Science, People, Ideas and Agendas: an Interview with David Dobbs

Image courtesy of Kriss Szkurlatowski;

Books can be powerful communication tools, and good writers can turn complex scientific subjects into spellbinding stories that are accessible by readers of all backgrounds – not just scientists and science enthusiasts.

David Dobbs is one of those writers. Dobbs is the author of “The Northern Forest,” “The Great Gulf” and “Reef Madness,” and has written for The Atlantic, New York Times Magazine, National Geographic and other outlets.  He also writes the Neuron Culture blog for Wired Science.

I read “Reef Madness,” his book about Louis Agassiz, Alexander Agassiz, Charles Darwin and the origin of coral reefs, last year. The story was, perhaps unexpectedly, a page-turner. I also loved Dobbs’ use of language. Referring to an oblique challenge made by Charles Darwin to Alexander Agassiz, Dobbs wrote: “The deductive theorist is cooking a meal the aroma of which the inductive investigator can scarcely resist.” Great stuff.

I wondered how Dobbs got into science writing, and how he feels science writing has changed – or at least how his view of it has changed – over time. Here’s the interview:

Communication Breakdown: What is your training or background as a writer? Did you start off as a reporter?

David Dobbs

David Dobbs: I fell in love with writing as an English major at Oberlin. Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, and William Shakespeare made me want to write. Many more influences after that.

For a few years I wrote short stories, some decent, few published, while I made money by typing or waiting tables. I did everything the stupid and hard way.

My first paid nonfiction piece was a movie review for The Grapevine, a small weekly in Ithaca, New York.: it was a review of “Silkwood,” and I still like that piece. That led to writing about sports, outdoors, and a mess of other things.

I was freelancing the whole time — have been all along — so my training comes that way. I read recently that one definition of an expert is someone who has made every possible mistake in his or her field. On my good days, that’s me.

CB: What made you decide to write about science?

DD: I didn’t decide per se. I wrote a book about cultural clashes in an environmental issue — the fragmentation of the Northern Forest — and then moved on to write what I thought would be a similar book about the collapse of the New England cod fishery. But I found that the most remarkable thing about the cod crisis was a ferocious argument between fishermen and government scientists over how to count cod — that is, how to do fishery science. I was off and running.

CB: What inspired you to write your first book?

DD: A friend and editor, Richard Ober. I was living in upper New England writing for Forest Notes, a magazine published by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests; Richard was the editor. When I’d been writing for him for several months — features about recycling, water pollution, forestry — he told me he was thinking of writing a book about the fragmentation of the great forests of northern New England and upstate New York, and asked me if I wanted to help. I said yes; we did it. That book remains one of the funnest things I’ve ever done, and Richard remains my best friend. I’d jump on a grenade for Richard Ober.

CB: Scientists are often reluctant to talk to reporters and writers. How do you win their confidence?

DD: Most are willing to talk, and most are fairly generous with their thoughts and time — remarkably so, actually. People who like their work like to talk about it, and if you can remember that while you negotiate your way around any reluctance they have, you can usually tap into it. It helps to come to someone knowing what she finds most fascinating in her work, or having found something in her work that particularly fascinates you. I don’t find this hard, because of the selection bias at work: I generally want to talk to someone because I find what she’s doing of tremendous interest. That lets you start from a place mutual enthusiasm. If you listen and ask good questions, the conversation usually picks up speed and energy and confidence.

Sometimes, of course, it goes poorly — if, say, you’re calling to ask them about misconduct committed by a department member or an old friend. That gets a bit tougher.

CB: You published “The Northern Forest” in 1995, and are working on your fourth book now. Have changes in social media, online access to journals, etc., affected the way that you contact scientists or do research?

DD: Social media and the new online world have made some things easier and some things harder. It makes it far easier to find and contact scientists or other sources, since I can query Twitter or search conversations on Twitter or tap other bread-crumb trails or networks embedded in social media conversations. Twitter also helps me get copies of papers and to quickly gauge opinions among scientists or other writers about, say, the latest paper on altruism in chimps.

On the downside, social media can be distracting, and the always-on demands being made on (or imagined by?) writers these days means it’s harder to set everything aside, as I did with my first three books, and just disappear and write the damned book. In some ways this helps the book, I think; the best of my blog posts and articles don’t just keep me in the public eye, they help me develop my thinking. Yet I worry all this constant connection and short-term churn makes it harder to get into that deep contemplative space from which I think I do my best book writing. I have to be pretty savage about sealing myself off for a morning or a day, and to repeat that, and to get down to that space. All my friends writing books voice similar laments.

CB: How, if at all, has your approach to writing changed with experience?

DD: It changes all the time. I think more about structure now, and how individual sentences work, and I try to be ruthless in hunting down and strangling jargon and, as David Quammen put it recently, to be willing to leave out something important if it’s already out there but boring. I used to write great skeins of copy, then figure out the structure; now I try to identify the most minimalistic version of the structure possible and work from that. Part of that rises from my increasing awareness that structure can be a powerful expressive force.

As John McPhee notes in his recent New Yorker piece, the empty space between two sections — a mere act of juxtaposition — can sometimes say more than a thousand words of transition or connective tissue can. All writing, starting with the simplest sentence (“She stood.”) works primarily to delineate or suggest relationships (of all sorts, not just the kind between people). You can say plenty about a relationship through simple juxtaposition.

CB: What sort of feedback have you gotten from the science community about your work?

DD: Mostly good, but I’m well aware that may be because most people like to be nice, or at least to avoid conflict, and so are more likely to say nice things than ugly things. I’m pleased, though, truly, when a scientist presses me a bit or lodges an objection or correction or difference of view or opinion. I know I’m not getting everything (anything?) as right as I’d like to, so appreciate all the critical feedback I can get.

I’m writing about behavioral genetics right now, so count myself lucky that geneticists tend to be especially frank about their field. Alas, it’s a field that’s ludicrously complicated and in extreme turmoil, so that makes it almost impossible anyway. That’s why the book is taking a bit longer than I’d hoped.

CB: Do you think science writing that targets non-expert audiences is important? Why?

DD: I definitely think science writing that targets non-experts or not-usually-science-readers is important, but I don’t think about it all that much — perhaps because my imagined target reader has always been someone who doesn’t necessarily know or read a lot about science. I actually often think of my sister the English professor. She likes science well enough, but what she really likes, being a recovering English major, is story and meta. Science is rich in those things.

In science, you have the data, and you have a story about the data: that’s the science, from the level of the paper, which explains a limited body of data, to theory, which seeks to explain a huge body of data.

Sometimes, like right now in genetics, you have a mess of data that no one quite knows what to make of, because the standard stories they’d been working from aren’t holding up as well as they used to. And that’s a story right there: the weakening or revision of those story lines, and the ferocious arguments people have with the past, with themselves, and with others about what the right story is.

Those meta stories are what most attract me. Much science writing is explaining the story about the data: Here’s the latest idea on what makes people altruistic or how genes fold or black holes work. I think those are interesting and important stories, but I rarely find them as interesting as the outer story about how those stories are made. And since those outer stories are essentially about people and agendas and agency and desire and ambition and doubt and the tremendously complicated reasons we fall in or out of love with an idea, you should be able to make them every bit as interesting to ‘lay’ audiences as to scientists.

CB: What advice do you have for anyone who is considering writing a popular science book?

DD: Don’t do it unless you can’t stand not doing it. Same goes for any book. It’s excruciating to try to find the time and even more excruciating to do it well. But if you can’t stand not doing it, it’s the best thing.

CB: Last question, just for fun: what are one or two great science books you’d recommend reading (other than ones you’ve written)?

DD: These are related, and make a strange pair.

“The Eighth Day of Creation,” by Horace Judson Freeland, is a magnificent history of the birth of molecular biology during, roughly, the middle third of the 20th century. Deeply beautiful science, splendid history and unforgettable stories about the people who pulled molecular biology, sometimes literally, out of bubbling vats of goo. There’s a fantastic story there, for example, about a lunch in Cambridge, England, that Erwin Chargaff had with James Watson and Francis Crick. Chargaff said he’d never seen anything so grand attempted by two people so stupid.

The unofficial companion book, harder to find, is Chargaff’s “Heraclitean Fire,” a gorgeous, elegaic, angry memoir about his beautiful life in science and his horrifically sublime embitterment as the science he loved — the slow, careful, individual and small-lab pursuit of finely founded theories — was overrun by the Big Idea science that, to him, was epitomized by Watson and Crick. It hurt Chargaff tremendously and helped his book immeasurably that Watson and Crick’s triumph — their discovery, in their 20s, of the structure of DNA — was made possible by what he told them over lunch that day in Cambridge; and that he remained, all his life, quite bitter that he wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize along with them.

Now there’s a story.



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