How Science Writers Help Scientists to Think More Deeply

hand raised

I recently came across a compelling passage (below) from computer scientist Luis von Ahn, the founder of Duolingo and CAPTCHA, among other things. What struck me was how accurately his words reflect what we as science writers do each time we say, “I don’t understand. Can you explain that to me?” As von Ahn notes, asking for an explanation can have the effect of helping scientists (and others) to think more deeply about what they do, and how what they do might fit into a larger context.

And that, when it comes down to it, is how science (and humanity) progress.

Here’s what von Ahn has to say:

“My PhD advisor [at Carnegie Mellon was] a guy named Manuel Blum, who many people consider the father of cryptography [encryption, etc.]. He’s amazing and he’s very funny. I learned a lot from him. When I met him, which was like 15 years ago, I guess he was in his 60s, but he always acted way older than he actually was. He just acted as if he forgot everything. . . .

“I had to explain to him what I was working on, which at the time was CAPTCHA, these distorted characters that you have to type all over the Internet. It’s very annoying. That was the thing I was working on [later acquired by Google], and I had to explain it to him. It was very funny, because usually I would start explaining something, and in the first sentence he would say, ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying,’ and then I would try to find another way of saying it, and a whole hour would pass and I could not get past the first sentence. He would say, ‘Well, the hour’s over. Let’s meet next week.’ This must have happened for months, and at some point I started thinking, ‘I don’t know why people think this guy’s so smart.’

Later, [I understood what he was doing]. This is basically just an act. Essentially, I was being unclear about what I was saying, and I did not fully understand what I was trying to explain to him. He was just drilling deeper and deeper and deeper until I realized, every time, that there was actually something I didn’t have clear in my mind. He really taught me to think deeply about things, and I think that’s something I have not forgotten.”

The Public Good

Drosophila
Drosophila melanogaster

There may be science writers who do it for the paycheck. I don’t know any, but I assume they’re out there. The science writers I know do it because they love science and want to spread that joy. They are constantly amazed by the new information.

But there’s also a sense of public responsibility. Science shouldn’t be a private thing that only a few people understand. We need to spread the word.

Politicians sometimes cherry-pick a specific research project to mock as wasteful. Sarah Palin famously took on fruit fly research in 2008. She was probably talking about a $211,000 effort to study Bactrocera oleae, a pest that strikes olive trees, in an effort to support the California olive industry. Still, a lot of Drosophila melanogaster researchers bristled at the attack.

This kind of rhetoric is hard to combat – sound bites are much easier than science. If she was talking about Drosophila, it would be hard to go on CNN and explain the value of model organisms without getting too far into the weeds.

Like so many other things, we need to be proactive. These attacks stick because people often lack the fundamental scientific understanding to recognize their flaws. We probably can’t remedy that entirely, some people refuse to be informed, but we can at least create a knowledge base to help people understand.

We live in a time when people often dismiss science – the one discipline that has the best chance to help us through our many crises. That’s discouraging, but it doesn’t mean we’re not making a difference.

Which is basically what we’re doing in our day jobs. Every time we post an article or news release or blog post, we’re adding to that knowledge base. We’re creating a firewall against bad information with accessible science. Perhaps someone is interested in understanding the argument and a Google search leads to your explainer. That’s a win.

 

 

Happy Hour at White Labs

Erik
Erik Fowler styles us out with information and beer.

Beer is four things: water, barley, hops and yeast. We hear a little about barley and a lot about hops – it’s San Diego and we’ve been IPA’d to death. But yeast, not so much. Maybe we’re a little squeamish because it’s a microorganism.

Regardless, a squad of intrepid SANDSWArs paid a visit to White Labs last Wednesday to learn about the company, the yeast and the beer. Continue reading “Happy Hour at White Labs”

Where Do I Even Begin?

How asking questions can help you find your lede sentence

By Tiffany Fox

“The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead.” — William Zinsser, On Writing Well

By TookapicIs there a science to writing a good opening sentence, otherwise known as a lede?

Maybe not, but there is science that suggests a good lede can mean the difference between your story being read and your story being, well, written off. The harsh truth: You have exactly eight seconds to capture your reader’s attention — unless your reader happens to be a goldfish, in which case you have nine. Continue reading “Where Do I Even Begin?”