History in science journalism

3. July 2011 21:27

A spoge diver from c. 1900. www.divingheritage.com

I just got back from a really fun week in Doha, Qatar, at the World Conference of Science Journalists. I gave two talks there so I thought I'd put what I said into a series of blog posts, in case they're of interest to anyone who wasn't able to attend.

In the next couple of posts, I'll pass on what I had to say about "literary storytelling" in science journalism, and give some tips and recommendations from all the panelists that we didn't have time to talk about in the session itself.

But first, let's talk about the other panel session, on the role of history in science journalism. This panel was chaired by Tom Levenson of MIT, and the aim was to talk about how historians and reporters can use the past to write better science stories. The other panelists were the authors Deborah Blum, Reto Schneider and Holly Tucker.

Deborah spoke beautifully about how she explores the different paradigms or frameworks of thinking that enclose and define science at different points in history. For example, the assumption in the first half of the 20th century that "love doesn't exist" provided the context for the psychologist Harry Harlow's controversial experiments on mother-child bonding in monkeys, which she describes in her book Love at Goon Park.

Reto argued that science news is over-rated, and suggested that perhaps we should redefine it as interesting stories in science that people don't know. And he showed us how he is using Google Maps to plot the locations of different weird science experiments through history.

Holly described her book Blood Work, about the first blood transfusions, performed in the 1660s, and talked among other things about how looking at early science gives us context to discuss our own responses to technological innovation. It reminded me of a feature I wrote recently for New Scientist, about George Church's work on genome engineering. He predicts that his techniques could soon allow us to engineer virus-resistant humans. That might seem like ethically a really bad idea, but he argues that so did IVF and organ transplants when they were first introduced.

I also really liked a point Tom made about historical biographies. Although their subject is in the past, he said, biographies are actually about the present, reflecting the concerns and agenda of the writer's own time, rather than that of the subject.

My job was to talk from a more practical point of view as a science reporter. How can you use history to add depth and value to a piece of science journalism, whether it's a short news article or a whole book? For me, four approaches immediately came to mind:

1. Telling a story

A fairly obvious use of history is that including a chronological narrative - describing a series of events over time, for example following the trials and tribulations of the characters involved in a particular area of science - allows you to convey your subject as a compelling human story.

This can be a personal history - events as they happen to an individual or group of individuals, for example. The reader gets a feel for personal motivations, invests in the characters. He or she can root for particular people, or see them through challenges and setbacks. You can have feuds and battles, with winners and losers. Or it can be an intellectual history - in other words the history of the development of ideas. So the reader gets carried along by that intellectual journey as well. The ideal story would probably have both kinds of history.

A story like this can be set thousands of years ago, or last century, last year or last week. It can focus on a particular episode in time, or it can involve a grand sweeping narrative. I think this kind of approach is especially important for science writing, where you're often dealing with complex, technical subject matter. You can explain concepts bit by bit as the plot unfolds.

One successful example is Longitude by Dava Sobel. It's about a race to develop a clock that could keep time at sea - to enable sailors to calculate their position. Simply writing about the technology involved, the exact design of the springs and escapements, is unlikely to have excited people on its own. It would still have been history, but it's the way Sobel used that history, how she turned it into the story of a race between competing rivals, that made it such a fascinating book.

Another is Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh, about the reclusive scholar Andrew Wiles' solution of Fermat's 350-year-old maths problem. Singh could have just described the maths involved in Fermat's theorem and Wiles' solution, but telling the history of both of these things is what really brought the subject to life. In both cases, the historical story gives you a human dimension and a plot.

In shorter articles, even news articles, using a historical sequence of events can still give you a plot line, an internal logic that drives the story forward. This can be just a small part of the article, it doesn't have to be the whole thing.

For example, I wrote a feature for Nature recently about an argument over Egyptian mummy DNA - some groups are publishing papers on this DNA, while other groups don't believe the results. In this article, I didn't want to just say "A thinks this, B thinks that". To show where the argument had come from, I went back to the origins of the ancient DNA field in the 1980s, explaining the excitement as researchers realised they could amplify DNA from ancient samples, and the harsh lessons they learned as it became clear how many studies had been ruined by contamination. The "sceptics" in the argument had lived through that experience, while many of the "believers" had come in later from other fields. This history doesn't tell you who is right, but it gives you a deeper perspective on the debate. And it gives you a story instead of a static argument.

Even when writing short articles I would always ask researchers how they got into a particular field and why they did a particular study, to get a sense of what is driving them and what has gone before. Even just a sentence or two on that can be enough to sweep the reader into a story.

2. Judging what's new, and what things mean

News is about the present, but an understanding of history is still vital because otherwise how do you know what's new? I think this is particularly important for science journalism because science is all about how our understanding progresses over time. You can't judge the significance of a step forward unless you know where you've come from. In science, it makes all the difference in the world whether something is being done for the first time or for the hundredth time.

Imagine you're writing a story about a cloned chimp embryo. Have scientists cloned a chimp embryo before? A primate embryo before? Has a cloned chimp been born before? You can't necessarily rely on press releases because they often have a vested interest in presenting a story as new. So if you're not already familiar with a field then you need to ask other experts how a new finding compares to what has gone before. This is important when choosing whether to cover a finding, but it is also important information to include in an article for the reader. It doesn't have to be written as a chronological sequence of events, but it does need to be in the story.

Having this perspective is what turns a vacuous account of events into a useful piece of analysis. I once spent some time doing work experience at The Economist, and I asked what was the secret of their success. One of the reporters said to me, it's the 3Cs: compare, contrast, context. To make meaning out of an event you have to set it in its place with what has gone before (as well as what else is going on at the time).

3. Transporting the reader

Writing about different historical periods in a long article or book is like travelling to different exotic places. It immerses you in another world where the landscape is different but so are beliefs, norms, the understanding of how the world works.

You can use the details of different historical periods to engage, surprise and transport the reader. You can also move between time periods to give variety and contrast. For example, my book Decoding the Heavens tells the story of a mysterious ancient Greek machine (called the Antikythera mechanism) that was found in a shipwreck, and the efforts of modern-day scientists to work out what it was. I wanted to combine stories from the astronomers and philosophers of ancient Greece, the archaeologists of the 1900s, and the high-tech scientists of today. That was all mixed in with other aspects of life in those time periods, from the Roman armies sweeping through the Mediterranean region in the first century BC to the sponge divers of the early 20th century with their clunky diving suits (pictured).

4. Gaining big picture perspective

Science is all about understanding, at deepest possible level, why things are the way they are. So I love looking at the big picture, being able to zoom out and see where a story fits in the grand scheme of things. Looking at things on a historical time line enables you to do that.

For example one aspect of understanding where the Antikythera mechanism comes from is to look right back in geological time to the forces that formed the copper and tin that went into the bronze that made it. Once you understand where the metal came from, you can understand why it was scarce, the trade routes that supplied the bronze, and the reasons why bronze objects were valuable and were almost always melted down and reused. This all feeds into why there are so few artefacts like this that survive from the ancient world.

Or, to understand how the survival of particular kinds of object colours our view of ancient societies, you can look far forward to imagine how our own society might look to the archaeologists of the future.

A nice example of this big picture historical perspective is Fermat's Last Theorem. Singh doesn't just go back to Fermat's work in the 17th century, but to the origins of mathematics in ancient Greece. Another lovely book, Life: an unauthorised biography by Richard Fortey, tells a 4-billion-year story. Time lines don't get much bigger than that.


Comments (5) -

7/4/2011 4:08:00 PM #

Another lovely book (...) tells a 4-billion-year story. Time lines don't get much bigger than that.  They sometimes do, as is the case with "Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution" by Neil deGrasse Tyson & Donald Goldsmith (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22540.Origins). As the title says, it's a 14-billion-year story, and that is pretty much the limit to which you can go in the past.

Augustin Canada

7/6/2011 4:09:00 AM #

Nice piece, very thought-provoking, thanks.  I would say that history and science provide different--and complementary--modes of explanation. Science is about mechanisms. History is about origins and context. So adding history to a science piece enriches it by providing another way of explaining the phenomena. Who did it? What does it mean? Where did it come from? Adding history broadens a science piece, and therefore, as you nicely say, draws the reader in.

Nathaniel Comfort United States

7/6/2011 2:21:00 PM #

Thanks for this - I wish I'd be able to be at the session, and I look forward to your subsequent posts on this theme. It is very good for me to hear the science journalist's point of view, because I have to admit that, as an historian of science, I've done my share of criticising the way history gets used by science journalists and popular science writers.   I do agree with lots of what you say and, broadly, that history of science can bring important perspectives into science communication. However, one of the chief issues, I think, is the relationship between story-telling and accuracy. A nice story and clear narrative or good plot are great for engaging readers, but of course it is rarely the way that history or science work. The past, and people, are messy, and choosing to include history makes your work much more complicated (done well) rather than easier.  It is interesting that your first example here is Dava Sobel's Longitude, which has been fairly thoroughly criticised by historians of science for creating a story, with goodies and badies, that is not only over-simplistic (what short book would not be?) but in many ways actually misleading.  At times it can seem that some science writers (I don't mean any of the speakers here) will be concerned to get the science as accurate as they can, but that the history is either there simply for colour or reinforces ideas of simple linear progression in science, without much concern for understanding what up-to-date historical research has to say on the topic.   I suppose my question is: does it matter that professional historians think (say) Longitude is bad history? Do science writers know or care that this is the case?

Rebekah Higgitt United Kingdom

7/6/2011 11:02:00 PM #

Thanks for comment! Very interesting… you put your finger on the difference between journalists and academics, that for academics accuracy comes first, whereas for journalists it’s the story. Of course I want everything I write to be accurate, but how much detail do I need to go into, how many layers of caveats, what can I leave out? Historians and journalists would perhaps draw the line in different places.   About Longitude – I’ve heard historians grumbling about it, but I’d assumed that much of it was sour grapes, because Sobel managed to turn the subject into such a successful book when they hadn’t. And I know from dealing with scientists that sometimes when an academic says a certain angle or description of their work is “wrong”, it can just be because from being immersed in something they naturally have quite a narrow view of how they would like to see that subject presented.   I haven’t looked at the arguments in detail so I can’t judge whether the book is “bad history”. But assuming she got her basic facts right then I would support Sobel’s right to pick a side, to choose from the jumble of information available the story that she wants to tell, and the perspective she wants to tell it from. After all, Longitude isn’t a piece of academic historical research, and doesn’t pretend to be.   It’s a tricky one though and something I thought about a lot when writing Decoding the Heavens, because I was writing about researchers who disagreed vehemently with each other. I felt that to try to give an omnipotent or objective historical account would be impossible or at least unreadable. In the end I switched between perspectives, with a couple of chapters written from each point of view. Maybe not what a historian would have done, but it worked for me…

Jo Marchant United Kingdom

7/8/2011 10:42:00 AM #

Thanks Jo - I take the point about detail and accuracy versus story, but my real concern is with the shape of that story. You might be interested to read this post of mine whewellsghost.wordpress.com/.../ that refers to some of the discussions about Sobel's book, and the issues faced by academics in writing history of science for a wider audience generally. These are serious concerns and it is definitely not mere jealousy.     Longitude is particularly relevant to me as I am part of an academic project looking at the history of the Board of Longitude. If you look at the project's blog archives http://www.nmm.ac.uk/blogs/longitude/archives.html you'll see that there has been some focus on 'rehabilitating Maskelyne', which is in part a response to the biased way he was portrayed by Sobel.     The issue with Sobel's book is the way that, to create her story and her hero, she has made Harrison a "lone genius", with those in power acting against him. This just isn't true, as Harrison was supported to an extraordinary degree by the Royal Society and the Board of Longitude over several decades. Likewise, Sobel misrepresents the astronomical and timekeeping solutions to the longitude problem as rivals, when in fact they were complementary. Harrison's clocks were no magic solution on their own, and it took lots of other instrument makers, new methods and government support to develop a practical solution.      This is not just a question of being "fair" to historical characters. It is significant because there are important points at stake about the way science is done and how technological innovation works. The narrative of lone genius hides what really happened. It is important, surely, to know that Harrison was able to do what he did only because he had the respect of influential people, large amounts of financial support, and the skills and networks of the London metals and instrument-making trades at his disposal.      Interestingly, although there are inaccuracies and she takes Harrison's polemics on trust, quite a lot of the relevant detail can be found within Sobel's book, actually working against her overriding message. But it is phrases like "stood apart", "stood alone", "virtually alone", "lone genius" etc., which appear again and again, that stay with the reader and undo the better parts of the book. In my view, while it may make a readable story, it does no service to understanding the history of science, or how science works in practice.

Rebekah Higgitt United Kingdom