The Story in the Science

I’m completely jealous of those who were able to attend the National Association of Science Writers conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. Angela Herring, versatile science writer at Northeastern University who blogs here, was kind enough to post some notes here on the panel discussion on “Unearthing Narrative,” a panel discussion that kept popping up on my Twitter feed.

Here are four takeaway lessons she posted, noting that these come from panelist David Quammen, author of the forthcoming Spillover:

  • Be a Human Listener: When you’re the reporter, do your best to transcend the journalist-scientist relationship, get beyond the telephone or the office appointment. If your source asks you to go to McDonald’s with him, go to McDonald’s with your source.
  • Don’t Write About Famous People: It’s more fun to write (and read) about the grad student or post doc who isn’t’t famous yet but should be. Make people famous because you wrote about them.
  • Get Into the Field: When you call up that source and you’re talking about their work, ask if you can go with them into the field. If your source asks you to go to Borneo, go to Borneo with your source.
  • Engineer Serendipity: Serendipity is where human narrative comes from; be ready in the field, and hope that you will experience some kind of non-lethal disaster, for it is in these moments that human character is revealed.


Engineering serendipity is one of my favorite topics, which I wrote about here on Scientific American‘s website last month. Herring also writes “Eric Powell, senior editor at Discover Magazine, we must sometimes turn to unexpected characters. He gave the example of a story he edited about the state of meso-american chocolate research. The story came to him lacking “connective tissue,” looking more like an encyclopedia of recent research finding, he saids.” [sic]

By far, the one thing that makes me likely to recommend a book and finish it quickly is its connective tissue. Some books, like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, lend themselves entirely to narrative. Skloot got obsessed with the story first, and used the narrative of Lacks’s life to discuss medical ethics to gene mapping. Other books, like Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt, manage to marry ideas, research and narrative in the best way. At the risk of sounding anti-education, Traffic is one of those books that’s such a pleasure to read it makes you forget that you’re learning. It’s truly a model for science writing.

Many researchers I’ve interviewed bemoan the tendency for popular science writing to dumb down the topics, oversimplifying them for the sake of connective tissue. The books I’ve read lately that lack this connective tissue are written by academics making the leap to mainstream publishing—Nudge fits this category, as does Thinking, Fast and Slow. Standard academic writing favors extensive detail over narrative, typically explaining each line while never giving you a clear, vivid image of the entire picture. By now this is habit in the academic publishing world and not going to change anytime soon; nor are journalists and science writers going to start breaking down each new discovery into its fundamental pieces.

You could say the that detail-oriented/academic vs. narrative/journalist dichotomy or spectrum is due to the varying nature of their audiences. But here’s the secret: narrative and detail aren’t mutually exclusive. Like all quality efforts, it just takes more work to find both.

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You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.

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