Be Very Afraid: the piece that couldn't find a home

To start off the sophomore year of the SCQ, I published a piece that I had sitting around for the last year or two. Basically, it's a creative non-fiction piece that looks at the sorts of things one can fear in the sciences.


It actually started off as a request by Maisonneuve for their "Good & Evil" issue, in that they wanted me to write about the top ten things to fear in the sciences. I thought it was an interesting request, but when I was rummaging through my mind on what these things to fear were, they inevitably turned into a list of societal nuances, as opposed to a pragmatic list of scary science topics (which I think was what they were hoping for).

In any event, I asked the Associate Editor, whether he would be more open to a piece that was more of a commentary than a list of "bad" things. He said it sounded interesting, so told me to give it a shot. So basically, the piece that you see at the Science Creative Quarterly is the slightly updated version of that edit.

Why it's on the SCQ and not Maisonneuve is a long story. Basically, I got the impression that the folks at Maisonneuve really dug the piece, but were not so sure with the style of writing which (I know, I know) probably reads like a Vonnegut knock-off. In that respect, it went through a few editing rounds and turned into a new incarnation that I guess was ready for publication.

Except that it never appeared in the "Good & Evil" issue, and essentially ended up on their "open house" pile. This is their, "we'll use it, but just not sure when" pile. And so it sat for a few months, then a few more, etc.

But I had so much fun writing the piece, that I was really hungry for it to get out, and in truth, I was really fond of the original edit, and not the edit overworked for the magazine. So I pulled the piece out of their pile, to search for another home.

This turned out to be a challenge, because how often do you read pieces with this sort of tone? Here are the three other places I had a go at submitting to:

To McSweeney's:
Hi Dave--thanks for your recent submission. We rely on stories like yours,
since a good portion of what we publish comes to us unsolicited.
Unfortunately, we can't find a place for this piece in our next few issues.
But please feel free to submit more work in the future--our tastes change,
and we're always looking.
Thanks again for your efforts and for letting us see your work. And
thanks for the kind note, we really appreciate it

O.K. pretty standard form reply.

To The Believer:
Hi Dave,

I looked over your two submission, and both gave me chills... And I absolutely agree with your reasoning that science writing needs to be brought to an audience outside the already interested scientific community. We are definitely on the same page...

Although it's powerful, the essay isn't quite right for us...

and so on, but o.k. at least my gut response that it was a decent piece was not far off.

To N+1
... (that's silence folks, maybe because this was during the summer months? Maybe they just thought it sucked)

Anyway, it's now finally out. If you have a moment, it would be great if you take a look - maybe even let me know why you think it wasn't the sort of piece to make the cut.

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Dave, I can't imagine how much time it must've taken to compose this. Very thorough, a very interesting read, lots to think about, and definitely well-composed.

I'll just ask one thing: wasn't the issue with the Monarch butterflies and Bt corn also about "watch out, we say we know what we're doing, but we really don't"? (Kind of like the lesson of Katrina and the Bush Administration: "We tell you all these things, and Fox News trumpets them, and you believe us, but now that we're telling you on the picture-in-picture window that everything's under control and you're watching on the other part of the screen that nothing is in control, you're finally hip to our scam." - a stretched analogy? OK. I retract it.)

I realize the conditions of the experiment were problematic, to say the least. But I had looked at that case as one that brought out larger philosophical problems and cultural issues (those of authority and expertise -- ah, see the Bush analogy is OK), even in the face of instrumental problems. What do we take from those kinds of problems? (I'm asking with serious curiosity, not rhetorically or facetiously.)

I totally agree with your comment about the situation. The reason I presented in that manner is because I find usually the public is convincely swayed towards the "Bt corn is bad side" of the spectrum, and the whole poor design of the experiment in question was an interesting nuance that, in reality, most folks aren't aware of. It was written as a sort of counter-spin, which in turn, emphasizes, just how pervasive this spin is (on all sides really).

It's actually how I often give public talks, in that over time, you get that sense for what most people feel and think, what's trendy, etc, and then you present them with something that's basically designed to make them go "wait-a-minute."

This only works, of course, when you're in a position of trust, and I take that trust very seriously. In reality, I wrote it the way I wrote it, because I thought that it would be a good tone to get the reader to engage him/herself, and think, weigh in even, not feel preached to.

As an educator, and one in a position of considerable outreach, I try very hard to earn that trust. Mostly, I do that by staying more or less objective and presenting contrasting sides authoritatively and interestingly, so that the audience, I hope realizes that the fence is sort of the place to be, at least until they dig deeper. Then all this web stuff my facility offers, or scienceblogs for example, is just one of many places where someone can dig deeper.

My favourite part is:

"Maybe we should ask a creationist. Actually, better not - that would be stupid."

It's nice, but I can see why placing it would be difficult. Maybe, you'd just need to look into the literary journals more, rather than you usual general interest type things.

it really is an amazing piece, and your follow-up here is helpful. this is the kind of thing i can envision asking my students to read.