In the few days since I wrote my piece “You DON’T ‘Fucking Love Science,’” I’ve gotten a lot of feedback. Most of it was positive. However, there are a number of people who’ve written in to say that either my post was too aggressive in tone, or that I was attacking the wrong people.
I can see where these people are coming from. My post does seem to come down a bit hard on science slacktivists, doesn’t it? There’s a reason for that, and it’s not because I dislike people who want to see pretty science pictures. I actually think they’re important allies for scientists to have. Elise Andrew, in particular, the curator of “IFLS,” is a lovely person who built an awesome page—and then kept her head held high as people attacked her for being a woman who likes science. Her fans, and science fans in general, are great.
So why make them a target in my article? The answer is about disseminating a message through writing.
I’ve been writing, fiction and nonfiction, for about five years now. I’ve been writing for pay for about half that time. I’ve had my successes, but in the last month, my hard work has really started to pay off for the first time. Why? Because I learned to sound like a jerk.
That might be oversimplifying. Really, I learned to write ledes and headlines that grab people’s attention by being accusatory. This gets, by far, more audience than any other rhetorical tactic I’m comfortable with using. There’s even some science to back that strategy up.
This tactic is needed is because the Internet has changed. It used to be called the “information superhighway,” where you could learn and read forever. It still is, but like the universe, after the Internet’s period of rapid expansion in the late 90s, it underwent a period of cooling. Users settled into behavior patterns, visiting the sites they liked and not much else. These days, people spend most of their time on social commons, and only venture off these sites when someone links them to something interesting.
Instead of a superhighway, the Internet has become a railroad. That means for a writer like me to call attention to an important issue, I have to knock people off the rails. I’ve become a train robber, wearing a mask of cranky snark in order to advocate for the issues that are important to me.
See, my article starts off aggressive and gradually slides into a critique of government spending priorities. It’s not the science fans I actually dislike, but the political culture that doesn’t view scientists’ quality of life as a priority. I started with a challenge because it would catch the eyes of people I knew would care—these science fans.
The same thing is true of my other recently viral article, “New Yorkers Aren’t Rude. You Are.” That starts with an accusation to the audience and eventually concludes that we’d all get along a lot better if people made more of an effort to understand each other. Not exactly the message you’d expect from Mr. Cranky New Yorker Scientist, right?
I employed this technique because I do believe people want to hear my take-home messages, but I have to find a way to stand out so people will read far enough. In the time since I wrote those articles, I’ve written others, about the deterioration of news media and about how male scientists are shooting themselves in the foot by turning women away. Those articles weren’t half as aggressive in their “hook,” and no surprise, they did not get nearly so much attention. I learned the lesson that if I really care about an issue, I have to sound like my angry at my reader about it, or I’ll never push people off the rails and start the discussion I’m trying to get.
That’s what it’s really about, in the end: starting discussion and shifting the debate. Yes, a lot of people started my article feeling upset at the title. Some stayed upset. Many, many more shared it and started conversations with their friends about how we can make science a more viable profession. That’s what I wanted. Some even wrote in to tell me how I’d shown them a whole new side of the science world that they’d never considered—and that was my goal.
Armchair science aficionados are great people who make me feel good about the scientific contributions I’ve made. I’d never want them to feel bad about their love of science. What I want them to do is realize we live in a world where people in vital professions—of which science is just one!—are getting treated like dirt by the economy. I wish I hadn’t had to jump up looking angry in order to catch their eye, but in the end, it worked. WE, you and me, the writer and the reader, we shifted the debate just a little, because I issued a challenge and people responded.
I believe that together with you, the people who decided to stick around after the initial spread of my article, we can work to a solution for the decline of science in countries around the world. I see a few different things to try:
1) Encourage politicians to increase funding for scientific research. This is the nearest-term solution, but it won’t solve all the problems.
2) Work to change how academic science treats postdoctoral scholars and how grant money is handled within these institutions. This will be difficult, but it carries the longest-term benefits.
3) Find alternative funding structures. Either through crowdfunding methodologies or with public-private partnerships.
These aren’t the only options, and I encourage you to think of your own and discuss them with me, with your social circle, and with your politicians. Still, before we can do that, we have to improve awareness of the problem, and that’s what my article is fundamentally about.
So now, I implore you, so my efforts aren’t wasted: share my article. Not just with your friends, but with your elected representatives. Find other articles like mine, and share them too. Tweet at them, email them, make them listen. Because I don’t write articles where I act like a jerk just for my own sake. I do it because I care, and I hope now that you’ve read my message, you care too.
Do it…for science!
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