Daryl Ilbury

How to turn science into a bestseller

In Free-thinking, media, Science on August 31, 2017 at 10:22 am

IMG_2731One of the problems with writing about science is that few people care; it’s something all science writers have to contend with.

It’s still puzzling though, and more than a little frustrating. If I was writing about something that doesn’t really affect anyone, it would make sense; but science affects everyone.

In fact there is no part of anyone’s life that isn’t examined by science. But that doesn’t seem to make any difference; people would prefer to live in a land of make-believe where events are defined by spirits and fictional characters given life by centuries of wild storytelling. There’s another word for that fairytale place: ignorance.

Science, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, is a candle to the darkness of ignorance; but ignorance is also a state of bliss for those uncomfortable with the thought of delving into the unknown. The job of a science writer is therefore to hold their hand and show them the wonder in the unknown; and the best way to do that is to hook it onto the known.

This is why after the publishing of my first book with Penguin Randomhouse – A Fox’s Tale – and I was asked by my publisher what was next, I immediately suggested a book about a controversial scientist with a high public profile: Professor Tim Noakes. They loved the idea, obviously: controversy sells. But for me it was an opportunity to write about science, specifically the context within which the controversy around Professor Noakes has played out: how media consumers make sense of science in a highly disrupted media landscape.

My strategy was simple but difficult: get a book about science onto the Current Affairs section of leading bookstores in South Africa. According to my research, this has never happened.

When the book was released, what I hoped would happen happened – there was a flurry of media attention, and a series of interviews with various radio and TV stations where I used the opportunity to talk about the main issue of the book. I had also prepared a series of excerpts from the book my experience told me would resonate with the media. That made my publicist happy and helped get the book enviable cover in the press and online media. Here’s an example from the Saturday Star, and here’s one in the Sunday Times where they asked me to write more about my shrewd idea to get people to read about science.

The result: passing by a leading retailer the other day, I noticed Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick sitting on the bestsellers shelves, in the company of two authors I admire – Richard Dawkins and Thomas L. Friedman.

And that’s cool.

 

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Science and prejudice

In Free-thinking, Science on August 28, 2017 at 10:45 am

QUIET_MAVERICK_Front cover thumb small

I’ve been asked by a number of people about the suspicion towards science taking root in Donald Trump’s America, especially around vaccination and climate change. As an explanation, here is an excerpt from my latest book Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick, from the chapter titled ‘Newton, we have a problem’:

“We are not born distrustful of science, we are taught it. Like racism, homophobia or any other prejudice, it is the outcome of the opinions – or ignorance – of parents, teachers and communities, and the complicity of religion in this regard cannot be overemphasised. The shaping of attitudes towards science is not limited to the community-level preaching in churches, temples and mosques, or the propaganda taught in the schools they control, it’s in their continued influence at state level.

This can be overt, as in the control of Iran’s Islamic theologians over the election of their Supreme Leader, the deceptively quaint symbiosis between the British monarchy and the Anglican Church, or the more dissembling claims of separation of church and state in the US while the command ‘In God we trust’ still holds court in their legislative chambers and courtrooms. Or it can be covert – on a subtler level, acquiescence to the dictates of religions lies in the national celebration of religious holidays and the invocation of deities in national anthems, South Africa’s Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika being a case in point.

Yet, science is the only way of accurately understanding our natural world, anything else is make-believe. The unequivocal proof thereof is in the replicable application of science: technology. So much of what we take for granted as part of our modern world has been realised only by using science to understand – and thoroughly test – the underlying hypotheses. Bolts of lightning, formerly considered portents of doom or the designs of sorcerers, can be recreated in a laboratory. Heavier-than-air craft take to the skies daily because of our clear understanding of pressure differentials produced by the shape of a bird’s wing, not because those aboard all pray to the powers of an omnipotent being.

Despite Christian Scientists believing that a child’s fever, headaches and stiffness of the neck emanate from that child’s impure thoughts, modern medicine’s understanding of germ theory, and the technology it has produced, means we can do a simple test for meningitis, and if that is proved the case, treat the child with antibiotics. Of course the parents would probably disagree, refuse medication in accordance with their beliefs, and let the child die in excruciating pain while they stand beside his or her bed, their heads bowed in deference to the imaginary.

In his book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan explains this with typical eloquence: ‘Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.’”

I never thought I’d ever say this, but…

In Free-thinking, media, Politics, Scoundrels on January 27, 2017 at 11:05 am

150826_donald_trump_2_gty_629.jpgI never thought I’d say this, but here goes: Since Donald Trump took office, I have developed a grudging respect for politicians. The very statement irks me to the point I feel nauseous. I have interviewed so many politicians, and found them, without exception, to be self-serving, and flexible with the truth. They revile me. They live in a filter-bubble of their own construct; they have to if they want to survive. And that’s why Trump won’t.

I once interviewed President Jimmy Carter. No matter what question I threw at him, he either delivered a brief, punchy answer, stepped to one side and deflected it, or spun it, creating the opportunity to talk about a pet project. It was a demonstration of the skill of a seasoned politician.

But all that comes with experience in dealing with the news media, who can be obstreperous at the best of times. They have to be. Part of their job is to hold politicians to account – tackle them at every turn, ensuring they do what’s right for the people, not for themselves. A successful politician is one that knuckles down, keeps their nose clean – or at least away from the media – and plays the game: remain sufficiently high profile to show they’re doing their job, but away from the spotlight when they’re not. And on those occasions when they fail, and they will fail, they need to endure the inevitable media backlash and, often brutal, public rebuke. It hurts; but if they stick it out, they’ll toughen up, even become impervious.

What they can not be, is thin-skinned. This is why successful business people usually make bad politicians – they are used to blind acquiescence from those lower in the hierarchy and selective accountability to a familiar higher authority. Being publicly challenged by a mainstream media with a mission to find fault is, for them, unsettling and annoying.

Donald Trump is the wrong person for the position of US President, for reasons already suggested: he is arrogant, selfish, bigoted, misogynist, ignorant, and delusional; hell, I’d venture to say he’s batshit crazy. But it’s his inexperienced, reactive, ill-tempered response to criticism in the media that will be his undoing.

The question is, how many people will suffer on his way down?