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Interview with Carl Zimmer

March 5, 2010

Earlier today award-winning science journalist Carl Zimmer was kind enough to take some time out to talk to me. We hit on a number of different ideas including: the role of the science journalist, how to make science people-friendly, and his take on the issues facing the craft.

You can listen to the audio recording of the interview, or the full transcript is posted after the jump.

Colin: I was wondering what you see your role being as a science journalist?

Zimmer: What I see my role as? I guess I see my role as telling stories that have to do with science. As new research comes out, I try to explain, essentially tell the story, in a way that non-scientists can understand. When I can I try to expand those stories so it’s not just about a paper that was published last week, but is a story that might reach over the course of decades or centuries even.

C: So you try to bring in other things, more than just the science, that would maybe make it more pertinent to a general audience?

Z: When I’m talking about expanding the scale of it – all the scientific research that goes on now has a very long history, and a very interesting history. But it’s not always possible to write about the history in a newspaper article or a magazine article. So in books, for example, I very much enjoy trying to go back to find the roots of current advances in science. And those roots often go back surprisingly far. So that’s what I meant by that.

C: What about bringing in current affairs, or the political angles of it. Just other things that people will be able to take to.

Z: I don’t focus mainly on that. If it is relevant to the implications of some scientific research then I’ll certainly write about it.

I recently wrote a piece about ocean acidification, and there I was really getting into the details of the research that people had done in order to compare current ocean acidification to periods in the past – like 55 million years ago – when there was sudden ocean acidification. So for the most part it’s pretty basic science, but I definitely will explain how this has real relevance for us right now because when the oceans acidify, fisheries may collapse and corral reefs may disappear and so on, and that’s going to affect people in a very immediate way.

But I think a lot of science writers actually try to search a little too hard for that “news you can use” when it comes to science. A lot of science is just interesting in and of itself. And it just sort of gives you a richer understanding of the world, and there really isn’t any need to make wild claims about a cure for cancer right around the corner. So very often I make a conscious effort not to look at immediate relevance if it’s not really there.

C: When you were talking about the science being interesting in and of itself, I was wondering what you think of the public’s ability to interpret science facts. Let’s say you lay them all out on the table, how will the public look at them, do you think?

Z: I do think that if people take the time to read good science writing they can get a pretty good understanding of things. But, I just think that a lot of people don’t take that time, unfortunately. So I can write a 5000 word piece on the evidence for global warming, and then somebody may base their entire judgement on global warming from a few seconds of something they heard on cable news; where somebody said that climate scientists weren’t very nice people, and that’s it. And then they’ve kind of made up their mind and they don’t even bother to read the books or the articles that might show them that really is sort of beside the point.

C: I was wondering, based on that, do you ever wonder…. Because it seems like the cable news quick hits are maybe just a little more accessible than the bigger features. The bigger feature has more science and it’s far better journalism, but do you ever worry about your work not being accessible enough to a general audience.

Z: Well it’s always a trade off, that’s always the big struggle. Figuring out what you can do in the different kind of genres that are at your disposal. A general reader is never going to sit down and read an actual scientific paper from start to finish, that’s just not going to happen. So you have to find other ways of writing or talking about the science in there.

Certainly, TV in general is just very easy for people to watch. People sort of plunk down and turn on the TV and see what’s on. Even the very best TV, you know it can get some things across, but there is not that much you can get across even in a whole hour of TV. I’ve worked a bit with TV people, and I certainly appreciate the constraints they’re under.

People are going to choose to get their science how they choose to get it. And there’s not all that much you can do about it.

C: Do you ever try to think of steps you could take to make your work more accessible?

Z: I’m always doing that.

C: Could you give me an example of something you might do?

Z: One of the most important things to do is to draw people into a story. You can’t just declare at the beginning of a story that you’re going to be talking about autophagy. But if you find a way to start the story, to say, “It turns out that deep down we’re all cannibals, who are constantly devouring ourselves and ripping our own bodies apart in order to rebuild them,” that might get people’s attention even if they don’t know what autophagy is.

So it starts at the very beginning of a piece.

C: In the research I’ve been doing, one thing that has been popping up is that maybe putting in some emotional characters, or even using things like video, are good ways to get people in. Do you ever intentionally do things like that?

Z: I will certainly be aware of the kind of emotion that learning about science can trigger. I mean it can be a pretty emotional experience. If someone does a really good job of explaining the size and the structure of the universe, that can be quite an awesome thing. Learning how your brain works can be very unsettling, because you sort of have this image of yourself as an indivisible little homunculus in your head, and then it turns out that you emerge out of this network of interactions between neurons. That can be disorienting.

You know I enjoy sometimes writing about parasites, just because they’re so bizarre. And people will tell me that they’ve had nightmares from reading stuff I’ve written about that. You know that’s definitely one way of making things stick. That’s one of the ways emotions work, they make information stick. So I definitely bear that in mind.

Video. I always wanted to somehow incorporate video into the things I wrote, but it was just kind of a fantasy when I was starting out. But now, it’s kind of old hat.

So if I can get my hands on a useful video I will embed it in a blog post. I think of them as sort of moving illustrations. That can be effective, and it certainly does draw a lot of people’s attention.

I’ve written a couple of pieces about an aspect of evolution called sexual conflict – where males and females in the same species have a conflict of interest over fertilization and so on. Females want to be able to choose which sperm they use from different males to fertilize their offspring to get the best offspring, and males just want to ensure that all their sperm get used. So that leads to all sorts of really strange, very bizzare, adaptations.

C: Is that the duck thing?

Z: Yeah. So I was writing a piece about the sexual conflict in water fowl, and I said to the scientist, did you guys happen to take video of that? And they had, and they were happy to share it. And it’s had maybe 300, 000 or 400, 000 views in total. And some percentage of those people, I’m fairly sure, have gone and actually read the post.

Not only is the video arresting, but it is also viral, so people can just pick up the video and embed it and say, “If you want to read more about this, go read this post by Carl Zimmer.”

In both those ways, I think it draws people’s attention to something that if I was just writing about it the way it appeared in a scientific paper, people wouldn’t pay so much attention.

C: What do you think is the biggest issue facing science journalism right now?

Z: I think mainly the question of basic economic survival. Are people going to be making a living doing it in say 10 years, because that’s sort of an open question I think. If people aren’t making a living doing it, does that mean they’re not going to be able to do a really good job of it, or will we just end up with a lot of stuff that’s either wildly inaccurate, or just that’s just incredibly boring and no one wants to read. That’s a possibility.

Another possibility is that there is a cultural and economic shift, but that the people who continue to write about science, even if they’re not staff writers someplace, or full-time freelancers, they still do a good job. You know, compelling writing on important subjects.

Or the other alternative is that some economic model does emerge that does allow for some people to make a career out of this kind of stuff. But, who knows what form that will take. Maybe people will just be writing for iPads or something, I don’t know. But that’s the most important question I think.

C: Just the funding and survival of the craft?

Z: Yeah, you know the economic structure of it.

C: Do you have any ideas of how to fix it? Or is it just sort of left to be seen.

Z: I don’t think it’s something that you can fix. It’s not like you’ve just got a watch that you just set in a new spring. I think that science writing, like all of journalism, is emergent in the sense that the science journalism you see is the result of there being a particular economic history that produced a number of large newspapers and large magazines, and a book publishing industry that has spent some of it’s time on science. Now a lot of those places are not able to make ends meet.

It’s not like I can say “Hey, here’s the solution to your not having any classified ads anymore.” The ads are gone, and someone will figure out, or people are figuring out, other ways to make money on information, classified ads and so on. It’s just a matter of time to see if there is a place in that different system for more science journalism.

C: Perfect. Part of what I’m doing is going through examples of good, strong science journalism. I’ve got the Kavli awards that you won, and then some other articles as well. But I was wondering if you have an example of your work that sticks out in your mind as your best or your favourite.

Z: One that sticks out in my mind is a piece that I did about fireflies in the New York Times. It was one of the pieces that I submitted for the Kavli prize. One reason that I think it was successful is that it was hugely popular. And you can measure that with different kinds of measurements. It was the most emailed story in the New York Times for a number of days. The scientist in question was flooded with emails with people asking about her work and so on.

Understanding fireflies, there’s no “news you can use” there. It’s not like the next computer is going to be based on firefly flashes. It’s not like some new cure is going to be coming tomorrow from fireflies, it’s just basic biology. But it’s this thing that people are very familiar with. For some people, these fireflies are around in their backyard every summer and they don’t really think about them. I was just pleased with how I was able to convey just how complex firefly flashes can be. That I think is the big thing in biology, that there is all this staggering, fascinating complexity, and scientists can actually tease it apart and figure out how all of it evolved and all of that.

And the story is just 1500 words long, so there isn’t much room to do it. So that’s why I’m particularly fond of that one.

C: Is there anything you did differently in that story that you think made it so grabby to readers? Or is it just the topic?

Z: It’s the kind of approach I try to to take to a lot of my writing. So it’s not like there was something radically different from the other things I write. I think that the pieces just came together particularly well.

I picked the story in part because I knew that people are familiar with fireflies and I could surprise them by showing them that they are actually not familiar with them. That there was a lot they didn’t know about. It was also helpful to find one scientist who does really good biology on them, who is fairly articulate, who I could go and visit in the field. So those things all helped.

C: Thanks so much.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2010 11:36 pm

    Wonderful interview, and some great advice for anyone that wants to write about science for lay audiences. I particularly like the comment about a wonderfully written piece on global warming being shot down by a few comments from cable news. A real challenge for science. But also nice comments on engaging people's emotions, and surprising them by showing that something they thought they knew well was actually not as it seems.How did you line up this interview?

  2. March 7, 2010 12:00 am

    He really did have a lot of insightful things to say, which I guess you would expect from someone so experienced. All I had to do to get Carl on the phone was send him an email. He was a really nice guy, got back to me right away, and we set up a time from there. What is especially interesting is how differently the next person I interviewed answered some of the questions. I'll have that transcription up shortly :)

  3. March 14, 2010 10:30 pm

    This is a great series you’re compiling, thanks for doing it. Totally agree with the response about economic survival of writers/journalists/publications being the biggest threat to science journalism. I also wonder about audience persistence (and hopefully future expansion). In many ways, people who are regular consumers of science stories are a niche market. I worry sometimes that a shrinking audience may make matters worse in coming years, at least, in terms of competing for mainstream people’s attention in a fragmented media world that is flooded with infotainment.

    • March 15, 2010 7:15 am

      Hey thanks for reading. I wasn’t expecting to even have anyone read these, let alone get this much feedback and discussion. In terms of science being a niche market, that’s why (as might have shown throughout my questioning in the interviews) I’m leaning towards science journalism that finds people where they are, rather than forcing them to find the science section or the science show.

      The science journalists that I interviewed all seemed to suggest a strong story will make people read through it. But I question why none of them suggested escaping from the niche market. I don’t mean stop doing science journalism, but rather, by doing the science-of-the-day, you’ll find yourself reaching a much broader audience. You’ll help people understand the science of the world around them. Maybe then they’ll find that they are actually interested enough to turn to the science pages to find out what else is going on.

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