Some Resources and Advice about Science Writing

Last week I enjoyed traveling to Santa Fe, the oldest capital city in the United States and a center of art, architecture, and literature. At an elevation of 7200 ft (2200 m), Santa Fe rises high above the desert floor at the southern edge of the massive Rocky Mountains. It presents an inspiring and scenic venue for the 20th annual Science-Writing Workshop, organized by renowned science writers Sandra Blakeslee and George Johnson.

A photo I took of the Ancestral Pueblo village, Tyuonyi, in the Bandelier National Monument near Santa Fe, NM (May 2015)

A photo I took of the Ancestral Pueblo village, Tyuonyi, in the Bandelier National Monument near Santa Fe, NM (May 2015)

The workshop included a variety of friendly and encouraging instructors: Pam Belluck, a medical writer for the New York Times; Alan Boyle, science editor for NBC News Digital (whose group I was in), Adam Rogers, science writer and editor for Wired, and David Corcoran, editor emeritus for the NYT‘s Science Times. It also included a day at the Santa Fe Institute, an interdisciplinary research and education center founded by physicists (including the Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann), which hosts scientists and authors in a variety of disciplines, including Cormac McCarthy and playwright Sam Shepard. The week included an afternoon excursion to the Bandelier National Monument as well.

We learned from the experts about: how to write a good pitch (or a bad pitch) for an article or feature story; how to conduct an effective interview; how to structure a story for a newspaper, magazine, or online media; how to write a simultaneously compelling and accurate science story; how to work with an editor and iteratively improve a story; how to deal with hype versus reality of popular and complex subjects; how to develop a successful book proposal and actually write the book; and more. I found it to be a helpful and stimulating workshop.

This is just an example of many opportunities for exploring and learning science writing skills and for meeting and networking with other science writers and communicators. For example, much further north, in the upper end of the Rockies, there will be a science communication workshop in Banff, Alberta at the end of July. If you live in a major city or near a university, you can probably find local resources and events as well. (I attended inspiring talks by Lynne Friedmann in San Diego.) Moreover, although science writing has its unique tools and skills, it can be useful to explore opportunities for developing fiction writing or general reporting techniques too.

It turns out that people follow a diverse variety of paths to become science writers and communicators. Some people begin as nonfiction writers or journalists and later realize that science is awesome and focus their energy on writing about scientists and scientific discoveries. Others are involved in technology or health-related fields and try to satisfy the demand for news and stories in these subjects. And some publicly engaged scientists (like Neil deGrasse Tyson) involved in outreach, education, or policy seek to expand or extend their efforts along these lines. Furthermore, keep in mind that there are proliferating ways to communicate science: with magazine and newspaper articles, online articles, blog posts, nonfiction and fiction books, children’s books, podcasts, videos, social media, and various combinations of these.


If you are thinking about learning more or becoming more involved in science writing, I strongly suggest that you avail yourself of the resources of the National Association of Science Writers and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, and consider joining NASW especially if you’re based in the U.S. Their meetings are very useful, and they also organize activities and resources at American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meetings. Check out the World Federation of Science Journalists too. Depending on your field or beat, you also may be interested in the Society of Environmental Journalists or the Association of Health Care Journalists.

To get started, I recommend pursuing any writing and communication opportunities you can find, however small. If you have your own blog or occasionally write guest posts for other blogs, continue with this and use it as a springboard to hone your skills and determine whether you enjoy it. If you are more confident about your voice or speaking skills, then look for opportunities to give public talks or to volunteer at a museum or library or zoo or planetarium. Many institutions develop online videos as well. If you prefer writing, your local newspaper or magazine could be a good place to start too. You could try working as an intern there or with public information officers at your local college or university.

Needless to say, science writers write. I suggest checking out these compendia of resources: A Field Guide for Science Writers and the Science Writers’ Handbook. I’ve just begun to explore the annual anthologies, Best American Science Writing (with editors such as Alan Lightman and Rebecca Skloot) and Best American Science and Nature Writing (also with impressive editors like Elizabeth Kolbert and E. O. Wilson) too, and I recommend them.

When you find science writers you like, follow them and read more of them, and try to figure out what they do that piques your interest. Stay open-minded, and you might find that they lead you in a variety of fruitful directions. Also take a look at these resources here (Ed Yong), here (Carl Zimmer), here, and here.

Finally, if you have developed your skills and networks, consider trying your hand at freelance writing to see what it’s like. In addition, many universities offer one- or two-year graduate programs in science communication, writing, and journalism, and they may be a good investment of your time and effort. Rob Irion, the head of the UC Santa Cruz program, offers excellent advice about that, and if you are a scientist, read this article too. Whatever path you choose, I wish you good luck. The world needs more science communicators!

Does your social circle bias your view of the world?

You know who your friends are. You have common interests with them as well as some things you disagree about, and they’re the ones who respond to your texts, tweets and Facebook posts. You know how you compare to the Joneses next door, but what about to the rest of the neighborhood? It turns out that, based on extensive research by Dr. Mirta Galesic and other social psychologists, most people tend to be more similar to their social circle than to the general population, and this influences their views of others’ experiences. In other words, our limited social experiences affect how we perceive other people.

According to Dr. Mirta Galesic, one's social circle affects one's views and assessments of the general population.

According to Dr. Mirta Galesic, one’s social circle affects one’s views and assessments of the general population.

Mirta Galesic, now the Cowan Chair in Human Social Dynamics at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, previously worked at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany, and earned her Ph.D. in Croatia. She has lived and worked in a variety of places and accrued experience working with researchers around the world.

Many psychologists pry into the human mind, while many social scientists ask the question, “What is in the environment?” Galesic’s approach seeks to combine these viewpoints by both exploring the mind and environmental influences on social behavior as well as the complex interactions between them. She attempts to navigate the difficult path between nature and nurture.

Focusing only on the mind when studying human cognition only tells part of the story, according to Galesic.

Focusing only on the mind when studying human cognition only tells part of the story, according to Galesic.

Over the course of decades of research on human cognition, social psychologists have identified and coined more and more biases in how we interpret social interactions and the wider world. As Galesic put it, every year a researcher announces, “Oh, I’ve discovered a new bias!” Some of the biases seem contradictory too, such as false consensus and false uniqueness, where one overestimates how one’s views are similar to others’ or how unique they are.

Galesic’s recent research, which she presented to us in a fascinating lecture at the Santa Fe Institute on Monday, includes too opposing biases. She refers to the first one, self-enhancement, as the “Lake Wobegon effect,” which refers to the amusingly optimistic motto in Prairie Home Companion, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” The glass is at least half full.

Steve Loughnan, a social psychologist at University of Edinburgh, has observed this effect in his independent research as well. In 2011, he found greater self-enhancement “in societies with more income inequality, and income inequality predicted cross-cultural differences in self-enhancement better than did individualism/collectivism.” In contrast, however, sometimes people exhibit the opposite, self-depreciation bias, in which one pessimistically believes that they or their group is below average. This tends to happen when one imagines that one is worse than others with apparently difficult tasks, where success is relatively rare. (How do your skills compare when it comes to understanding calculus or cooking a souffle?) Moreover, some people appear to be “unskilled and unaware of it,” according to University of Michigan professor Katherine Burson.

In two recent studies, Galesic collaborated with Henrik Olsson, a colleague at her former institute in Berlin, and Jörg Riesskamp, a psychologist at the University of Basel, Switzerland. They published their research on Dutch, German, and US populations in Psychological Science and Cognitive Science Society Proceedings. They start with the well-known observation of “homophily,” in which interactions between like-minded individuals creates a tendency for people to associate with others similar to themselves, for example with respect to socioeconomic status and ideology. Galesic and her co-workers perform a rigorous statistical analysis of thousands of randomly selected respondents with a “social sampling model,” in which people infer how others are doing by sampling from their own immediate social environments.

Galesic, Olsson & Riesskamp (2012): self-enhancement and self-depreciation in people's estimates of household wealth, work stress, and number of friends in their social circles and general population.

Galesic, Olsson & Riesskamp (2012): self-enhancement and self-depreciation in people’s estimates of household wealth, work stress, and number of friends in their social circles and general population.

It turns out that, as Galesic concludes, that “people are well attuned to their immediate social environments but not as well to broader society.” For example, people exhibit self-enhancement when it comes to work stress: they view their own position as better than it really is, especially for those who experience relatively high levels of stress. On the other hand, people have an apparent self-depreciation with respect to household wealth, in which one’s position appears worse than it really is, especially those who are better off. Both effects could be explained by Galesic’s model, which appears to demonstrate that a more complete picture of the nature of human cognition requires understanding people’s inference processes and their environments.

Although knowing one’s social circle does not translate into accurate knowledge of characteristics of the general population, with which they have less contact, that is not necessarily a problem especially if one is aware of the effect. In addition, one can attempt to reduce that bias by enlarging and diversifying one’s social circle. Galesic herself described how, since moving to the US last year, she has been trying to immerse herself in a wide range of social and political environments and expose herself to a variety of news sources, even going so far as to include Fox News and Sean Hannity.

These and related sociological and psychological effects continue to generate both scientific and public interest. Eytan Bakshy and collaborators recently found that Facebook and other social media tend to herd people into “filter bubbles,” where people selectively encounter news and views similar to their own, thus increasing political polarization. In addition, Shai Davidai and Thomas Gilovich polled 3,300 Americans and discovered that people overestimated upward economic mobility, especially if they are in poor or conservative groups. They continue to believe in the “American Dream.”

One can imagine important and interesting implications of this research, which Galesic outlined at the end of her presentation. For example, since beliefs travel through social networks, one might encourage support or awareness about particular policies through them. One could communicate important information, such as about medical screenings and vaccines, since “systematic peer-to-peer diffusion might be more effective.” Moreover, the differences between people’s immediate social circles and the larger society highlight the importance of encouraging diversity in neighborhoods and workplaces, communicating with people with different views, and the benefits of immersion in different communities.

COMPETES Act: The House Science Committee’s Controversial Bill

Two weeks ago, the United States House Science Committee, chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), passed the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1806) along party lines. Originally authored by Bart Gordon (D-TN) in 2007 to improve the US’s competitiveness and innovation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, it contributed substantial funding to research and activities in federal agencies including the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). (In a previous post, I was hopeful about the passage of an earlier version of the bill.) Its current version, however, includes contentious cuts to NSF and DOE research programs, and it now proceeds to the House floor.

Although the President’s Budget Request for fiscal year 2016 includes small increases for the NSF, DOE Office of Science, and NIST, the new COMPETES Act, if passed in its current version, would shift funding away from research in the social sciences, geosciences, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and biological and environmental research. In other words, federally funded research in some science fields would gain more support at the expense of these fields, whose funding would be cut by 10-50%. In particular, the bill would severely narrow the scope of NSF research and scientific facilities in the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) and geoscience (GEO) directorates and would reduce the DOE’s basic and applied research programs in climate change and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

I suppose it could be worse. Lamar Smith’s earlier version included attacks and interference in the NSF’s scientific peer-review process (which I discussed in
this post in March), and he made a small concession by removing such language from the bill.

Clearly not happy with the COMPETES Act, scientists of all stripes continue to voice their opposition. While the House Science Committee’s Republican majority rejected one Democratic amendment after another, 32 scientific agencies submitted official letters for the record describing their concerns. (These agencies include the American Physical Society and American Institute of Physics, of which I am a member.) Moreover, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)—the US’s premier scientific society—submitted a letter as well, pointing out that H.R. 1806 violates its own Guiding Principles. The letter also states, “NSF is unique among federal agencies in that it supports a balanced portfolio of basic research in all disciplines, using the scientific peer review system as the foundation for awarding research grants based on merit.”

In my opinion, the COMPETES Reauthorization Act needs serious revision so that scientists in all fields, including the social sciences and geosciences, may continue their work at an internationally respected level. This would certainly make the US more competitive in science and would aid people seeking STEM careers. If the bill’s proponents will not allow these necessary improvements to be made, then the bill should be rejected.

For more information, check out this well-written article in Wired and detailed coverage in Science magazine and Inside Higher Ed.