The value of “this is cool” science stories

A couple of nights ago, I discovered a blog by Canadian science journalist Colin Schultz, who is doing a series of interviews with eminent science journalists including Carl Zimmer, Nicola Jones, David Dobbs and Jay Ingram. They’re great reads and I especially liked the stark differences in the answers from Nicola Jones and Carl Zimmer, particularly about the sorts of stories they like to tell.

Jones says, “The really fulfilling stories are the ones that come, I think, spinning out of real world events.” She is interested in how science “relates to policy developments” or “to things that are going on in the real world.” Carl, on the other hand, says, “I think a lot of science writers actually try to search a little too hard for that ‘news you can use’ when it comes to science. A lot of science is just interesting in and of itself. And it just sort of gives you a richer understanding of the world, and there really isn’t any need to make wild claims about a cure for cancer right around the corner”

My approach is far more aligned to Carl’s. I often tell stories on this blog with absolutely no practical relevance. Their goal is to instil a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world, which is what the best science communicators have done for me. As I said in my own ‘twitterview‘ with Colin (see below), we shouldn’t “underestimate the power of ‘this is cool’ stories.”In the short term, current affairs and political decisions provide nice, obvious hooks with which to explain science to a mass audience. But in the long-term, I suspect that stories that evoke a sense of awe and excitement are what truly get people to regularly engage with science, its methods and its processes

None of this is intended to suggest that “this-is-cool” stories are somehow superior to those explaining the interaction between science, policy and society, or what David Dobbs calls the “smells funny” stories. They are simply the stories that I prefer to tell. Individual journalists can specialise in one or more of these areas but across the science writing population, we ultimately need a mix of approaches.

View Images

Richard Dawkins famously said quoted a New Scientist editor in saying, “Science is interesting, and if you don’t like it, you can f**k off.”The problem is that a lot of people have clearly taken him up on his advice. Reaching people who aren’t already interested in science has always been one of the main challenges of science communication. The varied nature of newspaper spreads provide opportunities for drawing people’s attention to stories they might not have deliberately sought out. Tablet readers have an outside chance of duplicating this effect. But for now, as newspapers decline and shrink, the worry is that the internet will only cater for established interests. As Colin asks, “All of my interviews have pointed out that strong story and strong characters can get someone to read your science story, but what if they don’t open the section?” 

Opening a section, of course, is an example of “pull marketing”, where users and consumers yank in the information that they actively demand. But the internet’s strengths will increasingly rely on “push marketing” where people foist material towards consumers. This isn’t just about traditional paid advertising. Social media ensures that we are all each others’ editors and advertisers. Through email, Facebook, Twitter, Delicious, Buzz and more, we shove content into the attentional spotlights of our contacts. 

And this is an area where “this-is-cool” stories really excel. Indeed, by far the most popular stories on NERS are the ones that are interesting for their own sake. I’ve noticed that if I write about medical breakthroughs (yes, even the ones that are actually breakthroughs), they generally get less traction than stories about, say, an amazing new piece of animal behaviour. People care when doctors use genome sequencing to reverse a faulty diagnosis, but they apparently care even more when scientists reveal the colours of dinosaur feathers. Bigger institutions report similar trends. Science stories feature prominently on the New York Times’s list of most emailed articles. An analysis of this list revealed that “readers wanted to share articles that inspired awe”.

“Science kept doing better than we expected,” said Dr. Berger, a social psychologist and a professor of marketing at Penn’s Wharton School. “We anticipated that people would share articles with practical information about health or gadgets, and they did, but they also sent articles about paleontology and cosmology. You’d see articles shooting up the list that were about the optics of deer vision.”

There are myriad and unpredictable reasons why readers will share stories with each other. Good journalists always try to write with audiences in mind, finding angles that will pique their readers’ interests. But in terms of working out your readers’ interest, the internet is smarter than you. It has the ability to push stories to unexpected audiences for reasons that you might never have anticipated.

Last week, I wrote a piece about sex determination in chickens and the surprising discovery that every chicken cell has its own male or female sexual identity. A day later, a friend of mine told me, via Facebook, that the story had inspired her chicken-keeping friends. This has happened time and again. A piece about ballet postures becoming more extreme over time was posted on several ballet forums. A statistical analysis of the lack of female chess grandmasters reached a substantial chess-playing community after a female grandmaster linked to it from her own blog. And then there’s always Carl’s now famous (infamous?) duck sex example.

None of these case studies involved sci-curious people actively pursuing their interests. They didn’t involve discoveries that are going to change or save the world. They involved people being fed interesting science stories by their pals and peers, purely on the basis that they were interesting. In this way, this blog accumulates readers who aren’t initially interested in science. I know this happens, because I get emails from them and because NERS appears on some blogrolls in absence of any other science blogs. Perhaps Dawkins’s quote should be amended to “Science is interesting, and if you don’t like it, we’ll get your friend to convince you.”

An aside about Twitterviews

All of this started when I mentioned on Twitter that I liked Colin’s interviews. That prompted a brief but interesting transatlantic conversation with him about science journalism, all delivered in 140-character tweets while Colin was apparently on the bus and I was sitting on my sofa writing about sperm. I shut down Tweetdeck to do some actual writing and was a bit surprised to open it a few hours later to find that Colin had stuck up our conversation on this blog as a “twitterview“. All abbreviations were stretched out but no words were added.

I love it. It’s a great example of how an informal chat can turn into something perhaps more substantial and how social media like Twitter can provide ideas and material for opportunistic writers. I’m also quite pleased with the fact that the conversation seems rather cogent, despite the often-cited limitations of the channel. Of course, said limitations make it difficult to really delve deeply into a topic, so this post expands on some of the ideas we talked about and acts as a response to Colin’s post.

Image: by the legendary Bill Watterson, but you knew that already.

More on science journalism:

Random picks from the archives:

View Images
View Images
View Images
View Images