Thoughts on science writing straight from the source – Q&A with Deborah Cramer

We here at Bio for the Win got in touch with science writer Deborah Cramer to talk about her experiences at the interface of science and communication. 

Author Deborah Cramer, image from her website

Deborah Cramer is author of Great Waters: An Atlantic Passage (W.W. Norton), Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water Our World (Smithsonian Books/HarperCollins), the companion to the Ocean Hall at the U.S. National Museum of Natural History. She lives at the edge of a salt marsh and is currently writing a new book following the migration of shorebirds from one end of the world to the other, provisionally called On the Edge: a tiny bird, an ancient crab, and an epic journey. (Yale University Press.)                  

BFTW: You didn’t have much formal training in writing or science prior to starting your career as a science writer. What were you up to prior to picking up the pen, and how you do think your background has informed your writing?

DC: My education and training cross several disciplines, and came into focus when I began writing. Great novels contain deep truths. A graduate degree in American literature showed me the many ways people move in the world and how their passions inform their lives. A graduate degree in urban studies and planning showed me how policies are and aren’t made, how they are and aren’t implemented, and how conflicts are and aren’t resolved in areas, like the coast, where the stakes are high.

Living on the marsh, and participating in the resolution of upland land-use conflicts, I watched how day after day, season after season, year after year, the rhythms of life ebb and flow. I also watched how human activities degrade marshes which are important sinks for carbon and which nourish important fisheries. I saw firsthand how land use decisions failed to adequately take into account the ecology of wetlands. 

BFTW: Your very first piece of science writing was published in the Op-Ed of the New York Times on the ecology of your backyard – the salt marshes of Gloucester, MA. How did you scale up from writing about the ecology of your home turf to the entire ocean for Smithsonian Ocean?

DC: Scaling up was hard. It took a long time. After the salt marsh article was published, I was asked to write a book about the sea. I wrote pages of questions which, if I were reading such a book, I’d want answered. Then I spent years learning the science I never learned earlier to answer those questions. The resulting book, about the Atlantic, was Great Waters: An Atlantic Passage. From there to Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water Our World, to the world ocean, was pretty straightforward.

BFTW: You received lots of great comments (and a book deal) out of your Op-Ed piece, but also a complaint from a scientist about some terminology. Is sensitivity to precision in terms and metaphors something that comes up in your work with researchers?

DC: In that case, one scientist objected to my using the term “detritus soup” to describe nutrient rich tidal water in a salt marsh. He said it wasn’t “soup.” Others found the term evocative and fitting. I don’t hear that kind of complaint often. Many of the best scientists who do the most compelling work, and who write about it clearly are also, in their hearts, poets and appreciate the value of simile an metaphor, which by the way, I use sparingly.

BFTW: As a science writer, you occupy an area between the research community and the general public. What are some challenges in translating research findings to the general public?

DC: The challenges translating research findings for the general public for me are understanding the science and representing its nuance and complexity accurately. Since I don’t feel I’m always the best judge of whether I’ve succeeded, I often ask experts in the field to review my drafts. They’ve always generously shared their knowledge, making the work a joy. I love working with scientists, and I love taking compelling research to a broad audience.

BFTW: Have you had to translate in the opposite direction as well in any of your positions? I imagine that not all researchers have a grasp of the science questions and interests of the public.

DC: The scientists whose work I write about keenly appreciate the gap, sometimes it’s more of an abyss, between how they and the public understand, in the case of my first two books, the ocean, and in the case of the third book, the interactions between humans and birds along the shore. Scientists whose work I write about are happy for me to portray their work in ways that they can’t, either because they don’t know how, or the demands of their research take all the time they have, or the tenure system does not reward work written for a general audience.

BFTW: On the whole, the general public doesn’t get as much one-on-one time with scientists as with, say, doctors or lawyers. Consequently, the public may not have as firm a grasp of what scientists do. Outside of writing, what do you think can be done to bring scientists back into the culture in a more realistic way?

DC: The public now has many opportunities to understand how science works. Many scientists working out at sea, for example, now write blogs from their research vessels that also include video, providing the means for people to be with them as they do their research. Numerous television specials also focus on the work of scientists.

BFTW: Many scientists have written terrific books about their fields. What are some qualities of scientists who can communicate well with the public?

DC: Scientists who successfully communicate with the public are often those able to convey, directly or indirectly, their passion for their subject, why it matters, what it means to them personally, and why the larger world should care. It can be easier sometimes, to give an example of what I mean. This inspiring slideshow for Smithsonian Ocean, “we need the sea and the sea needs us,” – put together by musician Michael Moss and web expert Susannah Marsh and whose script I wrote, is all about the science, not the scientists.

BFTW: In popular media, most stories about scientists are some variation on “Frankenstein.” What are some other narratives about scientists you’d like to see more often?

DC: I love to see reporting about scientists that conveys their dedication and commitment, how they do their work, and how they struggle to ask the right questions and find the answers. My first two books, Great Waters: An Atlantic Passage, and Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water Our World were about the science, not the scientists. In the book I’m working on now, following red knots – a small shorebird – as they migrate between their winter homes in Tierra del Fuego and their breeding grounds in the Arctic, I’m also writing about the scientists, hoping to convey how they do their work and why it matters.

BFTW: In your experience working with researchers, what are some common challenges you have seen researchers facing as they communicate their science to the general public? How can scientists avoid being misconstrued by the sensationalistic blogosphere?

DC: Many researchers can clearly communicate how their work is compelling, why it matters, and how they came to their findings. Some can’t. If they speak in sentences where every word is an esoteric term of ten syllables or more, the public may not understand why the work matters. Because they can’t understand, they may then doubt the conclusions. At the same time if a scientist’s research conveys an important finding, and conveys it lucidly – I’m thinking about research on the human imprint on global warming, the depletion of fisheries, and the disappearance of coral reefs – and it’s a difficult message that people don’t want to hear, scientists can be, and are misconstrued. This is an age where everyone has, not only his/her own opinion, but also his/her own set of facts. It’s an age where many in the public are skeptical about science.

What can be helped is the level of transparency. People can be skeptical of science, not only because its findings may ask them to reconsider long held beliefs and assumptions, but also because in some cases, science has not proved trustworthy. By this I mean that almost every day we read in the newspaper about a drug, often written up in a prestigious medical journal, which is supposed to be safe and effective and then is found wanting. The public might be more trusting in science if the full data from clinical trials, both positive and negative, were available.

BFTW: What are some strengths you have observed in the way in which scientists, or their work, have affected the public?

DC: The work of scientists affects the public in many ways: in medicine, scientific research plays a critical role advancing our understanding of how to treat and cure disease, for example, research into the toxins of cone snails leading to the development of a non addictive painkiller, research into the healing properties of the yew tree leading to a treatment for breast cancer, research which one day may promise better and more long lasting flu vaccines. Scientific research allows us the opportunity to make our air safer to breathe and our water safer to drink by, for example, determining acceptable levels of chemicals in our water and atmosphere or analyzing the health effects of particulate matter in diesel engines, thus enabling the EPA to regulate diesel combustion. Our cars are cleaner, their mileage is better and carbon dioxide output lower because of scientific research. Scientific research enables us to understand the physical world, which we have come to take for granted, and how much it enables us to be here. For example, scientific research determined that half the oxygen generated by plant matter every year is made by microscopic plants floating in the ocean. The list goes on forever. We need science to help us understand our world, help us understand how our actions affect that world, and how to address the many pressing problems we face.

In addition, research for its own sake has often yielded information which later has application. Charles Darwin accepted the job as naturalist on the Beagle because he liked beetles and plants. His careful observations led to the theory of evolution. A long term study up in the Arctic, designed to monitor year after year, the nesting success of shorebirds and ducks, is yielding important information that will help evaluate the impacts of climate change.

BFTW: How can early-career scientists contribute to science journalism?

DC: Scientists, wherever they are in their careers, can contribute to science journalism by their willingness to describe their work to journalists. Scientists with a desire to communicate with the general public can attend the Aldo Leopold seminars where they will learn to do the communication themselves.

BFTW: Do you have a few favorite science writers?

DC: I have many favorite science writers. I’d like to mention two who have just published elegant, insightful books: Kevin M. Bailey, author of the new Billion Dollar Fish: the Untold Story of Alaskan Pollock, and Christoph Irmscher, author of the new Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science. Both books beautifully and lucidly tell important stories about science and scientists.

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