Science: Telling the story

1 September 2011

Written by: KATE SCARFF

As we move further into the 21st century, scientific discoveries are having an increasing effect on our lives.  Progress in new drug development, agriculture, renewal energy and climate science are just some examples of how we are benefiting from the results of scientific research.

With science being such as integral part of our lives, it is important that the public understand it.  The current debates about climate change science have showed how misunderstanding the science can hinder progress.

This problem will worsen as scientific discoveries open up new frontiers, broadening the gap in scientific knowledge between scientists and the public.

Science journalists have an important role bridging this gap and some are using new ways to tailor their craft so the science messages get through to the public.

I attended an interesting session at the Melbourne Writers Festival last Friday that examined the issue of how to explain complex science in simple terms.  Three science writers spoke at the session Writing in Lab Coats about books they had recently published.

Dr Elizabeth Finkel, science writer and cofounder and contributing editor of Cosmos Magazine, discussed her soon to be released second book, The Genome Generation, a story about the Human Genome Project.  Finkel was the only writer with a science background, having a PhD in the field of biochemistry and worked as a research scientist for ten years.

Jane McCredie, science/medical writer and former news and feature editor with the medical publication Australian Doctor, discussed her second book, Making Girls and Boys: Inside the science of sex; a look at how we categorise people as male or female.

Jo Chandler, a senior writer with The Age, discussed her book Feeling the Heat, the story of her visits to Antarctica and the rainforests of far north Queensland to understand the impact of climate change.

All three writers spoke about the process of planning and writing their books with a focus on the challenges they faced communicating complex science to the public.

Finkel said after writing her first book on stem cells, she decided the best way to communicate science ‘is to tell the stories’.  She said she waited a long time to write about the human genome: ‘It was like a wall of facts and figures…I couldn’t see any stories in it’.  Finkel decided to think of it as a question – ten years since the project began, ‘what’s been the impact?’

Finkel’s approach to writing was to have a calm judicious voice, to evaluate the evidence for the public.  Finkel used the tools of fiction writers to tell science stories and develop the abstract topics of chromosomes and DNA.

McCredie has always been interested in the science of sex differences and gender and what makes us girls or boys.  In 2008, she wrote an article for Australian Doctor about a 12-year-old child that had been born genetically and anatomically female but since the age of four had been convinced she was a boy.  After writing the article, McCredie continued her research and a confusing picture started to emerge.

‘I would read the research and think, ‘I don’t recognise this portrait of a woman at all.  It doesn’t relate to me as I am and it doesn’t relate to most of my female friends,’’ she said.

This confusion led McCredie to write her book to delve into the story in more detail.

McCredie struggled with finding a voice for her gender story because she is not a scientist. She eventually decided she had authority to tell the story as ‘a journalist, a woman, and a friend of science’.  McCredie said she engaged with the science by making an effort to understand it and asking good questions that highlight issues scientists may miss.  McCredie included personal stories, particularly stories about people who did not fit the stereotype of male or female, to help make the stories resonate with the public.

Chandler’s book Feeling the Heat evolved out of a project four years earlier when she had visited Antarctica.  Chandler said she ‘felt incredibly constrained in the newspaper pages to be able to communicate the stories’.  She chose to write a book so she could delve into the stories more deeply and ‘communicate the reality of the science more fully’.

Taking herself to the extremes of hot, cold, wet and dry, Chandler wrote about the human element in the scientists work – ‘the ifs, buts and uncertainties’ that do not make their way into the published science articles.

Chandler said researching background material for her book was a ‘hard slog’.  She had to summarise 150 years of archives to give her ‘little parables of the climate story’ context.

Compared to news and feature stories in newspapers and broadcast media, long form journalism or narrative journalism, including books, gives the writer more room to cover complex science stories in depth.  Though I don’t expect to see the bookshelves overflowing with science stories in the near future,  hopefully more science journalists will give the matter some thought.

Kate Scarff is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student at La Trobe University and is part of upstart‘s editorial team.  You can follow her on Twitter: @katescarff