Science Online in Person

Science Online: meet 400 best friends you hadn’t realized you had.”

I tweeted that sometime on the last day of the conference after realizing that I was socializing and talking about Awesome Stuff (not even necessarily all Science!) with so many people. And I was happy. Sure, I freaked out a bit, blathered at times and no doubt annoyed sometimes, but socializing wasn’t as hard as it usually is. Everyone was friendly, even the people I didn’t know from online. Meeting people I’ve interacted with online — some of them I feel like we were pretty much friends already — was amazing. Plus, there were people I’d sort of been aware of but not really following who once we’d had some conversations I really like them and now hope I can keep in touch a bit.

But let’s talk about some themes that I want to think about more.

The most important session for me, as someone trying to write better, was the “explainer” session moderated by Ed Yong and Mark Henderson (both of which did not run away when I talked to them). “Explanatory journalism” (hey, that’s kind of like jargon!) is a form of writing that is focused on providing fairly detailed, accurate information about a subject in a way that is engaging. It’s not a “dumping of facts” but rather giving readers a way to better understand a tiny bit more of the universe. It can be used to make better sense of a breaking news story, to provide background for an ongoing problem people are worried about or just for fun. Most of Ed Yong’s blog posts now strike me as being basically explanatory journalism. Most of his posts are just about showing you something awesome about the world. A main point I got from the session on “BS” is that a very effective (and more fun!) way of responding to BS is to instead explain how something related to the BS topic and how cool it is. For me, this would mean that instead of trying to debunk the latest viral anti-GMO message, I might go dig into some basic biology around whatever real (cool!) science (or science history) that relates to the BS.

During the recent kerfluffle about viral genes in GMOs being dangerous (they’re not), a friend actually emailed me privately to mention his thoughts on it. He talked about how he had Arabadopsis thalliana seeds on his desk that he’d engineered in an undergraduate class to express some trait. He hypothesized that it likely contains the sequence that caused all the concern. But he didn’t actually know because it’s so mundane and common that he’d never looked into it.

Think about that.

A minor paper of middling apparent scientific importance was spun into a headlines about toxins in our food. That paper was studying something that is used everyday in undergraduate biology classes. What a great opportunity to talk about the awesome stuff that even undergraduates are able to do! A good explainer on this would talk about what kinds of things the “scary ORF” are used for and describe how undergraduates use it to learn about genetics. Right now any kind of genetic tweaking is mystifying and scary to many. But if people had a better idea of what is possible and how it works, maybe those scary stories would have a lot more angry comments about crappy science reporting.

Short version: don’t fight BS directly, sucker punch it from behind with entertaining explanations of how awesome the universe is.

I was going to write a section about how this affected me personally — in my ability to interact with people, have conversations, get over social anxieties. Suffice to say it helped. Apologies to everyone at the conference — but you were my unwitting therapists by being so welcoming and enthusiastic. For one aspect of the conference, a longer form that I basically agree with is here. Sadly, I don’t think I met the author!

But most of all, I’ve got ideas about more things to write about and a better idea how to organize. I’m still not sure what I’m doing with this blog other than putting stuff up on the internet (and hoping I don’t make too many mistakes). I don’t really know where I’m going but I can see that I can get better at it and maybe help a few more people get fascinated by something.

And now, a picture of a walking stick bug that I took at the Nature Research Center that is part of Raleigh’s Museum of Natural Sciences. For opening night we got to wander around, look at the exhibits and learn about (and participate in) citizen science projects. I got my face scraped for mites. On the second floor, I found this walking stick in a terrarium after I’d talked to the folks with the Your Wild Life project who are studying why a Japanese camel cricket is more often found in our homes and basements than the expected native one. Okay, you can have pictures of a cricket and the walking stick!

Walking Stick Head Shot

Japanese cricket