This is a series of Q&As with young and up-and-coming science, health and environmental writers and reporters. They have recently hatched in the Incubators (science writing programs at schools of journalism), have even more recently fledged (graduated), and are now making their mark as wonderful new voices explaining science to the public.
Jack Scanlan is an Australian science student and a science blogger at well-known, Homologous Legs. There, Jack primarily blogs about some distinct political and philosophical aspects of science which he has at heart: setting the record straight about creationists, intelligent design proponents and anyone else who misrepresents evolutionary biology or science in general. Jack also hosts a weekly science podcast to promulgate science and skepticism to young people. While he is not doing any of the above, he is secretly mulling over writing a book about the intersection between modern evolutionary biology and the intelligent design movement.
I recently asked Jack to elaborate on his budding writing life and he was kind enough to oblige.
Hello and welcome to The SA Incubator. For how long have you been writing about science?
My personal blog, Homologous Legs, was started in April of 2008, which makes it four years old this year. Before I had a blog I didn’t write about science at all, so, yep, four years! I’ve been writing about science for four years. Wow. That’s one fifth of my life.
However, before I started my blog I did make YouTube videos about evolutionary biology and creationism (most of which have now been deleted, since they were pretty terrible and not generally accessible) - which I guess sort of primed me for writing about science in a vague way. They’re both ways of getting scientific ideas and arguments across to people that might not share the same viewpoint or knowledge base as you - the only difference is the precise format: talking words vs. writing words.
Your niche is slightly different from most science writers’ in that you mostly cover some political and philosophical aspects of science, if you will--intelligent design proponents and skepticism in particular. What motivates you to cover those aspects?
My coverage of intelligent design (ID) was motivated by a shift away from my previous coverage of traditional creationism (eg. young-Earth creationism and other explicitly religious ideas), due my realising that the ID movement is clearly more dangerous than creationism, in terms of its ability to affect the teaching of evolutionary biology and its appeal to otherwise scientifically-reasonable religious people. They have some seductive arguments that appeal to, for example, many moderate Christians who are put off by the strong evangelical streak to most forms of traditional creationism. I decided to focus on writing about ID, mainly because I thought I might be able to reach some people who were in two minds about it, but also because it’s a way for me to collect my thoughts on the topic, which may come in handy in later life as (hopefully) an active research scientist and science communicator.
As for my political/philosophical writing niche in general, I guess that came about due to the fact that very, very few young people actually think about and discuss these areas of science. How do non-scientists react to scientific discoveries? What impact do their religious and philosophical beliefs have on their acceptance of scientific ideas? In what ways are areas of science being challenged from outside of academia, and how are scientists faring in responding to these challenges? They are all questions I’m interested in, outside of my passion for the meat of science itself, and I try to investigate them in my writing.
You also write about evolutionary biology. How important do you think it is to communicate science research to the public?
Yes, evolutionary biology is my specific scientific topic of interest - hence the obsession with those who deny aspects of it. And in the case of evolution, science communication is vital, considering that a very large chunk of the population in the US (and to a lesser extent, in Australia too) severely misunderstands what it is and how it relates to other areas of biology. But I think most biologists understand this, and there are a number of good science communicators out there who try to educate people about evolution. The real trick is to find more and more effective ways of getting information out there. Both scientists and professional communicators need to come together on this one - not that I have any special insight, I’m just a tiny, little undergraduate student in Australia. But hopefully I can inspire some people through what I write - I think we all can.
Can you briefly give insight on your writing process? Once you get a topic you'd want to write about, how do you proceed from there?
My writing process is embarrassingly unprofessional. I usually start with a vague idea of something I want to get across - a scientific paper, a thought I’ve had about something, a post I want to respond to - and then just start writing. Minimal pre-writing research, maximal on-the-fly information gathering. It usually comes out all in one go, and then I go back and edit bits to actually make it somewhat readable. My time-management skills are pathetic, so if I ever decide to, say, write half of a post one day and the other half the next day, I might never get around to writing the other half. Hence, my Wordpress drafts folder is shameful.
I don’t recommend other people follow in my footsteps. Plan things, everyone.
Which article of yours is your favorite and why?
Ooh, tough. I tend not to put my own writing up on a pedestal too much, because that’s a disturbing path to go down. However, I do like a recent post I did for Darwin Day back in February of this year entitled “I think” mostly because it captures my intense feelings about how we should treat Charles Darwin’s contribution to biology: not as a dogmatic truth but a priceless intellectual stepping stone. It got some nice feedback too, which is always reassuring.
You host a podcast every week as well. Do you think it’s important for science writers to mingle with other forms of science communication tools today?
If they’re able to use it effectively, sure! The thing with podcasting is that it can often be quite time-consuming: I’m lucky in that I have five other people to help spread the workload with on The Pseudo Scientists, but most science writers, I think, work alone, and there are only so many hours in the day. But younger people, which is our target audience, are quite enamored with podcasts, so it’s a good fit for the sort of stuff we do.
Videos are a great science communication tool too, because they’re easy to digest, but again they require a lot of time to perfect and to make it all worth it.
Different people have a different view of what a science geek is. How would you define a science geek and do you consider yourself as one?
Well, I define a “geek” as anyone who has an intense passion for any topic that can be studied and have knowledge accumulated about it. A science geek, then, is fairly self-explanatory, and of course I consider myself one! Much of my waking life is consumed with reading books about science and scientific papers. I see science in pretty much everything - from leaves on trees, to music, to stationery, to glasses of water.
One of the things I’ve come to learn over the past few years is that it’s impossible to be truly bored once you know a basic amount of science: any object or process suddenly becomes fascinating. Your outlook on the world changes. It’s actually very, very awesome.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m currently in my third year of a Bachelor of Science degree, and when that’s done I’ll be heading into a Masters of Genetics and then hopefully a PhD in genetics/biochemistry/evolutionary biology. But whilst that’s all happening, I’ll be blogging away about evolution, intelligent design, skepticism and the philosophy of biology, and hopefully productively contributing to the field of science communication. Writing a book is always a pipe dream, but if I can get organised enough, that’d be a wonderful thing to do: it’d probably be a collection of my thoughts on modern evolutionary biology and the intelligent design movement, laid out in simple ways for non-scientists to grasp.
Previously in this series: