The value of "this is cool" science stories

By Ed Yong | March 16, 2010 8:30 am

A couple of nights ago, I discovered a blog by Canadian science journalist Colin Schultz, who is doing a series of interviews with eminent science journalists including Carl Zimmer, Nicola Jones, David Dobbs and Jay Ingram. They’re great reads and I especially liked the stark differences in the answers from Nicola Jones and Carl Zimmer, particularly about the sorts of stories they like to tell.

Jones says, “The really fulfilling stories are the ones that come, I think, spinning out of real world events.” She is interested in how science “relates to policy developments” or “to things that are going on in the real world.” Carl, on the other hand, says, “I think a lot of science writers actually try to search a little too hard for that ‘news you can use’ when it comes to science. A lot of science is just interesting in and of itself. And it just sort of gives you a richer understanding of the world, and there really isn’t any need to make wild claims about a cure for cancer right around the corner”

My approach is far more aligned to Carl’s. I often tell stories on this blog with absolutely no practical relevance. Their goal is to instil a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world, which is what the best science communicators have done for me. As I said in my own ‘twitterview‘ with Colin (see below), we shouldn’t “underestimate the power of ‘this is cool’ stories.”In the short term, current affairs and political decisions provide nice, obvious hooks with which to explain science to a mass audience. But in the long-term, I suspect that stories that evoke a sense of awe and excitement are what truly get people to regularly engage with science, its methods and its processes

None of this is intended to suggest that “this-is-cool” stories are somehow superior to those explaining the interaction between science, policy and society, or what David Dobbs calls the “smells funny” stories. They are simply the stories that I prefer to tell. Individual journalists can specialise in one or more of these areas but across the science writing population, we ultimately need a mix of approaches.

Richard Dawkins famously said quoted a New Scientist editor in saying, “Science is interesting, and if you don’t like it, you can f**k off.”The problem is that a lot of people have clearly taken him up on his advice. Reaching people who aren’t already interested in science has always been one of the main challenges of science communication. The varied nature of newspaper spreads provide opportunities for drawing people’s attention to stories they might not have deliberately sought out. Tablet readers have an outside chance of duplicating this effect. But for now, as newspapers decline and shrink, the worry is that the internet will only cater for established interests. As Colin asks, “All of my interviews have pointed out that strong story and strong characters can get someone to read your science story, but what if they don’t open the section?” 

Opening a section, of course, is an example of “pull marketing”, where users and consumers yank in the information that they actively demand. But the internet’s strengths will increasingly rely on “push marketing” where people foist material towards consumers. This isn’t just about traditional paid advertising. Social media ensures that we are all each others’ editors and advertisers. Through email, Facebook, Twitter, Delicious, Buzz and more, we shove content into the attentional spotlights of our contacts. 

And this is an area where “this-is-cool” stories really excel. Indeed, by far the most popular stories on NERS are the ones that are interesting for their own sake. I’ve noticed that if I write about medical breakthroughs (yes, even the ones that are actually breakthroughs), they generally get less traction than stories about, say, an amazing new piece of animal behaviour. People care when doctors use genome sequencing to reverse a faulty diagnosis, but they apparently care even more when scientists reveal the colours of dinosaur feathers. Bigger institutions report similar trends. Science stories feature prominently on the New York Times’s list of most emailed articles. An analysis of this list revealed that “readers wanted to share articles that inspired awe”.

“Science kept doing better than we expected,” said Dr. Berger, a social psychologist and a professor of marketing at Penn’s Wharton School. “We anticipated that people would share articles with practical information about health or gadgets, and they did, but they also sent articles about paleontology and cosmology. You’d see articles shooting up the list that were about the optics of deer vision.”

There are myriad and unpredictable reasons why readers will share stories with each other. Good journalists always try to write with audiences in mind, finding angles that will pique their readers’ interests. But in terms of working out your readers’ interest, the internet is smarter than you. It has the ability to push stories to unexpected audiences for reasons that you might never have anticipated.

Last week, I wrote a piece about sex determination in chickens and the surprising discovery that every chicken cell has its own male or female sexual identity. A day later, a friend of mine told me, via Facebook, that the story had inspired her chicken-keeping friends. This has happened time and again. A piece about ballet postures becoming more extreme over time was posted on several ballet forums. A statistical analysis of the lack of female chess grandmasters reached a substantial chess-playing community after a female grandmaster linked to it from her own blog. And then there’s always Carl’s now famous (infamous?) duck sex example.

None of these case studies involved sci-curious people actively pursuing their interests. They didn’t involve discoveries that are going to change or save the world. They involved people being fed interesting science stories by their pals and peers, purely on the basis that they were interesting. In this way, this blog accumulates readers who aren’t initially interested in science. I know this happens, because I get emails from them and because NERS appears on some blogrolls in absence of any other science blogs. Perhaps Dawkins’s quote should be amended to “Science is interesting, and if you don’t like it, we’ll get your friend to convince you.”

An aside about Twitterviews

All of this started when I mentioned on Twitter that I liked Colin’s interviews. That prompted a brief but interesting transatlantic conversation with him about science journalism, all delivered in 140-character tweets while Colin was apparently on the bus and I was sitting on my sofa writing about sperm. I shut down Tweetdeck to do some actual writing and was a bit surprised to open it a few hours later to find that Colin had stuck up our conversation on this blog as a “twitterview“. All abbreviations were stretched out but no words were added.

I love it. It’s a great example of how an informal chat can turn into something perhaps more substantial and how social media like Twitter can provide ideas and material for opportunistic writers. I’m also quite pleased with the fact that the conversation seems rather cogent, despite the often-cited limitations of the channel. Of course, said limitations make it difficult to really delve deeply into a topic, so this post expands on some of the ideas we talked about and acts as a response to Colin’s post.

Image: by the legendary Bill Watterson, but you knew that already.

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Comments (20)

  1. Jennifer

    I am a big fan of “this is cool” science. To me that’s the hook that is naturally occurring in science. Other “hooks” – be they cancer cures, health claims, policy affecting, disease fighting, etc. – have the great risk of being overly emphasized by journalists, desperate for an audience. Then, when it comes to light that the information wasn’t fully fleshed out yet or that the effects weren’t as strong as originally thought, the general public ends up getting mad at or annoyed with science “not knowing anything” or “getting it wrong again”. Which, obviously, just acts to discourage people from paying attention to science in the future.
    I also think a big value to “this is cool” science reporting is that it doesn’t usually break down into “tribalism” type arguments. Science for science’s sake doesn’t usually have the specific goal of amplifying arguments. It’s not focusing on one side against the other, or one company making tons of money off of an idea. This is a rarity in journalism and it’s value shouldn’t be overlooked.
    Loved your quick, seemingly innocuous, sentence, “But in terms of working out your readers’ interest, the internet is smarter than you.” Ah, emergence. So fascinating.
    And great image! I have that particular cartoon hanging up in my office.
    Thanks for your “this is cool” science blogging. I share your articles all the time.

  2. Kim

    My 6-year-old started trying to read the larger words on this page after he saw the dinosaur picture. I asked him whether it made him more interested in reading about science. He said no, but it made him think of stories about Transformer dinosaurs in fighter planes.
    I’m not sure whether that story had a point or not. A scientist’s kid (who drew some rather disturbing earthquake damage the other day) probably doesn’t need to be sucked into science journalism…

  3. Fantastic stuff. You’ve got me convinced for “this is cool” stories. Not that it would have taken much considering I’ve been a science-junkie since I was born.
    The discussion also reminded me of the one journal article I keep forgetting to read:
    Davies, Sarah et al. “Discussing dialogue: perspectives on the value of science dialogue events that do not inform policy”. Public Understanding of Science. 18. 3 (2009): 338-353.
    It will be interesting to see how it stacks up.

  4. Schwa

    Just to be fair to Dawkins, he was quoting an editor of New Scientist as an example of how not to communicate.

  5. I think my entire science-inspired artsy career is built on the “this is cool” model.
    Each strange new discovery can be used as a springboard for those of us in the fiction business to bounce and dive into the science.

  6. Ed Yong

    Jennifer – that’s a wonderful comment. I wholeheartedly agree that readers are getting increasingly savvy about overplayed future implications. By contrast, there is great honesty and value in selling a story to someone based entirely on its existing merits. Your point about conflict is an excellent one too. Of course, “this is cool” stories can have their fair share of conflict (see the dinosaur one I linked to above), but in the vast majority of cases, the only conflict is between knowledge about the world and ignorance. And I think that most people would be on the same side of that battle.

    Kim:

    I asked him whether it made him more interested in reading about science. He said no, but it made him think of stories about Transformer dinosaurs in fighter planes.

    This is how it starts. In 50 years, when he’s collecting his Nobel, I’ll expect a tip. ;-)

    Schwa – I didn’t know that. I’ve amended the text to reflect this.

    And everyone should also check out David Dobb’s response about how “Nifty” stories, as he’s now calling them, combine with “Fishy” ones to teach the “value and nature of empiricism”.

  7. I myself am a huge fan of “this is cool” science stories. However, in my experience, non-scientists feel like they have a better chance of understanding the science if you can convince them that it’s relevant somehow. Your examples kind of confirm this: the chicken story was of interest to people with chickens, the chess story, to chess players. That being said, I absolutely agree that hyping up false cures and such is not the way to go.
    Great post!

  8. Namnezia

    First let me say that I really like your blog and am a big fan, so don’t take anything I say as a put-down but rather as constructive criticism. I completely agree that “science is cool” type stories are much better and I like this approach to writing about science for science’s sake. I also appreciate the variety of topics that you cover. However, I think that one criticism of this approach is defining what exactly you mean by “cool”. In reading your blog, I feel most of what is covered is stuff that reaches the scientific headlines. And I don’t mean headlines such as your local news headlines, but the headlines in the front matter of scientific journals such as Science, Nature, Current Biology or PNAS. It seems like a great deal of your posts are drawn from articles published in these journals and many are already featured in press releases from these journals. While journals will try to highlight what’s cool and/or quirky (eg. scientists have uncovered a surprising behavior in zebra colonies…) , I think that these types of articles represent a minority of the scientific enterprise. It would be nice to see someone as talented as you cover just as cool, but not quite as obviously cool, science. I think that it is relatively easy to write an article about a surprising new and hot finding or technique; it is much more challenging to make the seemingly mundane interesting. As a scientist, working on something that I and my colleagues in the field think is cool and interesting, I often find it hard to relate to non-scientists why exactly what we are doing is cool and interesting. A big part I think is because not many of my publications by themselves would necessarily have an attention grabbing headline. The other part, is because some of the concepts might be complicated. It would be nice to see talented science writers such as yourself cover less headline-making topics in more depth and make them also more accessible to the general public. Sort of like a review article, but for non-scientists, or for scientists in different fields.
    Again, this is not meant to be a complaint, since you can do a much better job at this than I ever possibly could, just some ideas.

  9. OK, firstly Colin: do read Sarah’s paper, though I’m not sure how on topic it is though, you might find her focus is slightly elsewhere. I did my PhD with Sarah and can recommend her work as thoughtful and detailed. Maybe it does relate to this issue… it would be interesting to hear what you think anyway.
    Secondly, Ed you are ANNOYING. I’m currently writing a paper based on a chapter in my PhD which is largely a critique of the discourse of wonder and awe in science communication, and then there you go writing a perfectly reasonable defence of the enterprise. Wanker.
    Basically I agree with you that within the big wide world of science communication inspiring a bit of awe is a good thing. I also think that I’m a miserable old cow who has had her ‘wonder’ in nature re-woken by good science writing since I finished my PhD and started lecturing full time 18 months ago. This is probably a good thing, and I hope others’ are/ have been/ will be similarly inspired.
    Still, I think my PhD-paper stands (or at least I hope so, presenting it at uni of Brighton next week). It’s not properly written yet, so I’m not at a point where I can distill it into a blog comment for a non-specialist audience.
    What I can say now is that I think it’s worth remembering that the wonder of science are largely an aesthetic. Without getting too tied up in history of science/ theories of the sublime, otherwise I you end up dangerously near the area of sci com’n as religion (and really do you want to have that discussion?). I should also underline that saying something is an aesthetic doesn’t necessarily make it a bad or trivial thing. It’s too easy to dismiss aesthetics.
    Allied to the aesthetic point, as I’ve blogged about in terms of space science, I think we need to be careful of assuming people share our personal taste in what is cool/ awesome/ beautiful. Aesthetics can be a tribal thing, and articulating them only emphasises tribal boundaries. This is one of the reasons why I *really* like your amendment of the Dawkins line.
    I’m still not entirely convinced by any cheerleading element though. Saying way-hay for science seems as simplistic and arbitrary as saying way-hay for a college football team. Yeah its a great fun bonding experience to bounce around a bit (and I do like a good pom pom) but ultimately it doesn’t say much about the substance of your college. Note: I don’t think you cheerlead in that simplistic way, but there are sci communicators who do (they can remain nameless).
    (Again though, probably being bitter old cow talking there, my ex coaches American Football. Bloody cheerleaders)

  10. Ed Yong

    Scientific Chick - I quite agree, although I probably wouldn’t have chosen the word “relevant”. I think it’s more about “familiarity”. A lot of my posts have some sort of twist designed to help readers relate to something that’s a bit more obscure. As an example, this post about heat-seeking proteins in snakes starts with a bit about sniffing wasabi. That doesn’t make it any more relevant to people, but it does at least give readers a little something that they know about and can relate to.

    Namnezia – I think your criticism is entirely fair. Most of the papers I write about come from large journals although I stress that I have no specific allegiance to them. I have around 10-15 “B-list” titles in my Bookmarks and I check them regularly for stories that others might not have seen. I also get a kick out of writing molecular biology stories, precisely because, as you say, it’s more of a challenge to make protein pathways as interesting as, say, dinosaurs. There are two reasons why I don’t do more of these posts.

    The first is honesty – the only real reason why I choose to write about something is that I genuinely find it exciting rather than because I want to promote something or because I think something will be controversial. And on average, I’ll find more papers that I get a kick out of in larger journals. This is really important because even though I’d love to big up a mundane but important aspect of science, if I’m not jumping up and down in a passionate frenzy about it, it’ll show in the writing. And because I do this in my free time and without direct payment, I need to enjoy it.

    The second reason is time. It takes a lot of time to scour the pages of lots of different journals looking for the smaller tales that are worth telling. It takes even more time to do a review of a field – I do that for the mainstream features I write, and the time spent per word is far greater. So basically, all I can guarantee is that if a small, obscure topic catches my attention, I’ll write about it, no matter what journal it’s published in.

    Alice – heh. I look forward to seeing your paper. I also totally agree about the aesthetic point, and I would never assume that what is cool to me is cool to everyone else. Science communicators can’t afford to be complacent. You can’t expect people to just *get it* because you can wield metaphors like some sort of writing Jedi. If they’re still nonplussed, the answer is to try again – differently or more subtly – rather than to get indignant about how they just can’t see the awesomeness of horizontal gene transfer or the microstructure of squid beaks. Even though they’d clearly be numpties… ;-)

  11. I totally agree with this post. I’m currently doing research on malaria dynamics but I got here because I liked blue whales and dinosaurs. Then I liked maths that described ecology and evolution. Now I’m maybe doing something useful for the world. And thats exactly the point. Getting people interested in science will mean we have more scientists and a better scientific culture. Thats only going to lead to better practical science, even if it came from “this is cool” science.
    I think this is the main lesson schools need to learn. I hated every biology lesson I ever had until I started my degree in biology. I knew I liked biology, I just didn’t like it in school. And that’s because they teach stuff that a lot of people (me especially included) find boring such as the kalvin cycle and how osmosis works. Instead teach kids dinosaurs and laser guns, if they decide they want to learn physiology later they can catch up very easily.

  12. As a non-scientist, the “hook” to get me to read something about science is certainly part of the process, and Ed does that very well. That is true in other areas — for example, I’m an attorney, but the quickest way to get me to stop reading my Bar Journal is to bog the point of a story down in ‘legalese’. (To be honest, the science is much more interesting than the law anyway).
    In his book, Drive, by Daniel Pink, one of the discussions he explores is the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. For me, reading the science articles comes from intrinsic motivation. They are interesting, therefore I read. I suspect if I had to do it for $$ or to maintain my professional credentials, I might find it much less engaging.
    All that said, Ed, you do a great job of communicating what interests you. The wasabi comment was spot on — that was the story that I sent my husband because he’s such a wasabi fan. He has little time for recreational reading, so if I send him one, it’s like a little break of ‘fun’ in the ‘reality’ of his day.

  13. I totally agree with this post. I’m currently doing research on malaria dynamics but I got here because I liked blue whales and dinosaurs. Then I liked maths that described ecology and evolution. Now I’m maybe doing something useful for the world. And thats exactly the point. Getting people interested in science will mean we have more scientists and a better scientific culture. Thats only going to lead to better practical science, even if it came from “this is cool” science.
    I think this is the main lesson schools need to learn. I hated every biology lesson I ever had until I started my degree in biology. I knew I liked biology, I just didn’t like it in school. And that’s because they teach stuff that a lot of people (me especially included) find boring such as the kalvin cycle and how osmosis works. Instead teach kids dinosaurs and laser guns, if they decide they want to learn physiology later they can catch up very easily.

  14. IanW

    Fear not the T.Rex with the F14; fear instead the MRSA with a cruise missile….

  15. efrique

    “Science is interesting, and if you don’t like it, you can f**k off.”

    I think a big probalem with a lot of science journalism is that a lot of journalists seem to have been inculcated with some sense that science isn’t actually very interesting and must be tarted up with tabloid stock nonsense along the lines of “boffins are baffled by…” (and New Scientist has fallen into this sort of ludicrous sensationalising in a big way), and finding fringe loonies who’ll say some major area of science is all wrong without being able to say actually very much of substance.
    The problem is, this sensationalism makes science increasingly irrelevant and about as interesting as the latest bigfoot photo… which is to say not very.
    When the attitude at New Scientist was very much in the vein of “science is interesting” I bought it all the time (I have shelves and boxes filled with old New Scientists). But now why would I bother? I can read better sensationalist journalism elsewhere, should I be insane enough to want to infect my brain with it.
    Real science *is* interesting, but many science journalists seem to have forgotten, or have been told otherwise by their editors, or maybe they don’t even know.

  16. I’m coming a little late to the party but a lot of the article – and some of the followng comments – really resonates with me. I’ve long been a science nerd who thought that a lot of what I found out about science was simply cool. As a kid this was by flicking from page to page in an encyclopedia, and more recently by getting lost on the interweb. I now teach and daily face the same struggle I suppose a journalist does, how to make the subject interesting to an audience. (Journalism is something I’ve only dabbled in and never very profitably)
    Some of my kids react in this very scientific way, of just ‘this is cool’. Some of that is about links to previous ideas, or explaining a puzzle, or just interesting in ways that are hard to explain. Those kids are a delight, and become rarer as the classes get older. Some kids want to know why it matters, what the implications are for them (and I suppose, by implication, for humans in general). This is very much the focus most current science GCSE courses take, talking about relevance, or sometimes commercial outcomes. (Scarily a recent markscheme only awarded marks if a student explained bias in terms of financial incentives – in a science question discussing experimental results)
    For Python fans, I’d like to include a link to a brilliant that appeared today on The Lay Scientist entitled “What Have The Scientists Ever Done For Us?”
    http://layscience.net/node/980
    I try to regularly share moments of awe and wonder with my kids, at all levels, from the sheer scale (scientific, financial, political) of the LHC to biological oddities such as pipeworms (seen here!) and platypus. It’s what got me into science. Maybe they will see the beauty of it too.

  17. I hear everything you say, Ed. The whole “this is cool” idea is precisely the reason why my own blog is existing, only that I collect the wild stories from neurology annals and such.
    While I occassionally write ‘news’ items and such, I try not to lose sight of my main goal which is to educate and entertain at the same time. I find that the only problem I have is translating the stuffy anf high-falutin’ language of science papers into easily readable text, but that’s an ongoing project and I’m sure I’ll get there eventually!

  18. Despite its limitations, science does save and change the world: its that simple.

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