I've been thinking a lot about my profession these last few months. Science writers are gatekeepers of information that the public needs to understand our current events. Yet somehow there still seems to be a lot of confusion about these events. I surmise this from the conversations I've had with neighbors here in Florida, as well as friends who live north near Washington, D.C. and west in California and Colorado. Our understanding seems to be vastly different. I'm trying to understand why.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, no one understood what we were facing, and that was terrifying. We had models and anecdotes. We had video news footage and word-of-mouth tales about relatives who had died, about healthy young people who had died. But now, halfway through 2020, we have large-scale data. And it is homegrown, which means it should be reliable.
I've looked at the research articles and I've listened to the press conferences. I've also compared the COVID dashboards for my state of Florida, as well as the region where we expect to move this summer: Virginia, Maryland and DC. What disturbs me is that many of the news headlines I see lead with questions and fear, even though the situation appears to be improving. The element of hope, the smallest tone of optimism, is squashed down to the very bottom of the article, where most people are unlikely to read it.
I can see good progress in our country's handling of the pandemic. And admittedly, I'm eager for things to improve! I would like for "normal" life to resume, knowing that it won't be exactly as it was before, but that some changes we decide to keep will actually make like better for everyone -- for example, encouraging telework where it makes sense, allowing children to participate in school at home if they are sick, and just generally following better hygiene and public health practices. Taking more time to stay close to home with family because life passes too quickly, and all of us can expect to die at some point, probably sooner than we would like.
But the news articles tell a different story. One AP article from earlier this week, "US Food Prices See Historic Jump and are Likely to Stay High," grabbed my attention, as it's designed to do. Upon reading the story I was surprised by terms like "soar" and "spike" and "struggle," which heightened the drama. The first quote in the story was attributed to a restaurant owner in a town I've never hear d of in Iowa, posited as an authority on our national food supply and economics, who predicts that prices will stay high for the indefinite future. These choices of quotes, the structure of the story, and the simple word choices all offer insight about the bias of the reporter.
Not until halfway through the story did I find the real numbers: fruit and vegetable prices increased by 1.5% and the highest jump was in the category of meat, poultry and eggs, which jumped 4.3%. But the numbers were not offered with any context. So what is a 4.3% jump in the price of a steak? If it's a $20 cut of beef, that increase is $0.86. Twenty dollars is pretty pricey for a steak, so we can assume that item would feed at least 2 people, but if it's hamburger, it could be enough to feed a family of 4 or 5. And the meal would cost $0.86 more, hardly an emergency. (And just as an aside, our nation eats too much red meat anyway, so maybe this will be an impetus for us to cut back a little on beef.)
Other stories reported by a high-profile science writer for a high-profile magazine emphasize anecdotes: the "long-haulers" who happen to be young, healthy people that have never been tested for active COVID infections or for antibodies, but assume they have the virus and that it's lasting for months. Headline indicates that "thousands" have been struggling with COVID-19 for months and are being ignored by their doctors.
What does "thousands" represent in this situation? Well, if it's a group of 9,999 people in the United States (assuming it's less than 10,000 because he would have said "tens of thousands" if it were, and he's actually referring to groups in Europe, as well) and we know that 2 million people just in the US have tested positive for the virus (not including antibody tests), then the category represents 0.49 percent. So, we can infer that approximately one in every 200 people infected by the virus could potentially be a "long hauler." But that's an overestimate because we know many more people have had COVID than have tested for it. And most of the people he interviewed in his story had not been tested for COVID-19, or else their test results came back negative.
Let's put the numbers in a different context: You lifetime chances of being killed by cancer? 1 in 6. Heart disease? 1 in 7. Killed in a car crash is rarer...1 in 106. But because COVID-19 antibody tests show that seroprevalence is about ten times higher than the positive viral tests, I suspect the chance of becoming a "long hauler" is probably in the same range as drowning, which happens to be 1 in 1,121.
Is it helpful for me to put the numbers in context this way? Maybe not, because our risk of dying from any of these causes always depends on our exposure. So we make choices to modify our risk based on our fear. Some people never learn to swim. Some never learn to drive. Others participate in these activities understanding they carry risks, but the freedom and pleasure gained make that risk worthwhile.
It is the same with COVID-19. We know which groups have the highest risk, and we know how to protect them while re-opening our society. And one month into the process, the numbers in opening states still look very good! But the fearful and dramatic headlines continue to fill our screens.
So why are the science stories so full of fear? I had an epiphany last night as I wrote a draft speech for a friend. Writing is a form a therapy. For me, it's a way to understand issues that seem frightening or confusing. While I attempt to "tell the story" to my audience, I am also sharing the story with myself in that process. So I suspect the same is happening for many science writers who cover the COVID-19 pandemic. They are afraid, and they choose their sources, their adjectives, the structure of their stories in a way that reflects their fear.
Do their readers understand this? Readers struggle with several components of science and health literacy, including understanding big numbers and the importance of anecdotes. We are greatly influenced by personal stories, far more than abstract statistics. If someone's 35-year-old triathlete neighbor dies of COVID-19, naturally we adjust our perception of risk simply because we know someone who knows someone who had a terrible outcome. If your nephew drowns at a community pool, you might reconsider your seasonal membership at that same pool next summer.
Science writers understand the power of the anecdote. In fact, most of us will look for a person who can help "humanize" some principle of research that forms the basis for our story. People connect with other people's stories moreso than with data. Is it wrong for us to manipulate our readers in this way? I don't think so. The alternative would be to write something with a sterile tone, akin to a research article suitable for a journal.
No, we have an obligation to tell stories that matter to us, and to tell these stories in a way helps our audience understand and connect with our meaning. We can do this because we have the right to free speech. The craft of storytelling requires us to make choices about what to include and what to leave out, what to present first and what to present last, etc. It is impossible for us to separate ourselves from our bias, despite our best intentions to tell fair and balanced stories. We are humans, not robots.
So should we add some sort of "disclaimer" to our stories, allowing readers to more easily identify our biases so they can understand the limitations? I fear this would be too challenging, particularly because we may not even be aware of our personal biases.
Instead, I think the solution is to cultivate an audience of smarter readers. We need to show them our bag of tricks, the various ways we weave a story that is designed to inform, to influence, to instill emotion. Are students learning this in school, even as they learn to write? I will think on this more in the coming months and reach out to my friends in education and writing circles to gather their help. I want to be part of a solution.
We are living in strange times. So much is changing from one day to the next. I try to remind myself each day that change is always scary, and it is always painful, even when it is good. I am an optimist by nature. I always have been. To me this is one of my better qualities, a tool of resilience, my most valued survival skill. Our great country was founded by a rag-tag group of optimists who went up against a giant, determined to fight for their freedom or die in the process. They did not cower in shelters and accept a bleak future. They were determined to create a better one.
And this brings me back to the question in my post title: Why do I write? I write to answer my own questions about the world. My stories do not represent final answers, they are merely the chronicle of my journey.
Why do I write about science? Because I believe science poses the most hope for our society. It represents a tool -- the scientific method -- we can use to understand questions and develop objective measures of truth (with the understanding that this picture of "truth" continues to evolve over time as more data are added to it) for just about everything in our universe, from the soil to the salamander to the stars. The scientific method frees us from superstition and fear.
Science also reminds us of how little we understand. There are so many things in our world, beautiful wondrous things, that we can continue to explore. New and uncharted territories. Previously unappreciated connections and patterns. Writing about science continually reminds me of how small I am and how little I understand and appreciate about the universe that surrounds me. I write about science for children because I believe they need to see this, to understand the role they might play in discovery and understanding. And I believe they deserve a world that is still full of freedom and hope.
Does anyone else feel like they're stuck in a Groundhog Day plot? Each morning I wake up, and before I know it the sun has gone down. Yet the last two months have lasted forever. And somehow it's been a whole year since my last blog post. I've been busy teaching with the Johns Hopkins University online program -- which is awesome, BTW -- and I've been busy with the baby (see photo at left) and my other two older kids.
Today I received an e-mail from an editor I worked with last year. Apparently the project we collaborated on is up for an award -- woo hoo! It was a curriculum series aimed at middle schoolers, and I only wrote a few pieces, but they were super interesting and turned out quite well. One is an encyclopedia article about rivers, the other is a nonfiction background article on freshwater ecosystems. I wrote a third piece, something called "terrestrial ecozone geostory," but it looks like that one didn't make the final cut for publication, because I can't find it online anywhere.
Ultimately, I had to leave this project early because I became too interested in my assigned topic, and inevitably went down "the rabbit hole" reading background before I even felt ready to write, so the pay rate for my time investment just wasn't economical. But I'm glad I had the experience of working on a large curriculum because now I have a sense of the architecture and roles that go into these projects.
And I'm so glad the editor gave me a heads up, because I had no idea the content had gone online. And of course I needed to add the new clips to my website portfolio, which triggered a whole-website-update. And that's how I lost the last 3 hours of my day. Good lord, it's time for me start dinner...
Not a lot of blog posts in 2018, eh? And 2019 has been quiet in this space, as well. But I have a good reason for my absence. And here she is...
This little muffin arrived on March 31, 2019. I could go into more details about her birth, but I'll save the story for another time, since this space is focused on my work. What I will share is that I'm considered a "geriatric mom" at the age of 41, and it was more difficult than I expected to get pregnant at this age. So I'm not taking this baby for granted. I want to revel in every coo and smile, cherish every burp and babble.
Back to business, advance copies of my third book, Bet You Didn't Know! 2 (National Geographic Kids) , arrived in the mail last week, and the book looks AMAZING! These projects are always pretty intense, but when we reach the finish line and then I'm able to hold the real deal in my hands (a year later) and admire the results of so much hard work, I can't help but look forward to starting the next one.
Last but not least, I had a wonderful experience mentoring two graduate students in the Johns Hopkins Science and Medical Writing Program this past spring. Now the program director has asked me to join her adjunct faculty for the upcoming fall session. I'll be teaching a course on various forms of science writing to a class of about 14 students.
When I graduated from the JHU science writing program (goodness, that was nearly 15 years ago!) we sat in classrooms at the Dupont Circle campus and exchanged critiques face-to-face across a table. Today the program is online, so my students will be scattered around the country and exchanging drafts with a tool called Blackboard. This means that I won't need to ride Metro 30 minutes each way to teach the course (woo hoo!), and I won't be tied to a daily schedule. (Blackboard allows everyone to access and share information during convenient hours in their respective time zones.) But the downside is that it might be harder for students to form relationships with each other, and for me to get to know them. Personal connections with other writers have been incredibly important in my career, so I hope I can find ways to overcome this challenge, both for the students and for myself.
How is it possible that we're already halfway through 2019? I can hardly believe it. Fourth of July is just two days away! This is my family's first time celebrating the holiday in Florida, so I have no idea where to watch local fireworks. But I'm not a big fan of traffic and crowds, particularly after dark, so maybe we'll just light some sparklers in our driveway. Happy Fourth of July!
Actually, I've been here for about 6 months already, but better to post late than never, right? It's the start of a new year and time to take stock of my goals in this new setting, where life so far seems to be pretty good.
So, without further delay, here's what I'm aiming for in 2018:
Where does the time go? It's been nearly a year since my last post on this blog. I guess there's no point in trying to catch you up on everything, but I do want to draw attention to a very fun project that kept me busy last year: Awesome 8 Extreme, which went on sale this week through Amazon.
We had an awesome team of writers and editors and photo researchers working together, and I'm very pleased with the final results. Look for a copy at your next school book faire or sneak a preview of the content by using Amazon's "Look Inside" feature. You'll find an example of my writing on pages 24-25.
My children stayed home with me this summer, instead of attending camps or visiting relatives on the mainland. We filled the 2-month vacation with basic instruction covering math and language arts, as well as various field trips around the island. We gathered new reading material from library each week, and we tackled a short list of new art projects that I hoped would get us thinking ... about what, exactly, I wasn't sure. But I hoped for good things.
We kicked off with a tessellation drawing project. I'd read about tessellations while working on my origami story for Hana Hou! magazine earlier in the year, so it was fun to make the connection between 3D paper sculptures and 2D pictures. Tessellations are essentially patterns. They can be found in tile installations, fabric design, gift wraps, and a bunch of other commercial uses. Here are the tessellation drawings we made at home...
Our next adventure was a trip to Chinatown in Honolulu, where we had an awesome lunch at The Pig & the Lady and went shopping for materials (aka, dead fish and rice paper) to make gyotaku, which are sometimes called "fish prints." Here are the results of that trip...
We also read lots of good books. Two of my favorites were H is for Hawk, by Helen McDonald, and The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery. But I thought the octopus book was a little too touchy-feely...or maybe too anthropomorphic, in terms of how the author treated animals. So I decided we should take a shot at cooking octopus for dinner. Here are the results of that adventure...
We learned to make flower crowns and coconut palm hats, how to roller skate and jump rope, and we even tried a few dance classes with the help of YouTube. It was a great summer!
Now it's time to get back to work. I've got some great projects on my to-do list, including new magazine stories for Muse, and a radio pitch that I'm very excited about. Stay tuned...
Good heavens, where have I been the last 5 months? Yesterday it was the New Year and now 2016 is nearly halfway finished! Truth is, I've been very busy with an after-school science club that I started at my children's elementary school.
It was an idea that I had last autumn. Wouldn't it be cool to get a bunch of kids who like science together so they can talk and play and experiment with projects that have nothing to do with grades or standardized tests? Of course, I had no idea how to lead such a group. I'm not a teacher. The only thing that makes me feel comfortable about talking in front of groups is when I'm really excited about something I've just learned. But usually, that something relates to science, so set aside my shyness and teamed up with a 4th grade teacher at the school. (Hi Mrs. Caras!)
She handled all the fundamental class-wrangling stuff with her Scary Teacher Voice. I focused on finding stuff for us to do: Building water-propelled rockets, building toothbrush robots, building pasta towers, dissecting simple machines, designing Rube Goldberg machines. It was a LOT of work, but it was also really fun.
Last month I saw an essay, "Why Science Fairs are an Exercise in Privilege," written by Carl Zimmer, whose work I've frequently enjoyed on RadioLab. Basically, he describes helping his daughter enter a science fair, but feeling just a little guilty about the outcome (her project won an award) because he knew that his special connections through his job as a top-tier science writer had paved her way.
Science fairs are big deal here in Hawaii. In fact, they're the biggest deal as far as science-focused kid activities are concerned. The Hawaii Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit group of doctors and researchers, throws almost all its public education efforts in this direction. However, science fairs aren't open to kids younger than 6th grade, so a huge chunk of the local population has very little opportunity to just play around with science.
Zimmer felt guilty about the disparity he saw in science fairs, but he didn't offer a solution. I have one: Zimmer should start an after-school science club! And don't do it at some pricey private school. Do it at a public school in a neighborhood nearby. It's easy. You already have an idea of what you can do because you're writing articles about this stuff: Giant viruses, forensic archaeology (with 5,300-year-old frozen bodies). Sure, it takes a little work and creativity to figure out how you can translate that story, that lesson, into an activity for 4th graders. I've learned this year that simple activities work best, and the kids absolutely love it. Because the kids love it, I love it, too.
Anyone could do this. It's not about giving them all the answers. It's about figuring out the cool questions and then exploring those questions with the kids. Just give them some materials -- paper and pens, simple kits, corn starch and water -- and let them figure it out on their own. Let them design their own experiments, run the test, see what worked and what went wrong, and do it all over again. That's how science is supposed to work.
Over the holiday I spotted a brilliant quote from Maria Popova's Brain Pickings feed and I liked it so much, I decided to pin it over my desk for the coming year. The source of the quote is a collection of Kenyon's writing titled, A Hundred White Daffodils. Popova's full review of that book is here.
My 2015 felt so incredibly busy. Even with the inertia of Hawaiian culture -- the way everything from street traffic to checkout lines to friendly neighbors seems determined to slow Y o u r L I F E D O W N -- I somehow managed to pile too many projects into nearly every month. This caused a sort of panic set in, almost like a ritual. How would I meet my deadline? How could I possibly find time to do the things I need (like sleep and exercise) in order to stay healthy? How could I clear the space in my consciousness to simply think about what was going on, to process the meaning and, perhaps, gather new ideas?
The answer was: I couldn't. And while I certainly learned a lot about the craft of writing last year, it was mostly in a trial-by-fire way. which isn't what I prefer. I need to clear more space to concentrate on what I really care about. I need to forget about time, about the rush to get things done according to an arbitrary calendar by which I'm often tempted to judge my accomplishments. Far better to do a small number of GREAT things in a period of 12 months than to do the alternative, which might benefit my bank account, but certainly won't benefit my inner life.
So, I'm going to try taking Kenyon's advice. I have one big project that I started last autumn, which is continuing through this coming spring. I have two other small projects that I'll keep mostly because I like those clients so much. (Also, the work is fairly interesting.) Other than that, I'm going to focus on quiet projects, the sort of work that happens in private. I'll be volunteering with the after-school science club at my children's elementary school.
I'll also be working on experimental writing projects with the small writing group I've formed with three other friends on Oahu, Last year we tried to meet once a month, to share samples of book chapters or short stories, the sort of writing that no one pays us to do. I had to back out of those meetings several times in 2015, mostly because I didn't have anything to share. This year I won't let that happen.
What a busy year it's been! So busy, I haven't had much time to keep this site updated. Here are a few photos with explanations of the highlights:
Cheers to a beautiful, interesting, challenging 2015. I'm looking forward to what's ahead in the coming year!
I've been thinking a lot about the environment lately. I've been thinking about how we measure its health and how I'm affecting the environment, directly or indirectly, through my lifestyle choices.
Hawaii is the reason these things are on my mind more than ever before. I wonder what the world will be like in 20 years, when my kids are adults and possibly starting their own families. Where will they live? In a city or in the countryside, in a seasonal climate like the northeast United States or a year-round temperate climate like Hawaii? Will the seasons in these places look the same in 20 years as they do now?
I've also been thinking a lot about books. When my husband and I went on our first date, we jumped right in with the deep questions that revealed how much (or little) we might have in common, revealing the answers that could indicate how compatible we might be as a long-term couple. And what did we talk about more than anything else? Books. Our favorite books as children and teenagers, the ones that changed the course of our lives. We talked about how many books we'd read and whether they came from the public library (in my case) or a grand home library (in my husband's). We agreed that one day, together or apart, each of us would have a home library so that our own children would never lack good reading material.
Here we are, 15 years later, living in Hawaii. Our house is small and the humidity here is treacherous for books. Still, I cannot resist the urge to buy new ones. It's partly because of the feeling I get when a package arrives from the mainland. I also buy books because, as a writer, I feel obligated to support others in my profession.
That said, I cannot afford to buy every book I would like to own, and we just don't have the space on our shelves. So we also visit the library once a week. I aim for the Newberry Award shelf for my son; the Caldecott shelf for my daughter. And we read every night. Every night, for at least 30 minutes, we read with each child, separately.
Two of the best ones that we've read recently are The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss, and 365 Penguins, by Jean-Luc Fromental. Both books prompt readers to think about responsibility toward plants and animals that share the resources in our environment. Amazon does a nice job summarizing the plot details, so I won't bother writing another summary. The main point I can contribute is that both books are worth reading. If you don't have the money or the space (and space is an issue with 365 Penguins, because it's an oversized book, about twice the height of a usual book), then look for them at your local library. And try to read these books with a child, either your own or one that you've borrowed. Because kids ask questions sometimes that prompt us to see connections in a story we might otherwise miss.
I thought of 365 Penguins as I worked on my recent Backchannel story, "Cracking the Butterfly Code," which is about species habitat changes. Could we really move penguins to the North Pole if Antarctica if Antarctica melts away? And as I read The Lorax with my daughter, I thought about consumerism and how much I'm a part of that problem. It would be hard for me to stop buying books. But maybe I can buy less of other things, things that I don't really need or things that won't last. Things that aren't worth the consequences of shipping, despite how much I might enjoy getting another package in the mail.
I write about curious phenomena around us. I also write about people who are passionate about their careers, hobbies, or life experiences related to science. This blog chronicles my journey.
©Brittany Moya del Pino 2020. All rights reserved.