Daryl Ilbury

Posts Tagged ‘science journalism’

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.


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.’”

A troubling week for South African science journalism

In Eish!, Fools, Science on December 8, 2012 at 11:39 am

Batman was shocked with the ignorance amongst the youth of the basic principles of science

It has taken a rather troubling, I’d venture to say ‘bizarre’, week in the media to shake me from my blogging passivity. The week has captured, quite succinctly, two components of the dire condition under which science journalism in this country finds itself.

In the past week, the following has happened:

  1. Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced at the release of the annual national assessment results that the average score in maths for Grade 9 learners (approx 14 years of age) is 13%. No, that’s not a typo, that really is thirteen percent;
  2. The Times Media Public Editor Joe Latakgomo published his opinion that it should be the press’s responsibility to remove from their pages the personal ads from people masquerading as doctors and who offer (to a very willing and receptive consumer) a combined portfolio of services normally including penis enlargement, cleaning dirty money, fixing broken marriages, and winning the lottery;
  3. The Business Day, South Africa’s leading financial daily newspaper, announced that it was shelving its weekly Health News supplement (for which I am a regular contributor), quoting budget cuts; and,
  4. The Sunday Tribune announced it was shelving all input from external writers for its Sunday Magazine supplement (in which I have a regular column writing on psychology), also quoting budget cuts.

The following is clear: on the one hand we have a desperate need for the media to help create a learning environment for South African youth and to educate adults about the dangers of pseudoscience; and on the other hand the mainstream media is stifling the science journalism needed to do just that.

On the plus side, it all segues very nicely into a piece of mine that will appear in the 21 December edition of Mail & Guardian: an adaptation of the main project I wrote for my Masters, entitled ‘The Quest of Prometheus: the state of science journalism in South Africa’. I will provide a link to it on my website on the 22nd December.

Read it. Unless of course you’re going to hide under the duvet because you believe the world will end on 21 December; in which case, like Robin, you deserve a serious smack around the head.

The sad tale of disunity in science journalism

In Eish!, Science on August 6, 2012 at 6:18 am

Budding science writers perhaps?

Many years ago, as the creative director of a science communications company, it was my responsibility to design a series of science shows and workshops aimed at senior primary school learners. Our aim was to break down the perceptive barriers that children developed around science, especially before they got to the level at school where they would choose their final subjects of study.

Our biggest challenge was the fact that many of their teachers had, themselves, never studied science beyond junior high, and were therefore a little reluctant to teach it. It was no surprise then that their pupils inherited this mindset.

Decades later, as a science journalist, I am still confronting the same problem, but mainly with a purely adult audience.

It’s obviously a problem I share with my fellow science journalists; but there’s an added complication: instead of there being a cohesive attempt by science journalists to educate media consumers about the magic of the natural world, there seems to be division within the ranks.

I have written about this before, but a recent blog entry on Forbes online by the journalist John McQuaid made me realise how seemingly disparate is the difference between scientists who write as journalists and journalists who write about science. He presents the fascinating case of the highly successful science writer Jonah Lehrer, who allegedly included some rather dodgy facts in one of his books, and how another science writer, the neuroscientist Daniel Bor, publicly took him to task.

One of Bor’s more interesting assertions (which he later tempered), is that all science journalists should have a PhD in a science field before they are let loose on the unsuspecting public. I smiled when I read this, because whilst researching my final project on the state of science journalism in South Africa as part of my Masters in Science Journalism, I interviewed Prof Lizette Rabe of the Department of Journalism at the University of Stellenbosch, who said that, in an ideal world, all journalists – irrespective of their ‘beat’ – should be armed with a BSc.

My research also threw further light on the rather sad reality as I have known it since those early years as a science communicator, that science is not as ‘popular’* as it should be.

I expect most science journalists would agree with me on that; but that many of them would disagree with me on this: science journalists with a specialised science degree are more comfortable writing for an already dedicated science news consumer, and in so doing may help preserve the isolation of science from the non science news consumer. In essence, they may even help perpetuate, perhaps even intentionally, its aura of exclusivity.

On the other hand, journalists who have evolved into science writing (my intended emphasis!) are more likely to help break down the perceptive barriers that still exist for most people around science, even though they run the increased risk of technical inaccuracies slipping by in their writing – inaccuracies that would be glaring to specialist science writers. This is especially the case when a sub-editor or editor doesn’t know any better.

So whereas Mr Lehrer presented some factual errors of science in his writing (which are avoidable) and appears to have misrepresented the nature of their origin (which is inexcusable); and even misquoted Bob Dylan (which seems to verge on the sacrilegious), I am a little uncomfortable with the witch hunt that seems to have manifested itself within certain members of the media. Here’s an example from Damian Thompson of the Telegraph.

Science holds the key to breaking down the cultural, religious and political ideologies that are tearing humankind apart. It is therefore far too important to remain the exclusive domain of a specialised elite; and the journalism entrusted with its propagation is far too threatened to become a battleground for infighting.

*popular |ˈpäpyələr|adjective:

1. liked, admired, or enjoyed by many people or by a particular person or group: “she was one of the more popular girls in school”,

2. intended for or suited to the taste, understanding, or means of the general public rather than specialists or intellectuals: the popular press.

A science journalist comes ‘out’…as it were

In Eish!, Fools, Politics, Science on July 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Sometimes science comes without a warning

“Hi, my name is Daryl, and I’m a science journalist.”

There you go, I’ve said it. I’ve come ‘out’ as it were. I admit that for many years my life has been something of a lie. I have been writing about science whilst posing as an op-ed columnist writing on socio-political issues. In fact I doubt very much if I would be able to write for most of the titles that I do if I pitched myself as a ‘science journalist’. But I am not entirely to blame for my subterfuge.

OK, this may all sound a little dramatic, but there’s a remarkable, albeit concerning, sliver of truth for my reluctance to brazenly announce my orientation. You see, for many years I have been operating under the rather bizarre belief, instilled in me by legions of editors, that readers don’t want to read about science.

However, as person who was schooled in the sciences, social sciences and humanities, I am acutely aware that such a belief is false. Readers are interested in science, they just don’t know it.

For the last nine years I have been covering issues around science without my editors and readers actually knowing it, and my columns have earned me both praise from my editors and respect from readers; but more importantly they have encouraged debate. In fact my most appreciated reward has been learning that a number of my articles have been included in school English and History exams to encourage creative writing and political argument.

But this is not a blog entry to fish for compliments, it’s to prove a point: to write about science, you don’t have to ‘write about science’.

There is a popular belief that ‘science is what scientists do‘. Although the statement is correct, it is not solely correct. Science is something we also consume and it is something that we are; so the secret to writing about science is to reconsider how it is presented and how it is framed.

Example: In April 2005 I wrote a piece that sparked a lot of column space on the letters page of The Star about the seeming futility of prayer (millions of people had prayed for pope John Paul II to get better, but he still died). However, I used it as an opportunity to suggest the psychological benefits of the act of praying.

In July 2006 I wrote in my column in the Saturday Star about the influence of the introduction of the iPod on radio. On the face of it, it was an article about the iPod, and how it would affect the radio industry (in which I was employed at the time). In retrospect it now seems quite prescient; but in fact it was simply an understanding of how advances in science and technology can radically alter consumer behaviour.

Around Valentine’s Day in 2009 I played party-pooper and scientifically corrected the public notion that it’s possible to love someone ‘with all their heart’.

I took a chance with this one in April 2011 where I espoused the virtues of science writers. That must have raised a few eyebrows!

And in February this year in my column in the Tribune I took the reader into the realm of conversion disorder – a psychiatric disorder – whilst masquerading it as a piece on the challenges of bringing up teenage daughters. Sneaky!

You don’t have to write under the banner of ‘science journalist’ to be a science journalist. You just have to hide in the closet and every now and then pop your head out and go “boo!”

The two types of science journalism

In Eish!, Science on July 6, 2012 at 10:18 am

“This quasar’s bleeding snuffed it”

In my opinion there are two types of science journalists: the Dead Parrot Journalists and the Dating Journalists, and they both serve a critical function in capturing and  disseminating the wonders of the natural world; but in totally different ways.

Imagine a dinner party where most of the people don’t know each other. Conversation is polite, maybe a bit reserved, and it swirls around different issues. Then one person points to the roast chicken on the table and says, “This is a dead parrot”. Whereas most people will act bemused and a little confused, there will be a handful who will knowingly laugh, because they get the joke.

They are fans of Monty Python, and will possibly know, word-for-word, the famous Dead Parrot sketch. They will look at each other, gently nod, then connect, and then know that if they form their own group, they will be able to share anecdotes and ideas that will resonate with each other. They will invariably be similar in character and interests. Their role is to keep the energy and interest in Month Python alive.

But anyone who contributes to the discussion will have a tough audience, because there will be people in the group who may or may not know the Monty Python sketches better than they.

At the same, at the same dinner party there are other people meeting for the first time. They will spend most of the evening trying to connect and, carefully, even surreptitiously, project their points of view. Their role is to try and get people interested in them. They are essentially ‘dating’. They also have it tough because they have to sell an unknown topic to someone who may or may not be interested.

Science, like Monty Python, has a small but passionate fan base; and, although they may enjoy the exclusivity of belonging to an informal club, this fan base knows they have to keep its energy flowing and ‘spread the love’, as it were.

Science also suffers from popular ignorance. People either think science doesn’t affect them or, for cultural or religious reasons, reject science. They need to know more about science and its importance.

Science journalists are critical in fulfilling both roles.

Science journalists therefore either write for those who are interested in science, or they write for those who should be interested in science. The first type of journalists know they have a captive audience, and in writing for that audience are responsible for keeping the debate around science alive. They are the Dead Parrot Journalists.

The second type of journalists have to get people interested in science, and to build it’s support base. They are the Dating Journalists.

So…which one are you?