A Q&A with The Atlantic’s Ed Yong

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Erin Zimmerman, Science in Society co-editor

Following his recent keynote address at the Canadian Society of Microbiology conference in Waterloo, Ontario, my Science Borealis colleague, Robert Gooding Townsend and I chatted with Ed Yong, author of the New York Times bestseller, I Contain Multitudes, about getting started in science communication, using humour in your writing, and whether science blogging is dead, among other topics. Here is that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

RGT: You were a judge at BAHfest [a science comedy event], and you use humour in your work all the time. I’m wondering, how do you see humour as fitting into the work that you do?

EY: It’s never an explicit goal. I’m not sitting here thinking to myself, “I need to be funny”, but I think I’ve always taken quite an irreverent approach to most of the things I do, science writing included. I think that sometimes there is a view that science writing should be austere because science is a little bit like that, and I think that’s ridiculous. It benefits from a light touch, just as anything else does, and that’s sort of the approach that I very naturally gravitate towards, and not taking things too seriously.

EZ: Your own blog has now ended, and notably, the SciLogs network has been shut down over the last year. I was wondering if you think that the heyday of science blogging is over now and do you feel that newsletters like yours may be the next big thing for sci-comm people, despite being somewhat less interactive than blogs?

EY: You know, there’s been a lot said about the death of blogs. I don’t necessarily think that’s true. I think that in the goodbye post to my blog I noted that I thought that blogs had just shifted into a new guise. The Atlantic was always a pioneer in fusing that kind of bloggy voice with the traditional rigours of journalism, and even back when I was blogging, before I joined the magazine, much of what I was seeing online had much the same depth of personality and voice that the best blogging I read had. So, I think those worlds have always been colliding, and I think that collision is now well underway, and a lot of what made blogs special has been absorbed into mainstream organizations. […] I think the spirit of blogging is very much still alive, and as for newsletters, I don’t see these things as the same. They’re different media. I started my newsletter just as a way of telling people about the work I was doing elsewhere. You know, the newsletter is not a blog; I’m not producing any original content for it, I’m just using it as a signpost so people can find my other work.

EZ: When you say that the voice that you see in mainstream media has become more like blogging, do you feel that it’s gotten a little less formal and more conversational?

EY: I don’t mean that it has across the board, but I think there are definitely publications like the Atlantic that have fused those things together. We have space for a lightness of touch in the way we write, provided that we’re still upholding the strictest journalistic ethics and standards.

RGT: One of the things you do very well in your work is that you maintain a high standard of journalistic integrity. That’s incredibly important, but I also wanted to probe how you face these challenges in science journalism. For example, there’s the question of how much are you trying to do good in your reporting, and how political an action is that? How do journalistic and scientific impartiality differ, and do you get caught in between?

EY: I think as journalists, we are not crusaders. We are definitely not advocates. The objective of my work is not to celebrate science, it’s not to get people on board with science, whatever that might mean. I’m not calling for more science funding or anything of the kind. What I am doing is telling people what is going on. I think obviously, all journalists have their own biases and their own starting points from which they approach the world. But I think we’re not chasing some artificial standard of neutrality. I think what instead is more important is being fair. […] If I’m going to write a piece slagging off one particular approach to science or debunking a lab’s work, I’m going to reach out to those people for their comments as well. I think that very much is just part of what we do. I don’t see any conflict there.

EZ: You’ve talked in the past about the importance to your career of having won the Daily Telegraph‘s Young Science Writer prize in 2007. I was wondering, now that both that contest and the Guardian Wellcome Trust are no more, do you have any advice for a beginning science writer to get their writing out there and build a reputation?

EY: That prize was important to me, but if you talk to a wide variety of science writers, you’ll see that there’s not any one route for getting into the field. […] If you do a Google search for “On the Origin of Science Writers“, you’ll find a page on my now-defunct blog which collects stories from different science writers about how they got into the business. It’s a useful resource, and I think one thing you’ll notice when you read those stories is that there is no single route that everyone takes. It’s all very, very diverse. So I think the critical thing with the competition was that it forced me to write and prove myself. Now, there are different ways you can do that, but the really important thing is that, if you’re interested in making a start in this business, you need to actually start producing things. You need to start writing. My advice to people who say that they’re aspiring science writers is that there really is no such thing – you’re either currently writing about science, right now, in which case you are a science writer, or you are not, in which case you’re not.

RGT: In your recent keynote address at the University of Waterloo, you talked about the representation that you strive for in your stories, in terms of the gender balance and racial background of your sources. This is an important thing in terms of who we see when we see people in science. One thing that you haven’t talked about, at least there, is how this has affected you personally, as a person of colour. Are you comfortable saying anything about how that may have affected your progression in science journalism?

EY: I’m not sure I have anything massively useful to say. I wouldn’t say I’ve experienced obvious discrimination on the basis of that, and I’m not sure it’s affected my career in any particular way. It is something you bear in mind. When I go to journalism conferences and sci-comm meetings, these are still largely white spaces, and that does make a difference in terms of how you feel as a part of that community. In Britain, there is another science writer called Kevin Fong, who’s amazing and does a lot of radio and TV work. Kevin and I have this running joke between us, because we’ll turn up at events, and people will come up to me, and say congratulations, for the thing that Kevin did, and vice versa, because the idea of TWO East Asian science writers working in the same spaces is just clearly too much for some people to comprehend, so you know, there is that, and it’s not fun, and it happens often enough to be annoying. It’s a very mild example of the kinds of problems that can happen when you have a lack of diversity in a field, and that’s certainly the case with science journalism as much as it is for science itself.

RGT: You’ve talked about finding stories about topics that most people find very boring, and turning them into this very interesting and engaging story. If that’s a power that you have, does it come with responsibilities? For example, if you think that climate change is an overwhelming threat, then distracting from that is detrimental. Where do your thoughts lie with that?

EY: I actually really don’t buy this argument at all. I think there’s no department of ranking all the world’s problems in order and then dealing with them one at a time. That’s not how people think about problems. That’s not how people react to the world around them. If we worked in that way, then, for example, I might never write about anything other than, say, the rise of fascism or climate change, or antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or what have you. [I don’t think we write or read about things] because they are necessarily important or they pose existential threats. I think we write about things because they are interesting to us.

EZ: Thank you very much for your time today.

EY: Thanks, guys. Pleasure talking to you.


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