Monday, November 2, 2009

Kansas City Here I Come

I'm going to Kansas City.

I've been invited to give a talk Tuesday at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, based on my story this summer in Science about the surprisingly weak connection between the apparent biological importance of a DNA sequence and the preservation of it sequence through evolution.

I thought at first that Stowers had mistaken me for a real researcher. But they assured me that a writer can sometimes do a better job of providing perspective than a research who is immersed in day-to-day technical details. Since hosting Matt Ridley in 2001, the Institute has periodically included science writers among their speakers.

Preparing the slides for the talk has been a lot of work, but it has reminded me of some big differences between communicating science as a spectator and as a participant.

The most obvious difference is the thoroughness of the discussion. For one researcher to convince another requires data, covering the entire logical chain as well as possible alternative explanations. In contrast, a journalist rarely gives a complete description of the evidence. Instead, as David Ehrenstein, the Physical Review Focus editor, likes to say, we are happy to convince the reader of the plausibility of a conclusion.

This breezier discussion of the evidence gives journalists a freedom to convey the big picture. Ordinary researchers rarely get this opportunity, until their reputations reach a level where others are happy to hear their opinions for their own sake. This freedom is a terrific luxury for science writers.

Ideally, however, a journalist is not expressing a single opinion, however wise, but synthesizing or contrasting the range of opinions in a field. When this is done well, it conveys the entirety of a field more accurately than any single view. Unfortunately, in active, contentious fields, it's easy to get bogged down in the disagreements, obscuring instead of illuminating the big picture. The common journalistic focus on conflict doesn't help.

Especially when covering disagreements, the journalist needs to convey a sense of authority about the key issues are, if not their ultimate resolution. Without being able to rely on the detailed technical results, this authority often comes from the researchers ("sources") interviewed for the story. Of course, a well-written story can suggest authority even when these sources are not representative of the field, which is one reasons science writers are not created equal.

To convey this authority, journalists often use direct quotes. Again, the reader is dependent on the writer to choose truly representative quotes from a much longer interview with each scientist. Still, this appeal to authority (other than the speaker's) rarely happens in scientific presentations.

Finally, the nature of visuals is strikingly different in technical talks and science writing. In a talk, a scientist might use a cartoon or other light material as a diversion, but the meat will be data: descriptions of procedures, photographs of representative results, graphs summarizing the results, and perhaps an abstract representation or cartoon to convey the concept. In a journal article, in fact, many researchers reading a journal article will skip the text and go straight to the figures.

For much science writing, the only one of these elements that is at all likely to survive is the cartoon conveying the concept. The supporting details get short shrift. For many outlets, the figures won't have any meat at all, and may have only a tangential relation to the subject. As a result, the heavy lifting for science journalism is all done by the written word. Clearly this approach does not translate to a presentation, unless it is a classic speech without visuals.

The PowerPoint presentation I'll be presenting at the Stowers Institute will be a kind of mutant hybrid. I don't plan to use any direct quotes on the slides, for example. But I expect I'll do some name dropping and invoke my interviews for authority, especially to convince the audience that there is a puzzle to be solved in the relationship between evolutionary constraint and biological function. Hopefully I'll be able to get that bigger puzzle across, as well as the intriguing possibilities that may arise by solving it.

As Isaac Asimov said, "the most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' (I've found it!), but 'That's funny....'"


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