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.
Sedeer el-Showk has been blogging about science for only a year and a half now but has rapidly garnered a good audience for his blog, Inspiring Science. In addition, Sedeer recently joined Nature Education’s Scitable blogs where he blogs about evolution [full disclosure: I am the Community Manager of Scitable blogs]. When not blogging, Sedeer focuses on trying to wrap up his PhD in plant biology at the University of Helsinki, Finland.
I asked Sedeer a few questions about his writing life, why he writes about science and how he juggles with writing and his PhD.
Hello and welcome to The SA Incubator. To start off, why did you get started writing about science?
Thanks for interviewing me; I appreciate the opportunity! In retrospect, it’s not surprising that I’ve ended up writing about science—the odd part is that it took me so long to get here! I’ve always been good at languages and enjoyed playing with words. I also love reading, and part of me has wanted to be a writer ever since I spent an afternoon when I was about eight years old tinkering on a typewriter that belonged to a family friend. (I still love typewriters, by the way, especially old ones. A Smith-Premier #10 from 1911 currently has pride of place in our living room.)
I first realized how much I liked science writing when I had to write a popular science article for a course during my M.Sc. I really enjoyed the process and was thrilled that a translation of the article was published in Luonnon Tutkija, a Finnish nature magazine. Later, when I started thinking about moving out of research after my PhD and wondering about what to do next, I remembered how much fun I had had writing that article, which rekindled my almost-forgotten desire to be a writer. I decided to start a blog about science to see if I was any good and if I would stick to it; my very first post was the article I had written for the course, On the Brink of Extinction. I stuck to it, I improved, and here I am!
Your science blog is aimed at non-scientists. Why do you think it’s important to communicate science to non-scientists?
One obvious reason is that citizens facing debates about genetically modified organisms, climate change, DNA databases, etc, need to be properly informed about these issues, both to help them reach a decision and to help them evaluate new information. Yes, it’s been said countless times, but it’s still true.
If you’d asked me that question when I started blogging, I might not have had much more to say than that. Over the past year and half of blogging, though, I’ve been giving the matter some thought and I realized there are several other important reasons. Many people think that science is impenetrably difficult and they just “can’t do it”, which is something I think science writing can and should change. Good science writing should do more than just explain a piece of research or a scientific idea; it should also leave the reader with greater confidence thanks to their new understanding. At its best, science writing should empower readers and expand their world by making them realize that understanding and appreciating science isn’t outside their reach.
I also think science provides a unique opportunity to challenge prevailing myths about our societies, our selves, and our place in the world. I’ve already written a post discussing how science communication helps us understand ourselves better, so I won’t repeat what I said there.
I guess that the most important reason to me, personally, is the fact that we all start out as “non-scientists”. I was lucky enough to be raised in an atmosphere of critical thought and scientific inquiry, so I feel a sense of obligation to pass that along. I hope my writing will encourage people to be more curious about the world around them and to seek out answers, whether that’s by reading books or carrying out experiments.
Many people think of science as being hard or boring. How do you think science bloggers, like yourself, can bring science to those people?
It’s quite a challenge, and one I’m not always confident I’m able to meet. There are some basic things you can do, like writing clearly and engagingly about science and showing how a piece of research is relevant or inspiring. It can be hard to do that consistently, but I enjoy the process enough that I keep at it, trying to maintain a standard and always aiming high. I think I’ve had some measure of success, but I’m painfully aware that there’s a certain demographic that’s just not interested at all in reading about this sort of thing.
Regardless of how carefully I craft my posts, I know that there are people who simply have no more inclination to hear about science than I do to follow music, fashion, or celebrity gossip. I’d love to be able to reach those people, but I haven’t yet figured out how to do it. I think the trick is to somehow slip in the science communication incidentally, without making it explicit. Science writing with a strong narrative structure is one way of doing that. Another approach that I find intriguing is video games based around a scientific concept which can give players an intuition for that concept.
I’ve also made an effort to communicate science in other ways than blogging. Over the past few years, I’ve given several talks at a local bookstore. They’re usually based on a post I’ve written or am working on, but it’s a good way to reach people who don’t tend to read blogs; the discussions afterwards have also been excellent. I think it’s great to engage in outreach activities beyond just writing about science if you have the time and ability. For several years now, I’ve wanted to arrange a program to link up post-docs or other researchers with high-school science classes, where they could give presentations every so often. The researchers would get valuable experience in dealing with non-scientists, while the classes would get to meet a researcher and the teachers would get access to someone they could reach out to on science issues. I think programs like that can benefit everyone; I hope I’ll have the time to organize it someday.
Indeed, communicating science to scientist and non-scientist audiences is vastly different. How did you cope with writing for non-scientists especially since you were predominantly communicating science to peers in your academic career?
Yes, academic writing and popular science writing are dramatically different styles. Sometimes I switch from reading/writing one to the other during the middle of the day and it’s always a jarring transition.
It took a bit of effort for me to learn to write for non-scientists; looking back at some of my earlier posts, I feel like I’ve made quite a bit of progress, though I know it’s an ongoing process and I hope I’ll continue to improve. Getting feedback on my writing helped quite a lot; putting aside my ego and actually listening to the feedback helped even more. I asked people I trusted what they thought of my posts: what worked for them, what they found confusing, where they got bored. Then I tried to keep that feedback in mind when I wrote the next post—in fact, sometimes I tried to imagine that I was writing for a specific person. As I was writing, I would ask myself how I would explain the concept to my non-scientist friends over a cup of tea and used that as a guide in composing the text.
Another thing that’s been really useful was reading: reading other science writers’ work, reading about science writing, reading books and blog posts and articles about writing in general. The point isn’t to copy someone else’s style; it’s to think about what they’re doing and why it works (or doesn’t). Writing is a craft that I thoroughly enjoy practising and hope to continue developing, so I haven’t had any trouble finding the motivation to learn more about it. I’ve read books about everything from rhetoric to writing sci-fi & fantasy, and I’ve usually learned something useful along the way. Books like A Field Guide for Science Writers helped me think about different techniques and approaches to use, while The Best Science Writing Online 2012 showed me how much I could improve. It also gave me a goal to aim for—I want to make it into that series!
Has your blogging helped you in your PhD? If so, how?
To be honest, I’m not sure that it really has helped much. That’s partly because I’m not planning to pursue a research career after my PhD, so I’ve been focusing more on developing my writing and getting to know people in that community. I also haven’t written very much about research in my field, for some reason. I think it might be because deep down I’m actually an evolutionary biologist rather than a plant biologist.
Having said that, the consistent writing practice involved in blogging regularly has certainly had an impact on my PhD. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but now I find it far easier to prepare summaries, and I’ve become better at composing my comments logically and clearly when providing feedback about a paper.
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 think the choice of the word “infotainment” might explain some of the stronger responses to this post. To me, infotainment has a somewhat negative connotation. It’s entertainment disguised as information; it’s not as good as serious, informative discourse. These sorts of associations are likely to put people on a defensive footing, though the provocation may have been a good way to start a discussion.
Semantics aside, I wasn’t convinced by the overall argument put forward in the post. Yes, “critical science journalism” is important. There’s certainly a place for it and perhaps there isn’t enough of it...but I don’t think so. It’s important to point out the shortcomings of a piece of research and to avoid describing everything as an “amazing breakthrough”, but I think many people would be turned off by science writing that consistently took research to task, picking out flaws and pointing out caveats. Science communicators are competing for people’s attention in an increasingly crowded information scene. Yes, we should avoid sensationalism and over-hyping results. Yes, we should be critical. But it’s also important to be appealing and engaging—in a word, entertaining—in order to draw readers in.
To my mind, the dichotomy between critical and entertaining science writing is something of a false one. Certainly, the two extremes are quite different, but I don’t see why there can’t be a happy middle ground. I think it’s possible to write entertainingly about science while retaining a certain critical view; many science writers do it successfully and I strive to as well. Writers should always try to convey the nuances behind a story and never assume the audience is stupid. Avoid jargon, but don’t talk down to your readers. Of course, such writing won’t be as thoroughly critical as what was described in the Guardian post, but, as I said above, I’m not sure that’s what we should be aiming for. I think that kind of writing might have a relatively limited audience and be better suited to a more dedicated venue.
Another approach, which I wholeheartedly advocate, is to avoid presenting scientific research in a simplistic, prefabricated way and instead to write in a manner that reflects the actual process of science. I tried to do something like that in my story about our ignorance regarding how birds navigate. Instead of trying to frame the research as a “breakthrough”, I wrote about what I thought it really represented: an admission that the scientific consensus had been wrong, and how this was a step forward since it made us aware of our ignorance. It was a great opportunity to discuss the scientific process, which is very important in science communication. I think building a basic awareness of how science works and arming non-scientists to approach reports critically (whether about science or other topics) is much more valuable and effective than using science writing to relentlessly criticize research results and techniques.
Which story of yours do you like best?
Wow, that’s a tough one! Writing on Inspiring Science has been a learning experience, so I guess there are some stories which I wish I’d told better—older posts where I really like the content and the message, but now realize the delivery could have be improved. But there are also a few posts which I’m quite proud of, so it’s hard to pick. If I had to pick just one, it would probably be my post about the “anternet”: How does an ant colony coordinate its behaviour?. I enjoyed writing it and I think I did a pretty good job, too. Since the anternet story had gotten a lot of attention in other places and I provided a different perspective, it caught the attention of a lot of people who hadn’t noticed my blog before. It also helped that my take was a bit more level-headed than much of the other coverage, which focused on what the press release had emphasized. In some ways, that post felt like a coming-of-age for the blog, so I’ll always think of it fondly.
Another story I’m really pleased with is the one about the role of Hsp90 in shielding mutations from selection. It’s a really exciting bit of research that I’ve known about for quite a while and wanted to write about from the moment I started my blog. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it justice, though, so I waited until my writing had improved enough to tell the story properly. I’m glad that I did. I’m very happy with the way the story turned out; it was even an Editor’s Pick over on ScienceSeeker!
Don’t limit yourself to just those two posts, though! There’s a year and a half of archives to look through over on Inspiring Science and, more recently, I’ve also started writing on Accumulating Glitches. Have a look at them, tell me what you like and what you think I could do better—and join the discussions!
So, plans for the future? More dabbling into science writing?
I hope to do much more than just dabble! After I finish my PhD (hopefully by the end of this year!), I’m planning to commit myself to writing full-time. I know it’s tough to make it as a writer, but I’ll never succeed if I don’t try! I’d like to use the extra time I’ll have to post more frequently on my blogs and, more importantly, to start actually pitching stories. I’m also looking forward to having the time to get to work on writing a book using my blog posts as a starting point. In the long run, I’d love to be able to support myself solely by writing—everything from science writing to speculative fiction. I realize that I’m extremely lucky to even have a shot at such a life, so I’m going to give it everything I’ve got and hope for the best!
Previously in this series: