What I learned from ScienceOnline2010

Last weekend I attended the annual North Carolina sci-shindig (called ScienceOnline2010 this year), and it was the best iteration of the conference yet. I am still reeling from everything that happened during the three days I was there. Rather than post a session-by-session discussion of what happened there, though, I thought I would simply share a few of the main lessons I took away from the conference.

  • Writers Help Other Writers

Writing a book is no easy task. It involves much more than simply sitting down and hammering out an arbitrary number of words or chapters, and as someone who is just breaking into science writing I have to say that the learning curve has been a bit steep. Fortunately the ScienceOnline conferences have put me in touch with a number of established science writers who have generously provided advice, constructive criticism, and support. Some of them I had met before this year's conference, others I had not, but it was a pleasure to chat with Jennifer Ouellette, Ed Yong, David Dobbs, Rebecca Skloot, Tom Levenson, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Ivan Oransky, and Carl Zimmer during this year's meeting. All of them, to one degree or another, have helped me get to where I am now, and I am indebted to them for all the assistance they have provided to this neophyte.

  • The Blogger vs. Journalist Feud is Over (or Should Be)

Perhaps the most refreshing moment of the conference occurred during the session on science journalism when Ed Yong pointed out the fruitlessness of the long-running blogger vs. journalist feud. A full-on smackdown between the two camps might have been appropriate a few years ago, but not anymore. Carl Zimmer carried on this thread, likening bloggers to Phragmites invading, but not entirely taking over, a more open landscape altered by the disappearance of science sections in more traditional media outlets. In this kind of environment generalists seem to do best, namely journalists who are skilled bloggers and talented bloggers that (at least occasionally) write like journalists. And, as Carl also pointed out, blogs are software, not prepackaged media identities that come with restrictions on what you can say. It is your own forum, and how you use it is up to you.

Even so, there was a bit of blogger vs. journalist sniping later on at the conference, partially fueled by Twitter comments. To quote Ed's summation of these events;

Even if you explicitly say that journalists vs. bloggers is old and tired, some people just can't f**king help themselves

  • Hollywood is Better to Us Than We Realize

Believe it or not, Hollywood has been pretty good to scientists lately. As explained by Jennifer Ouellette and Tamara Krinsky, right now there are a slew of popular television shows with scientists as the chief protagonists, and scientists have also been heavily involved in advising the creators of recent blockbuster films (including helping create the flora of Avatar and designing a monster based upon a star-nosed mole for another project). Even beyond that, media companies have been using the best tricks of their trade to tell science-based stories to the public, from short films to online games.

As someone who grew up watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 I must admit that it can be fun to be snarky about movie mistakes, but despite some of the howlers and persistent errors we see on screen (big or small) science does get a fair amount of respect from Hollywood. Maybe the problem is not so much with fictional representations of scientists, but with real-life scientists who have unrealistic expectations about what makes for an entertaining story. This became apparent when, during the session, James Hrynyshyn lamented the lack of "normal" scientists on screen, and Jennifer correctly responded that "normal" is not that interesting. A depiction of a "normal scientist" cannot carry a popular show, and if we are able to get past our indignation then maybe we can begin to appreciate how a lot of scientific input really does go into many fictional stories. (And, if anything, poorly-made documentaries are a more pernicious threat to the public's understanding of science than the latest science fiction sfx-fest.) For more on this, check out the Science and Entertainment Exchange.

  • We are All Struggling Together

Maybe it is an artifact of the sessions I gravitated towards given my interests (science writing, science in mass media, etc.), but right now things seem to be hard all over. It has become increasingly difficult to sell a science book, to get paid to write a science article, or to otherwise make a living communicating science. (As Tom Levenson said during the "Blog to Book" session, "Welcome to our hobby.") Nor is anyone sure what is going to happen next. Old outlets are closing, going extinct at a frightening rate, and no one really knows what characteristics present among the survivors are going to be beneficial as the environment changes. During the conference there were not grand statements of "We must do [X] to survive." Instead there seemed to be a recognition that opportunities for science communicators of all stripes are in a state of flux. What science communicators have to do to sell a book, write a story, or make a film is already changing from the ways things have always been done, and the best we can do during the transition is support each other. Who knows how things will look a year from now at ScienceOnline2011?

And, in addition to those major lessons, I learned a few other things such as: if I am in conversation with two or more people from the UK at the same time I start to use British slang, Rebecca Skloot's new book is going to be the top science book of 2010, driving for seven hours straight can give you horrible blisters, it would probably take a week to have enough time to chat with everyone I wanted to talk to at the conference, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is a wonderful place, Twitter can enrich a conference experience, and that I will most definitely have to attend next year's conference. Many thanks to everyone who made the (un)conference what it was. It was lovely to have met you all!

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if I am in conversation with two or more people with the UK at the same time I start to use British slang

Muhahahahaha. All your slang are belong to us.

Pleasure to meet you Brian. Writer-solidarity fistbump.

Isis; It was great to have met you, too! Sorry I could not stick around that keep rocking the Sb trivia on Friday. Next time!

Ed; And the same to you. *Writer-solidarity fistbump* Thank you for all the help and encouragement you have given me. (And sorry about the typo; fixed now)

Sounds like everyone had a good time.

Carl is right. I've kept my comments mostly to myself through all of the silly arguments about science communication, especially with as many people pretending as if anyone could really predict how some of its new approaches will pan out. The same criticisms of journalism have been tossed around for centuries now in this country, deriding the inherent bias and inaccuracy of the field. It's all old news. I think it's important to remember that keeping the tired arguments going generates lots of traffic and gives folks that potentially have little else to discuss material and a purpose.

All this meta obsession I see with image and public perception really bugs me when it comes down to it. Inserting Super Cool & Pretty Scientists into shows and books and movies for the strict purpose of giving science and scientists a makeover stinks of activism, which in my opinion, is a poison to any creative work.

There's too much nitpicky self-analysis and hand-wringing; that's where the impossibly high standards and unrealistic expectations come from. God forbid anyone should have to work a day job while they nurture what they perceive as their true talent.

BTW, congrats on the book deal, you've worked your ass off and deserve it. Can't wait to read it!

It was nice to meet you and Tracy! Maybe next year, your book will be the top science book. I'm sure it will be great.

Brian, saw 'Under a Green Sky' on your wishlist--I highly recommend it. I'm not sure what I thought of his latest book (The Medea Hypothesis), but this one was excellent. Same goes with 'Gorgon.'

By Tor Bertin (not verified) on 22 Jan 2010 #permalink

Jeremy; Thanks for dropping in, and for the compliments on the book. And I agree about the tired old arguments over science journalism. Many of the things that have to change are beyond our immediate power to fix, but that is why I am glad to see so many science writers supporting each other.

Sandra; It was very nice to meet you, too! And thank you, as well, for the kind wishes for my book. It will be out on November 1 of this year.

Sci! I'm glad we got to catch up during the conference, too, and I am happy that the Ichthyostega/coelacanth found a good home. :)

Tor; Thanks! I am actually planning to read it, among other things, for an article I am working on for Smithsonian. I had not heard about The Medea Hypothesis, though. It sounds like he offers a rebuttal to Lovelock but goes too far the other way. I think I'll skip that one for now, but that's for the recommendation of the other.

This became apparent when, during the session, James Hrynyshyn lamented the lack of "normal" scientists on screen, and Jennifer correctly responded that "normal" is not that interesting.

Also, I haven't met any "normal" scientists yet, so if I had to write a story about one, I wouldn't even know where to begin.