Dear Editors

My name is Lulu, I’m a second year PhD student at Harvard University. My subject is physics, same as my major in college. I love science, and I love writing, and for most of my life, these were interests that I listed separately.

This changed in 2010, when a fellowship program gave me my first opportunity at science reporting. But to cover the experiences that would motivate me to consider a career in science writing, I have to begin the story a year before. A senior at MIT, I was a semester away from a degree in physics. I had not applied to graduate schools, but didn’t say why.

The atmosphere during application season, for a bunch of normally very stoic and serious physics students, is something I can only describe as “giddy”. GRE test scores became basically public knowledge, along with lists of target schools. We posted our “stats” on boards and checked out the others; we neurotically refreshed email inboxes and knocked on professors’ doors; the juniors eyed us with envy as we traded daydreams about new lives in sunny California.

I was near the top of my class, so my prospects were good. “Apply,” was my professor’s advice. “And decide later.” I think he hoped that seeing my options would sway me. But back in my room, sitting in the white glow of my computer monitor, the application to UC Berkeley up on my desktop, I searched my soul for reasons and none came up. You see, I had gotten as far as the first question, after filling out my name and address and undergraduate affiliation. It was: “why?”

I would spend the next few years finding an answer to that question. From a proper viewing distance I observed science and its institutions: I saw its defects and ugliness, but also its bravery. In my application, in the end, I wrote, “Because I think science is the most noble thing we do.” Because along the way I’d come to believe that, and also to believe in the critical need for better science communication.

One of my objectives, during my time off, was to participate in what the science community calls “outreach”. The word itself suggests a kind of unnatural exertion of the body. One imagines all manners of contortions required to bridge the awkward gap between the “scientific” community and the “regular” community. And this is not too far from the truth. The “outreach” exercise, for scientists, often calls on muscle groups that they’ve neglected for years, that have atrophied embarrassingly, and the gap, historically and still, is quite large.

Among scientists, the communication network is open, vital, and alive with activity. Internally, we share our findings eagerly with each other. We hang up posters, give conference talks, exchange emails, submit papers and follow-up papers. But conversations with the “outside” are by comparison strained. Partly, there’s a stigma associated with attention-seeking and significant time spent on non-research activities, and partly, there’s a perceived language barrier.

To address the first obstacle, scientists should be reminded that an investment in an informed public is an investment in our future. As science lives off taxpayer money, “outreach”, instead of a distraction, should be considered a natural part of the job. The obstacle of language, however, comes down to a problem in the culture. Technobabble is a symptom of a chronic affliction among scientists, where, over time, the names of concepts come to replace the concepts themselves in the mind. Richard Feynman famously cautioned against it, saying that knowing what something is called is not the same as knowing something. While technical names are necessary so complex things can be discussed efficiently, in my group at Harvard, we practice limiting our formal presentations to everyday language.

As scientists work to close the gap, journalists can aid or hinder. By exercising restraint, internalizing the scientific method, and working closely with scientists to deliver a consistent message, science journalists have great power to dispel misinformation and quell the growing distrust in science. But as I learned at my first journalism job, this is not always what happens.

In 2010, I was selected as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow and got to be an intern science writer for the Sacramento Bee newspaper in California. I arrived early summer at an interesting time. Black oil was still pouring out of the Macondo well in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, but the around-the-clock news coverage of the gulf oil spill had somewhat abated. This was the time for a lot of opinions, and a local university professor became entangled in a public debate about whether oiled birds could be saved through rehabilitation. The professor, a wildlife expert who had devoted most of his life to oiled animal rescue and recovery, of course, believed these efforts should continue, but his opponents said they didn’t do any good at all.

The more I read of this controversy in the media, the more confused I became. A typical news article began by informing me of a lack of consensus, then I got fed some quotes: Scientist A said no, while Scientist B said yes, somehow both sides had studies that seemed to rule in their favor, and none of it got me any closer to understanding the truth. My question was this: how can rational people disagree about facts? So I decided to make this my first story.

It took me a week to research and write. By the end, I had collected every study ever conducted on oiled birds that had been cleaned and released, and made them a home in the corner of my desk. I had talked to my sources a dozen times. I had done the work: read the studies, made tables, checked their statistics. And I had found consensus. The first time I called, as expected, the professor pointed me to studies, he regurgitated the same old points, and even had some colorful language for the other scientists. But a few days later, when I got him on the phone again, with a potential answer for why the studies disagreed, he listened: I pointed out the different species of birds they sampled, the decades that separated them, their disparate methods of measurement, and others. Then there was a pause on the line, and he said, yes, they used to die, the rescued birds, no matter what you did to help them, within a few days, or a few weeks. Sometimes they would all die.

I learned the truth was that survival depended on the species, depended on their sizes and their habits, how much oil they’ve ingested, whether their homes were destroyed. I learned that in recent years, his university had poured millions into improving their methods, and there’s evidence this effort has paid off in terms of decreased mortality rates. Now this was happening, he said, and he feared a public outcry would spell the end of yet another thing that did good in the world. When I called the others with this information, they agreed, it was not their intention to halt these efforts, they said, they had simply felt that the effectiveness of these programs had been misrepresented in the media. I had a story.

I did become much quicker at it by the end of the summer. But this experience left an impression. I understood why the scientists had exaggerated, bent the truth a little. They had come to regard the media with suspicion, as a threat.

Science is not quick or glamorous, and we don’t need to make it that way. It’s the piecemeal assembly of reality, fact by painstaking fact, and that is beautiful enough. Every time incremental progress is reported as revolutionary a disservice is done. How many times can we prove and disprove and prove again relativity, quantum mechanics? I think good judgment, and the will to exercise it, is the best quality a science writer can have. Because in a disagreement I can trust her to stand, not squarely in the middle, but as near as she can to the truth, and in science, there are no two versions of it.

I’ve spent most of this letter disclosing my ideas on how the perceived gap between the scientific community and the public could be closed. I’d like to end by addressing what this is gap is and how it arises.

I think it happened something like this: sometime in sixth or seventh grade, I excelled at doing some menial task–perhaps memorizing a table or dropping some liquid into a beaker–and heard the word “talented”. Someone else failed in this task. Then in tenth grade, a difficult concept arose, the most challenging yet. So I went home, trusting in my ability, and eventually made the connection. This other person did not. Maybe he gave up too quickly, or was not given the intuition appropriate to him, but he began to believe himself ungifted for science, a non-participant.

What he didn’t know, and I’ve never told anybody, is the night I took that difficult concept home for the first time, I cried. Alone in my room, I read the section over and over in the book and stared at a picture until my tears blurred it. I threw my notebook; I threw my stuffed animals; I threw a tantrum at my mom when she came to check on me. I yelled I was stupid, that chemistry was stupid, that I hated it all.

I wonder how many people who go on to become scientists have stories like this. We don’t talk about it, these moments of “weakness”, because then we would have to admit that science is hard for us, too, is hard for everyone. We would have to consider that perhaps our membership in this exclusive club has more to do with that nod of approval in our youth and a long trail of validation than any innate aptitude.

Personally, I’d like to see this discussion happen. Thanks for reading,

Lulu

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5 thoughts on “Dear Editors

  1. dknight says:

    It is just the result of commercialization of the domain. Scientist is now a job. Hiding failure has become commonplace because you don’t get paid for failures. However, where do these commercial pets hide their wisdom that without crossing out invalid possibilities one can not know the valid ones?

    • Lulu says:

      Are you talking about negative results? I think there may be a need for negative results publication, but in physics, the most interesting negative results are published alongside the positive ones as it is.

      But that’s not really what my essay was about.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I think many (though, you’re right, not most– and often not the best) do recognize the effect of luck and/or external validation in their path up the scientific ladder, though we may or may not talk about it. Isn’t that what results in “impostor syndrome”?

    Except recently I’ve come to think that “impostor syndrome” isn’t really some sort of an underestimation of our own capacity, but instead, what you said– admitting to ourselves that yeah, science is hard, and the reason we get to be where we are is because of the nature of elite academia feeding itself opportunities, and external validation, and also luck. Except the label “impostor syndrome” makes it sound like that’s all not true and our achievements are really our own, for some reason.

  3. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get three e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that
    service? Thanks!

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