Interview with David Quammen: Science as story

I do not know about you but at times I get lost in some scientific papers. As I try to understand everything to make sense of all the complex equations, graphs and statistics, I sometimes get distracted from the main message. So I can only have a guess at how much our scientific language may look like hieroglyphs to others. Yet as conservation biologists or simply biologists, we surely do not want our research- into which we put so much effort- to be understood by only a group of people. Getting the general public to understand our work is one step forward to translate scientific language on paper into concrete actions. Here I wish to share a short interview with David Quammen (Science writer, Author of The Song of the dodo and contributing writer for the National Geographic) based on the workshop entitled Science as Story: Communicating Scientific Material to a General Audience, that he animated at the SCCS Conference in Bangalore, India (2-4 August 2012).

I hope you get inspired to take your research one step further: beyond publication in scientific journals.

F.M: Do you believe it is essential for conservation biologists to share their findings to the general public?

D.Q: I do think it is important for conservation biologists to see their findings translated to the general public. I don’t necessarily think it’s the responsibility of the scientists to do that. There are people in the in-between space like myself who are science writers, whose job is to translate science to the general public and that’s the way science informs policy. I don’t think science determines policy but it informs policy and it is important for the information to pass along that path, from scientists through responsible journalists and science writers to the general public.

F.M: Do you think that popular articles can initiate conservation actions?

D.Q: Popular articles can definitely initiate conservation actions. I have seen that happen and I have experienced it. For example an American ecologist named Mike Fay walked 2000 miles across the Congo basin and another river basin in central Africa doing a mega transect of the biological diversity in nearly pristine forests in that area including the Republic of Congo and Gabon. We wrote 3 articles about him in the National Geographic and my partner Nick Nichols took the photographs. And these 3 articles along with some other factors helped to publicize what Mike Fay had done in discovering wonderful pockets of biological diversity in the Republic of Congo and Gabon. And one of the results of that is the President of Gabon declared 13 National parks protecting the areas that Mike Fay had discovered. The National Geographic magazine, my photographic partner and myself  played a small role in that, in being the linkage in making Mike Fay and his work famous around the world and famous to the president of Gabon. That’s an achievement on the ground. Mike Fay and the president of Gabon are to be thanked but it was intensely satisfying to have played a little role in that.

F.M: What advice would you give to conservation biologists wishing to share their research to the general public?

D.Q:  Don’t waste your time on hasty careless journalists. Keep your eyes open for responsible journalists and science writers with whom you can cooperate so that your work can be explained to the general public. Some people say that it is the responsibility of the scientist to present their own work and that they have to become writers. I do not think that at all. Being a scientist is a full time job with difficult demands. And being a writer for the general public is also a full time job with difficult demands. We cannot expect very many people to do both. So there are several parties that can play a role in that and not just scientists.

F.M: Yet if scientists were to themselves try to write popular articles on their research, what should they remember?

D.Q: Remember that precision and accuracy are important for scientists. But for the general public you have to sacrifice precision. You can’t put in all the exceptions and stipulations. But while you sacrifice precision, you must maintain the accuracy. And you must tell stories. People like to read about people, so when you present your results, you need to tell human stories that contain the science that you want to present.

Fabiola Monty

Photo credits: © 2012, Harish Kumar C.K.

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