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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

Is this SciComm? A book review about a non-science book

I’ve been mulling over the boundaries of #SciComm, in the wake of a book review I published this week on The Volta Blog.

The book I reviewed, Spring Ulmer’s The Age of Virtual Reproduction (Essay Press 2009), is a riveting eloquent set of “meditations on torture, slaughter, and the severity of so many human relationships.”* It is also a book fixated on relentless technological development and scientific discovery (e.g. photography, nuclear weapons).

But, there isn’t any explicit science in the book.

20160613_Volta Blog_Spring Ulmer review_screenshot

And that’s what has me pondering how I conceive of SciComm: quite loosely, writing and other nonfiction forms of communication about and informed by science. These criteria are qualified or clarified by considerations such as intended audience, mode of communication, context of the material being communicated about, and who is doing the communicating.

Ulmer fits into my SciComm mindspace not just because she explores technology- and science-related fallout. More pertinently, hers is writing which “disrupts and redefines established patterns of seeing,” as her publisher asserted in 2009. This deliberate effort to compel alternative ways of seeing is a hallmark of science thinking and SciComm, as I understand and appreciate them.

Furthermore, Ulmer’s central theme is the role that words play in shaping our responses to mundane and exceptional events and how we use words to make sense of these events. A quotation by Walter Benjamin prefaces her book . It conveys her theme as an inadvertent riddle: ‘There is no difference between a human life and a word.’**

Throughout the book, Ulmer voices “articulate well-founded doubts about the efficacy of writing.” Which begs the question I asked in my review: “If humans and words are no different, and words are powerless, where then does that leave Ulmer in her grieving and atrocity-grappling?” And where does that leave us as readers and participants in the terrible spectacles she chronicles?

And, I’m asking now, where does equating words and lives leave SciComm, reliant as we are to a serious extent upon words to contend with the complexities and challenges we’re communicating about? Ulmer’s unabashed emotional engagement with the trauma inflicted by the technologies she investigates sets the stakes pretty high. Certainly, her approach stands in stark relief with the dispassionate just the facts, ma’am tactic.

As a number of science journalists have recently been discussing***, keeping one’s own ethics and interests out of SciComm isn’t feasible and may actually result in poorer storytelling/news sharing. I see in Ulmer an intriguing – albeit complicated and not entirely ideal – example of telling essential stories that need to be shared while weaving in a personal narrative.

It might seem tardy to write a review of a book published nearly a decade ago, but the world has greatly changed since Ulmer grappled with atrocity, ethics, and human connectivity. I asserted in my review, “the events leading up to The Age of Virtual Reproduction were grim. And yet, political and pop cultural events since have demonstrated the power of people and words to make change, which is why Ulmer’s concern about impracticality will likely stand out to contemporary readers. Although bleak events dominate the news, there may be more practical reasons to hope for change.”

I’m not saying I don’t feel disheartened and outraged by what I encounter in the news and in conversations I overhear or encounter.

There’s no escaping the volume of bad news. According to a few studies, we “absorb 34 gigabytes of content (some 100,000 words) every day. At more than 5.5 hours of reading every day devoted to processing the horror and opportunities surrounding us, that’s no minor time commitment.”***

And yet, “If a few of those daily reading hours were devoted to provocative witness prose like Ulmer’s, perhaps we readers would find words and humans are interchangeable because their very presence is power.”

Even better, as a science communicator, I get to spend my time sharing what is so amazing, essential, and urgent about the endeavor of science. That means sometimes readers can focus on the up-side.

As far as I can tell, making science relevant requires that stories be populated with real people doing and affected by science, perhaps by including the storyteller in the story. Ulmer’s story sharing is compelling and multi-dimensional because of her evident compassion and sympathy for, and personal engagement with, her human and conceptual subjects.

So, maybe Ulmer’s book and my review aren’t SciComm per se. But, in them is a SciComm lesson – about connecting a writer, a reader, a theme, and our collective humanity – which will inform my future work as a science communicator.


*Double quotation marks delineate excerpts from my prose in the book review.

**Single quotation marks delineate quotations I have included from the book I reviewed.

*** See the following for some examples of on-going discussion about best practices in SciComm:

  1. The Open Notebook: How to Be (or Not to Be) an Advocacy Journalist

  2. Undark: the Journalist as Advocate

  3. Literary Hub: Why Fiction Needs More Women Scientists

  4. The Conversation: Science Communication Training should be about more than just how to transmit knowledge

****See review for citations.

#writing #scicommadvice #makingsciencematter #writingresource #Publishedin #scicomm #artandscience #Mediacoverage

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