One of the things that’s been rattling around in my head since ScienceOnline back in January is the need for a greater diversity of voices in science communication generally. I don’t mean diversity in the sense of racial and gender make-up of the people doing the communication, though that would be nice, I mean a greater diversity in the way people talk about science.
This started bugging me in the panel that led to the “Journosplain” image that I’m somewhat unfairly tagging as the “featured image” for this post (grabbed from here)– somewhat, because it’s not really Carl Zimmer’s fault. But listening to the crowd of mostly journalists talk about explanatory journalism, I was struck by what a narrow range of stuff they were really talking about. And since then, reading blogs and so on, I’ve noticed the same thing: there’s a particular narrow journalistic style that dominates the science writing I see.
Maybe it’s just that I’m noticing it more as a result of the conversations at Science Online, but it seems to me that when I read blogs, or follow links from Twitter, I see mostly stuff written as if it were going to be submitted to some fairly traditional media outlet– maybe not the New York Times science section, but Ars Technica or something like that. They’re very journalistic in tone, with little personal character, and follow a particular pattern: splashy eye-catching intro paragraph about some recent news hook, a few paragraphs of short explanation at the newspaper sort of level of detail, maybe a quote or two from the paper or the scientists involved, and then a wrap-up about What It Means for the Future. The overall effect is a little like what I complained about back when I tried to read an America’s Best Science Writing anthology, only instead of page after page of imitation Oliver Sacks, it’s webpage after webpage of ersatz Ed Yong.
Note that I’m not saying these are badly done, though the Internet being what it is, it will inevitably be interpreted that way (and I’m not giving specific examples because I don’t want to come off as saying that those specific people are Doing It Wrong). Many, even most of the pieces I see are very well done examples of the form. But it is a form, and it gets a little wearying after a while. I’d like to see more of… well, something different.
Of course, there are a lot of good reasons why this happens. Some of it is the increasing professionalization of blogging– more and more, blogs are something people consider part of their professional activity, and are trying to use as a springboard toward a communications career. If you’re angling for a science writing job, you need to demonstrate the ability to produce the sort of science writing that sells. And the markets that buy science writing– newspapers and magazines taking stuff from freelancers, media offices needing press releases– want this specific form. Even for academics who blog on the side, the best way to get some validation of blogging as a professional activity is to show that it’s Serious Activity by writing in a professional style, or even getting stuff reprinted somewhere else. I fall into this myself– I don’t cite the blog per se in the annual activity reports I file with the college, only posts that get reprinted somewhere else, in a form that’s more likely to be considered “real” by my colleagues.
There’s also a matter of background training– most of the people writing science blogs are either science writers, trained in a journalistic sort of style from early on, or scientists, who are trained to be even more boring. Contrary to what my intro students think, professional scientists do a lot of writing, but the “house style” of the profession is even more cramped than the journalistic style, with even less tolerance for individual personality. Most scientists writing journalistically have had to work hard to lighten up to reach that point. I fall into this myself– the default mode of my profession is the lecture, and it’s hard to get out of that, even when I’m talking to the dog.
And finally, writing in a different voice is inherently kind of a risky proposition. We’re sort of trained to accept the journalistic style as a default, because that’s the format of most of the news we consume. You won’t really turn anybody off by adopting a journalistic style, but if you go outside that, you run the risk of driving readers away. Most of the negative reviews I’ve received for How to Teach Physics to Your Dog and How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog are of the form “The physics explanations are good, but I got really sick of the cutesy stuff with the dog.” Which is the obvious failure mode of the book, and something I’m willing to live with. In a similar vein, I’ve stalled out on a couple of highly regarded popular science books because I hated the distinctive individual touches the authors included, which is not without irony, but again, probably a risk those authors are willing to live with. (Both of them have sold vastly more books than I have, so I’m sure they’re not losing any sleep over this…)
Still, in thinking about the professionalization of blogging (in a Twitter conversation last night), and yesterday’s “Be Your Boring Self” post, I find myself again thinking about how I’d like to see more stuff that’s… different. I do a lot of linking to Rhett at Dot Physics, in large part because what he’s doing is different than what anybody else is doing, save maybe the sporadically updated Built On Facts and The Virtuosi (which are also awesome). In a completely different medium, I don’t say often enough that Henry Reich’s Minute Physics is awesome, and very much not in a journalistic mode. I’d love to see more like those, but even more than that, I’d love to see more that’s different than those.
But again, it’s a hard problem– saying “I want bold, original voices” is a lot easier than figuring out what works as a bold original voice. And it’s not like non-science writing is a whole lot better– general-interest blogs and magazines have the same problem with publishing a relatively restricted range of styles. And while a few people make careers for themselves by being very different from the standard journalistic voice, it’s a tricky thing to do well. Hunter S. Thompson’s style is terrifically fun, but never did much beyond securing a career niche for him. And David Foster Wallace’s non-fiction pieces are amazing, but I’m not sure they’re terribly influential, probably because it’s incredibly hard to pull that style off without it getting really annoying (reading Wallace is very risky for me, because I have to work hard to avoid turning out third-rate imitation Wallace for the next three weeks). Many people would say that Wallace couldn’t write like himself without it being annoying, which goes back to the “inherently risky” point from a couple of paragraphs ago.
Circling back to the Explanatory Journalism discussion at Science Online that I started this post with, there was a lot of talk about markets where explanatory journalism can be published, and what can be done to create more such outlets. I’m less enthusiastic about the possibility of more of that sort of thing, though, than about trying to create space for more, for lack of a better word, Experimental Science Writing. Stuff that breaks out of the standard voice and format, to try something different– more casual, conversational forms, or even weirder stuff. Somebody needs to take a bunch of drugs and do Gonzo Science Journalism, or wildly digressive Wallacean essays, or God knows what else. Most of it will probably be crap, but some of it will turn out to be brilliant.
Tell me that you’re setting up a new outlet for traditional science writing, and, yeah, that’s cool. But put together a Kickstarter to start up an outlet to provide funding and recognition for wild departures from the standard format– that’s something that would be worth backing.