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.
Kyle Hill is the latest addition to Scientific American’s blog network. He blogs about science in pop culture at Overthinking It. In addition, Kyle is also the blog manager of Student Voices, a group blog on Nature Education’s Scitable blogs [full disclosure: I am the Community Manager of Scitable blogs], and a research fellow at the James Randi Educational Foundation.
I’m glad to be able to prick Kyle’s brain about his fledgling blogger’s life today on The SA Incubator.
Hello and welcome to The SA Incubator. To start off, why did you get started writing about science?
Thanks for having me Khalil. I started writing about science shortly after I finished my undergraduate degree in engineering. I’ve always had a passion for science and for geeky things, and my education gave me the tools to start making sense of it all. When I first started writing, it was mostly about skeptical topics like the full moon’s “effect” on human behavior and Ouija boards. But these topics were really just a focused scientific perspective. I soon branched out, applying a scientific perspective to anything and everything.
You have a certain knack in mixing science with popular culture. Why did you choose such an approach?
My writing style was less of a conscious choice and more of a consequence of how I spoke with friends and family. You often hear from science writers that they aren’t the best people to see a sci-fi movie with, as they always point out the scientific inconsistencies. I was always like that, but with everything (sounds fun doesn’t it?). When I found a platform for my pedantry, I just let it all out.
You are a very prolific writer. How do you get ideas for your blog posts and articles?
At this point in my career, I consider myself less of a science journalist and more of a science writer. By that I mean I don’t really follow the study/embargo beat, nor do I have a rolodex of scientists I check up on for interesting research. Most of my ideas come from talking with friends and especially from my significant other. When I wrote my article about trying to save a character from Firefly, probably my most popular to date, it was right after I watched the movie Serenity, with my jaw still on the floor. I started looking up NASA data on windshield strength, quickly coming to a back-on-the-envelope conclusion that I couldn’t save the character. It was my girlfriend who encouraged me to frame the story like a tragedy, and I think the post was so popular because it was a fanboy’s failed attempt to save his psyche. I get a lot of my ideas from just indulging my nerdy side. I think the fact that the posts do well means that others like to nerd-out too.
A recent blog post in the Guardian, argued that in addition to “infotainment” articles, there is a need for more critical science journalism. What are your views on this?
I have to take a defensive stance on this. I don’t see the divide. In that article, the author notes how “infotainment” articles are easier to write, and are kind of a geeky release for him, while “critical” writing requires much more research and effort. Personally, I don’t know what he means. To write some of my pieces, I have had to take crash courses in quantum mechanics and fluid dynamics, staring at a screen for hours before I grasp the story. I have spent days pouring over the physics in The Legend of Zelda, and I think readers loved me for it. You can entertain and be critical at the same time. The kind of pieces I write are much less “critical” than a piece on the new diagnoses in the DSM, for example, but I believe that I can do critical science writing that entertains people no matter the topic. “Critical” science journalism and writing are tools, not topics.
Would you say that your writing falls in the “infotainment” side? Why are such articles important?
I would. For me, science is not just a new paper or conference, it’s a way to understand the world. When appropriate, you can apply it to odd topics and learn something. I think infotainment articles connect the fandom and geekiness that we all have with the real world. We love our book and movies and videogames, and when someone can construct a bridge from your favorite fiction to reality, I think it makes the love grow. It’s another way to dig into canon once all the credits have rolled.
The fact is that most people have an “ivory tower” conception of science. Infotainment articles are probably the most important Trojan horse in science communication for changing this view. If I can help someone learn about kinetic energy with Superman, a character they know and love, instead of a textbook, why not?
You are also a skeptic. Why are skeptics important in science communication? What do you bring to the table—to readers?
Skepticism is the foundation of science and scientific thinking. A lot of people think it is a closed-minded approach to the world, but really it is just a bar that claims have to pass. Like the evidence that must be present for the Higgs boson to be found, there has to be some real evidence before ghosts, psychics, and anti-vaccinationists are taken seriously. Good science communication is skeptical. Science journalists, covering a brand new study, will call relevant scientists to see what they think about it. They will weigh the new study against the existing body of literature. Skepticism does the same. Does homeopathy really work? We look at all the reviews of the literature and base the conclusion on science (it doesn’t).
My work in the skeptical community has taught me that those who love science, scientists even, harbor a lot of curious biases that they may not realize. When researching claims about the paranormal or pseudo-scientific, skeptics latched on to psychological concepts like the confirmation bias and fundamental attribution error. Both biases can grossly distort our perception of risk, which can lead us astray when evaluating cancer screening, for example. We see this conflict when the old journalist’s adage to “be balanced” bumps into a scientific consensus on climate change. There really is no balance between deniers and scientists.
The desire to be scientifically accurate, to be skeptical, has introduced a number of concepts into science writing that I don’t think would be there otherwise. I hope to bring this to my writing.
Which story of yours do you like best?
It sounds a little self-serving, but I really enjoyed writing the stories that were acknowledged by their subjects. Nathan Fillion, the captain himself, tweeted that my Firefly story was his favorite rant to date. Adam Savage, host of the Mythbusters, said the same about my article looking back on 10 years of the show. I don’t like these stories because they are popular, but because they validate the geeks around the world who love the shows I write about. I try to be a vessel for the fanboys and girls. Loving science often means that a suite of other loves come along with it. I want to show that, to quote Wil Wheaton, “it’s not what you love, but how you love it.” If I can write a popular piece that mixes science and pop-culture, to show that you can obsess about whatever you want and be proud of it, then I’ve done my job.
What are your plans for the future? Do you intend to dabble more with the science communication sphere?
I am still thinking about a possible PhD program in the future, but for now I am trying my hand at freelance science writing and blogging for Scientific American. Honestly, looking at the market, I’m just happy to have an outlet. My philosophy for science writing has been that if I am diligent and produce good work, that eventually good things will come of it. So rest assured, more nerdiness is coming.
Previously in this series: