in humans.

Ultimately, these kinds of exciting, but ultimately empty, stories do not make the journalists look like the half-hearted reporters that they often are, it instead makes it seem like the scientists themselves were distorting the data or trying to create an interesting story out of nothing.

Granted, I'm not saying that never happens in the scientific world, but as a community we've got enough on our hands what with competing for grants, writing research proposals, and taking on the (quite difficult) task of ensuring quality control and objective results.

Scientific research is one of the most important pursuits of mankind, yet it exists in a precarious and fragile position where the slightest amount of bending the truth or misreporting data poses a threat to scientists throughout the entire world.  Perhaps the data will speak for itself, perhaps thinking about how we communicate science to the public isn't the scientists' problem, but if we don't do something about this soon, then we may find our scientific credibility heading down the same path as journalism's...

via The Guardian