By Allie Akmal
The words STORIES MATTER appeared in giant letters on the screen behind science journalist Ed Yong, as he stood, backlit, on the stage at Scripps Research Auditorium on a recent drizzly Thursday afternoon in San Diego.
“Science is not just this purely objective empirical neutral force that can be dissociated from the rest of society. Those two things are incredibly intertwined … stories matter,” Yong explained to the audience of several hundred graduate students, scientists and science writers who had tramped through the rain to hear the scicomm star give a talk entitled “Why Storytelling Matters in Science.”
A staff science writer at The Atlantic magazine, Yong was invited to speak by Kristian Andersen, director and principal investigator of the Scripps Center for Viral Systems Biology (CViSB), on the occasion of the first annual CViSB workshop.
Yong, who has 150,000 Twitter followers, is something of a science writing wunderkind. After two years of graduate school in science, he told the group, he realized that he was better at talking and writing about science than doing it. So he switched gears, began writing and, over a decade, built a reputation and a following with his blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science. According to Yong’s final blogpost, by the time he shut the blog down in 2016, he “had written more than 1,800 pieces under its banner.” Yong credits his success to hard work, certainly, but also to luck and good timing. He said the field of science writing is competitive and harder to get into these days.
Over the course of the hourlong talk, Yong demonstrated the approach that has made him a success: getting his audience to care about science by getting them to care about the researchers behind the science he’s describing. Like openly transgender neuroscientist Ben Barres, who helped put long-overshadowed brain cells called glia on equal footing with neurons. Or Iranian medical geneticist Pardis Sabeti, who arrived in the U.S. as a refugee and whose work today involves worldwide travel to sequence viruses like Lassa and Ebola during outbreaks.
“The people who we are affects the science that we do, the questions that we want to pursue, the ways in which we look at and analyze our data,” Yong said, arguing for why diversity matters in science, and how science communicators have a responsibility to share diverse stories. “We, by the choices that we make, affect who is seen as being a part of science and therefore who gets to be part of science and therefore the type of science that gets done.”
Yong walked the audience through a 9,000-word feature about whether the world is ready for an epidemic like the 2014 Ebola outbreak, breaking the story down into an eight-part emotional arc he wanted readers to experience. He advised aspiring science writers to deconstruct pieces they like, and figure out what makes them tick.
And while many people think that journal papers, with their careful language, are the embodiment of science, Yong argued they’re only part of the story. A big part of what makes a piece come alive, he suggested, is attention to sentiment. “Feelings and emotions are part of science. They’re part of conduct of science. You can’t take them away from the supposedly neutral, objective, empirical methods and results sections that fill papers.”
He also counseled against a model of lay science communication that “treats people as empty vessels into which you pour facts and knowledge and suddenly they become wiser, they change their minds, they become into whatever [topic] you want them to become into. And, sadly, that is not how any of it works. That is not how people process information.”
“If you take away just one thing from this talk, let it be this,” Yong said, “You cannot displace a feeling with a fact. It just does not work. You can only displace a feeling with a different feeling.”
Like arriving at a talk feeling curious, and leaving feeling really inspired.