Science Communication Part 1 – The Identity Crisis

This is part of a series on science communication. Be sure to look at Part 2 and Part 3.
Am I a writer - Ipswich Ale box

I’m staring out the window watching the trees dance naked in the wind.  As it gets colder the trees strip while we add layers.  I should write about that, I think.

If you would have asked me when I was kid what I wanted to be when I grew up I would have said, “I want to have a snake farm and be a writer.”  I was freakin’ adorable then (and devilishly handsome now).  My ‘snake farm’ is now studies in coastal ecology and while I identify myself as a scientist, I pause at the moniker of ‘writer’ despite my constant writing.  I am a scientist and I write about science but am I science writer?

To deal with this identity crisis I attended a science writing workshop with seven other early-career scientists (e.g., post-docs).  The workshop was led by David Berreby, a science writer who’s got chops as he has written for the NY Times, Slate, Vogue, The New Yorker, and a host of other publications that make me slobber.  We stared at Mr. Berreby like hungry baby birds, minds agape, waiting to fed the knowledge to take our science from the dark, recessed electronic shelves of arcane journals to a platform that shines for an audience who is eager to hear them. 

But Berreby didn’t give us knowledge. He gave us permission.  Permission to write not like academics, but as storytellers.  And we told great stories.  Like the one about how single-celled plant-like organisms might alter the weather in Iowa by affecting climate change.  Or the one about invertebrates that desiccate, ‘die’ and borrow genes from bacteria, plants, and animals to reassemble themselves.  The story of how vegetarians can save the marshes.  These are great stories!  But how do we tell them so you don’t fall asleep or click on some click bait about one-weird secret trick to seducing Emma Stone and Channing Tatum simultaneously, losing 47 lbs overnight, gaining Scrooge McDuck-like fortune from the comfort of your couch, and having the whitest teeth all at the same time?

For me, the bigger question is why do scientists suck at communicating science? 

My workshop colleagues and I agreed that it’s not our writing ability that hamstrings us, it’s our fear.  Fear of being wrong.  Fear of losing credibility for using less authoritative language.  Fear of looking like a blanking idiot.  Fear of bringing shame upon our advisors and colleagues for indulging in the rich and evocative aromatics found in the wine of metaphor.  As scientists, we are taught to maintain a tight and controlled message that is informed by the constraints of the data.  There is no room for opinion or imagery.  There are the data and the limited story it tells.  Do not stray beyond the barbed-wire borders of the data or be shot. 

As a grad student, any imagery and literary language was edited out of my science manuscripts.  There was no room for story.  Well, that’s not true.  I argue that scientists are storytellers, it’s just that we have a narrow narrative and a specific language (and science is a continent of disciplines that each have their own language).  And that language and narrative is generally not accessible to a general audience because its arcane and quite simply, lifeless.  I did try to inject some life into the title of my first publication.

Worm holes 4
Worm holes? That sounds cool!  Okay, let’s see…Macroinfaunal annelids?  What the heck are those?  What about the hyperdrives?…in a Northern New England…zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Recently in San Diego I gave a talk at the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation meeting.  I am a coastal ecologist after all.  I told a story that only I know; a story I know well.  But there was still fear.  Fear that someone would stand up at the end and say I was full of crap.  Fear that I would say the wrong thing.  Fear that my colleagues would find out that I’m a complete fraud.  Most graduate students and young scientists have scorching cases of self-doubt and fear. Scorching, I say!

Thirty seconds before I stood in front of a large screen and a room full of my colleagues I thought, “Okay, let’s do this!”.  I was animated.  I injected humor and metaphor.  And I gave a stupendous talk!  And not a single rotten tomato was thrown. Not everyone agreed with the story, but it wasn’t about pleasing everyone.  It was about telling the best story I knew how to tell.

For me, overcoming fear is a start, but I need to give myself permission to be a better storyteller.  Not to be suffocated by the crushing weight of jargon and instead rely on the wings of metaphor and imagery (even if the metaphor doesn’t quite work).  To be playful.  I need to give myself permission to be a writer.  

Saltmarsh worm (Streblospio benedicti) from the mudflats Notice the banded branchae and the clear feeding palps. Plum Island Estuary, Massachusetts
I am an annelid, aka a worm.

Maybe you don’t understand what I mean when I say I study the effects of bottom-up and top-down control on marsh invertebrates.  Or maybe you say, so what?  But if I tell you that while some people like to study fish, I like to study bait, you have some inkling of what I do.  And I if I tell you that changes in the amount of bait affects the number of fish you might catch, then you have a better understanding of my work.  That I’m trying to understand how human impacts affect the number of worms (ahem, annelids) in the mud, you understand and appreciate the goal of my work.  What you don’t know is that my scientific goal is not to increase the number of fish you can catch, it just happens to be a byproduct of my work.

Maybe instead you want to know more of what it’s like to be a coastal ecologist.  So if I tell you that some of my days were spent standing crotch-deep in the mud collecting samples under a villainous sun as greedy mosquitos and flies take advantage of any exposed flesh you might be standing there right beside me.  And certainly if you replace ‘data’ with ‘baby’ or ‘homework’ or ‘double shift’ you can empathize with staring at data at 1 in the morning wondering out-loud in voice as desperate and strained as three-day-old coffee grounds, “What the #%*@ am I doing?”. [sorry for the language Mama]

I am doing science.  And in that process writing about science.  But am I a writer?  At the moment, the data are inconclusive. 

Within the next blog or two I will provide tips on how to be a more effective science communicator and provide resources to consider.


I learned many great tips in Berreby’s workshop, but by far my favorite is Berreby’s line:  “If you’re building an airplane, you don’t need a periscope.”  What a great example of using imagery to cement a message!  This is a spin on the ‘kill your darlings’ in literary writing.  Apropos to the advice, I removed this paragraph from the essay above.  It was a periscope I didn’t need to fly my plane.  But it’s such a great line that you get it here.

9 thoughts on “Science Communication Part 1 – The Identity Crisis

  1. Hi. David! I think you need to get a column in a local newspaper, or maybe that’s what this blog is? Do it all, do the research, write the journal articles, and publish stories. Looking forward to your next post. Happy holidaze!

    1. Hi Someone! Thanks for the tip and support! This blog is a way for me to share with family and friends my love of the mystery and wonder of nature. And to hone my writing skills. Mostly, it’s for Mama and my sister so they can keep tabs on me and see where in the world I am these days! As for the local paper thing, stay tuned…

  2. Love this post, David. Once, some years ago, a colleague gave me some writing advice. I won’t get the words quite right, I fear, but it went something like this: Dive into the dark and swim away from the dock. Every time, that’s what it feels like when I want to put words on the screen. Can’t wait for the next installment!

  3. Great post, David. Glad the workshop was helpful! Btw, while I had a number of prepared images and lines to say, the “periscope” just popped into my head as we were all talking. A good example of how you don’t know what you have until you’re actually engaged in working on it.

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