Science writers: You have great powers.

By Carl Zimmer | August 18, 2011 5:54 pm

The news these days is grim for the science-minded. The governor of Texas, who’d also like to be your president, says that Texas schools teach creationism. (They don’t, although Perry–who appointed a creationist to chair the State Board of Education–may wish otherwise.) Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke passionately on HBO about the country’s retreat from dreams.

So I found some small comfort in an email I got from Patrick House, a Stanford graduate student, about my recent post on the cunning ways of the parasite Toxoplasma–Toxo to its friends and admirers.

I’m the first author on the new Toxo paper. I wanted to send you an email that hopefully cheers your day — I’m getting a Ph.D. now in Neuroscience at Stanford, working exclusively on Toxo — and I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.

I did my undergrad work in Philosophy (with some neuroscience thrown in) and was perpetually fascinated by Toxo ever since your Discover article on Parasites a decade ago led me tangentially to it and then — of course — Parasite Rex. I met with Robert, spoke to him about free will, mind control, and the dissolution of the boundaries between the two and voilà — welcome to Stanford.

My previous blog post was about the evolution of whales, focusing on the work of Erich Fitzgerald, an Australian paleontologist. The first time I wrote about Fitzgerald’s work, in 2006, he sprang a similar surprise on me.

It is a great honour to know that you have written such an informative and articulate commentary about my research. I first heard of your work via a lecture given on whale evolution while I was an undergraduate zoology student at the University of Melbourne, and the class lecturer cited your book “At the Water’s Edge”. The topic of whale evolution, fired my imagination and curiosity, and I rushed out the next day to buy “At the Water’s Edge”. I have now read it twice, and it is undoubtedly one of the finest popular accounts of what we now know about cetacean evolution. Your book is at least partly responsible for leading me into the fascinating world of whale evolutionary biology and played no small role in leading me to my current research on the origins and evolution of baleen whales.

So, to you science writers out there: I don’t know how much of a difference we can make to the country as a whole. But you nevertheless have great powers: you can plant seeds, and grow scientists.

[Image: sjg at Flickr via Creative Commons]


Comments (21)

  1. I’ve thought for a long time that teachers—for college and high school, and perhaps even younger students—should do more to incorporate reporting on science into their teaching. It seems like an easy way to make cutting-edge science understandable, and to fire up students about learning the nitty-gritty so they can fully understand the bigger picture, gee-whiz stuff.

    I’m not really up on the latest pedagogy…. Does anyone regularly use science news articles as part of the curriculum? I think it could be especially useful in college. If there are great examples of using science news articles for teaching, I’d love to find out more about how journalism might be helping science.

  2. Michel

    the blog’s great, I follow it everyday, but really, I think that there’s a lot of unnecessary self-pity and petty griping among the scientific media on this stuff, and this post is an opportunity to point some things out:

    1) what a candidate for a party presidential nominee says or believes is, in itself, utterly inconsequential to anything about the state of science; so rather than news these days being grim, its just what it always has been.

    2) it’s a fun debating point, and a convenient node for focusing broader cultual frustrations, but even if creationism were explicitly taught in schools there would be very little measurable impact. If what is taught in schools had a measurable impact on what students learn and retain, most americans could would know at least algebra, be conversant with the nation’s history, and able to recite the major themes of Faulkner or Wright. Obviously they cannot. Again, frustrating, but not very grim.

    3) Whether one ‘believes in’ evolution or not surely is an effect, rather than a cause, of deeper ignorances and biases. The explosion of research into motivated reasoning, misfiring cognitive heuristics, confirmation bias, etc., should persuade anyone who claims to represent science that surface beliefs (the kind of sentences you assent or dissent from in a poll or survey) are meaningless in terms of predicting or explaining behavior.

    4) The disillusion registered by Tyson is a lamentable trend, but it’s been going on well nigh three decades now and has little to do with conservative dunderheads. The reasons are: a) the obvious next ‘dream’ would be mission to mars or the asteroid belt or moon colony or something, but the technology just isn’t there yet and people get tired of waiting; b) budget contraints–it is Obama, after all, who is cutting NASA, the NIH, etc., and not because he’s a trog, but because it’s easy to cut that stuff in times of budgetary panic. I don’t like it, but again, while things are in this case grim, it has little to do with conservatives.

    [CZ: Thanks for your comment–I appreciate it. Here are some thoughts in response to each point. In general, I think you’re making sweeping points without explaining the reasoning behind them well enough, and without presenting evidence.

    1. Rick Perry has backed up his statements about creationism by appointing a self-avowed creationist at the chairman of the state board of education. Scientists in Texas have been struggling with some members of the board to preserve sound educational standards in the state. I fail to see how this is inconsequential.

    2. The question of what is taught in school, and how well it is taught, are two separate questions. You are conflating them. According to your reasoning, it doesn’t really matter what teachers teach. Forgive me if I don’t agree.

    3. I’m not sure what this has to do with what I wrote in the blog post. I dont’ actually agree with it. Would you say that your own understanding of, say, gravity, is the result of cognitive biases?

    4. Did I say that these trends in science were solely the fault of “conservative dunderheads”? No. So don’t turn me into a straw man.]

  3. Rob Knell

    Couple of emails like that and you can retire: “My work is done”. FWIW I tell all my undergrads taking my 3rd year parasitology course to read Parasite Rex, and a fair few of them have gone on to careers in the business, as it were, so you can probably claim a few of them too.

    Rob K

  4. Congratulations on such a successful influence! I feel like an academic butterfly at the moment, everything I read I want to work with. Combined with overthinking what I want to do with my life means I haven’t had that kind of eureka moment – I’m envious of those that have the good fortune to have it.

  5. Carl:

    Your book, “At The Water’s Edge,” inspired me in graduate school to consider more closely the embryonic development of the hand in tetrapods and its implications for hand weirdness in sauropod dinosaurs. Reading the chapter on the development of the hand clicked some switch in me, and vertebrate development and evolution became more entwined in my research ever since. This has culminated in a number of papers on sauropods and their relatives.

    Science writers do have great powers!


  6. Tom

    I just started an internship at a parasitology lab, and I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Parasite Rex. Thanks for inspiring me!

  7. I work as an educator in the Museums and Heritage field, including teaching about geology, mineralogy and natural resources at my city’s museum and ecology and palaeontology at my city’s zoo, and the responsibility of good science education impresses itself upon me all the time. I’m fully aware that I have a real chance to provoke the interests of children and adults to investigate science and to bring solid information to them, whether it’s explaining the evidence for climate change to a denier in front of a crowd of 80 or discussing the possibilities for resurrecting woolly mammoths. I was going on about the discovery of colour in dinosaur feathers the same day it was announced.

    It’s an awesome responsibility, but an amazingly fun one as well. Hopefully those seeds I helped plant sprout up!

  8. That is just wonderful; and so awesome that they wrote you. (When my first book came out, several students hold me it made them want to become epidemiologists. I wish I knew whether they followed through!)

  9. Claire

    Agreed, completely. I had been a political junky throughout high school, before my older brother essentially challenged me to read Guns, Germs, and Steel. From then on, I was hooked on environmental history and science. Your own books, Carl, helped steer me further towards the biology side of things. Although through a somewhat circuitous route, I can trace my career from reading that book, now to being a PhD student in a marine science program. Books written for lay people and science reporting have an enormous impact!

  10. Brad

    Congrats Carl. It is a great feeling to know you’ve had such an impact.

  11. Steviepinhead

    Dang, Carl! You must be bustin’ your britches with pride…!

    Deservedly so!

    Keep it up…

  12. Daniel J. Andrews

    Science writers: You have great powers.

    I can’t believe that no-one has quipped something like, With great power comes great responsibility. :)

  13. Jim Mauch

    The science writer does inspire future scientists but they do more. They change the attitudes of the american public. We come to look at scientists not as the anti-Christ but rather as admired professionals. We come to respect the ability of scientific inquiry to gives us answers.

  14. Chris Farnsworth

    As a middle school science teacher I’ll say any science teacher not using science journalism in class is missing the point. The awesomeness of science told by a talented storyteller. It almost teaches itself. I was showing a video clip of Lynn Margulis last year and she said she is interested in science if it tells a story, and I was yelling out “YES!” and scaring my students. I remember an intro of Best American Science Writing maybe 4 years back when the writer said “I wonder if any teacher actually teaches just using science journalism”. Well, some of us do. A former student now using x-ray technology to authenticate artworks in San Antonio just mentioned her time in 7th grade and how she loved “Level 4:Virus Hunters of the CDC”. All of my students have read excerpts of, and several have read in their entirety, Genome by Matt Ridley (Chromosome 4!) and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and all of them know the names Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong. And they love it! Full disclosure requires me to admit some of them like 2 fictitious writers named Ed Zimmer and Carl Young! If you can help them break it down, they learn the science by trying to understand the story. Carl and Ed pay it forward to us, we pay it forward to our students and if we are lucky, they return the favor to the next generation. ps- For teachers, Sean Carrolls free lectures on Evolution on the HHMI website are indispensable and Carls article “And Now: The Rest of the Genome” and “Microbial Overlords” are must reads for life science students, and I’m not just kissin’ up. Kiss, kiss. Hope that wasn’t a humblebrag, but I’m afraid it might be.

  15. Boris

    All I got from reading Parasite Rex was a fear of brain parasites and strange looks as I clean children’s hands after petting cats.

    Only joking, it is an amazing book. Not quite up there with The Selfish Gene, but absolutely the sort of science writing that amazes, inspires and delights. If I had read these books earlier in life I might have endured the Biology curriculum and become some sort of biologist.

  16. Sweta

    While I’ve always had an interest in pursuing graduate school in the sciences, parasite rex cemented my desire to specifically study insect neurobiology. I loved the stories of the various parasites that were able to change the behaviors of their insect hosts! I’m in my 2nd year of grad school now and loving it.

    Great blog, great books, please keep writing!


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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