Dana Mackenzie on How to Tell a Story About Statistics

 

Dana Mackenzie

Dana Mackenzie

Dana Mackenzie is a science writer, mathematician, and author of several books, including The Universe in Zero Words: The Story of Mathematics as Told Through Equations; The Big Splat, or How Our Moon Came to Be; and What’s Happening in the Mathematical Sciences. He has won several awards for his writing and been published in such magazines as Scientific American, Discover, Science, Smithsonian, and New Scientist.

 

Have you ever wondered what it would take to be a science writer? We interviewed author, writer, and math whiz Dana Mackenzie to find out how to tell a story about statistics.

What came first? Your love for math or writing? 

Writing, but it was a close call. My mother taught me to read and write at a young age, and by age 5, I was already writing stories that she would bind into a little book. My father was very interested in math (he was a math major in college) and would pose puzzles to me, like “How many ways are there for your class to line up for lunch?” This was in second grade, when my class had 22 students. I guessed 22. The correct answer, of course, is 22 factorial. After he explained what factorials were, I spent the rest of the spring computing 22 factorial. The catch is I didn’t know how to multiply yet (beyond one-digit numbers), so I had to do it by adding! Imagine adding 21 factorial to itself 22 times and you can see what a huge project this was. It’s almost certain that I made mistakes, but I did get an answer by the end of the year.

I’d also like to give credit to Martin Gardner for showing me how math and writing can be combined. I read a lot of his Scientific American columns when I was growing up and several of his books. Of course, many mathematicians of my generation were inspired in the same way.

What skills and academic training are valuable to a science writer?

Curiosity about science, obviously. Beyond that, I think it’s important to realize how writing for the public is different from academic writing. You need to un-learn a lot of bad habits that academia teaches you—the passive voice, the use of jargon, the impersonality. Writing for the public is all about telling stories, which scientific publications seldom do. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end. They have people in them. The people in them have emotions and personalities. The stories they tell may use the first person singular, which is almost forbidden in academic publications.

Accuracy is important, too—but not the pedantic 100% accuracy of an academic article. You have to cut some corners in your explanations, give readers the right sense of the topic, even if some of the details are missing or simplified. Also, as a writer for newspapers or magazines, you have to give up control. You do not have the last say over your words—the editor does. Finally, being able to work under tight deadlines is very important. If you’re writing for a newspaper, you might have to turn around a story in a day. If you’re writing for a weekly, you might have a week or less. All these amount to a huge culture change for most people who are used to the academic environment, and not all of them can handle it.

These were some of the things I learned during my year in the Science Communication Program at the University of California at Santa Cruz. People sometimes ask me if you have to go to a writing program to become a writer. I tell them no, you don’t have to, but it helps a huge amount. Otherwise, you’d have to learn all the things I just mentioned the hard way.

What do you find rewarding about a career as a science writer?

Being able to find out about so many new advances in science. I tell people my job is like getting free lessons every week from the smartest people in the country (or the world). Also, being able to write for a living is great! I love writing; I love solving the problem of how to explain something in the most lucid way, finding the right analogies, finding where the human story lies. Writing my two books was a special thrill, because a book is so permanent. It lasts forever and establishes your credibility as a writer. In the process of writing my first book, especially, I got to do historical research with original documents, and that was amazing. For the first time, I really understood why historians love history.

What are some of your greatest challenges as a science writer?

For me, the hardest thing in the beginning (and still, to some extent) was interviewing people. But it helped a lot once I saw that about 90% or 95% of scientists are happy to be interviewed. If they’ve done something good, they’d like to talk about it. I’m fortunate I don’t work in an area like cancer or AIDS research, where the leading researchers have been interviewed so many times they’re sick of it. In math and related fields, media attention is the exception rather than the rule, so people are excited and flattered to get the attention.

Another unexpected challenge is writing about math! The problem is that I know a great deal more than the average reader and so I sometimes assume too much. One of my teachers at UCSC assigned our class to read a book about Zen Buddhism, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, because that book talks all about forgetting what you know and putting yourself in the frame of mind of a beginner. I try to remind myself about that sometimes when I write about math: Don’t forget to ask the questions a beginner would ask. This isn’t a problem when I’m writing about other sciences, such as astronomy or biology. In those fields I am a beginner, so I don’t have to make any special effort.

Who or what inspires you to write?

I just look for a story that grabs me. I could give you some examples if you want to talk about this further. Also, I have to mention that a significant percentage of my articles are assignments that an editor gives to me. I have a rule—if I pitch a story to an editor, I might have a 30% or 50% chance of getting it published. If the editor pitches the topic to me, then I have a 100% chance. So I almost always say “Yes” when that happens.

Can you point to any websites to learn about a career in science writing?

Well, of course I have to give a plug to the program that taught me. Also, the National Association of Science Writers website is a good place to learn about the field.

Do you have any general advice for high-school or college students who are interested in a science writing career?

The great thing about this job is that it rewards generalists—people who know a little about a lot of things. Most of academia is the opposite. In academia, you have to specialize and learn a lot about something extremely tiny. If you’re set on writing as a career, you should recognize that academia will pull you in the opposite direction and you’ll have to resist it. Always try to keep your eyes on the big picture. Try to get as well-rounded an education in science as you can.

Also, don’t ignore literature and the humanities, because a big part of this job is story-telling. Good story-telling is good story-telling, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. You might want to start reading popular science books and magazines to see which writers and magazines you like. Writing for a school newspaper or magazine is good. I never did it myself, but that sort of thing will give you a sense of what journalists do and it will also establish some credentials if you want to apply to a journalism school or a science-writing program. I also recommend majoring in a science. The UCSC program requires applicants to have a science degree (bachelor’s, master’s, or PhD), and I think it’s smart. Most journalists did not major in science, so this is a way to set yourself apart. But just remember, that specialized knowledge can also be a curse when you’re writing for non-specialists, so use it wisely!

Most of your articles are written for the general public. Do you have any tips for communicating the complexities of math and statistics to a
general audience?

I gave you a few tips in my second answer above. The best way to communicate a difficult subject is to write about the people who are working on it. If you can convey to the readers why they are passionate about their subject, you build up the reader’s identification with it, too. A good example was the publicity last year about Yitang Zhang’s work on prime pairs, which was probably the most-publicized math story of the year. What made it a great story was that it was a rags-to-riches story. He emigrated from China, and for a while he couldn’t even get a teaching job and worked at a Subway. Now, almost overnight, he’s one of the most celebrated mathematicians in the world. That’s a story everybody can relate to, even if they don’t understand exactly what he did.

I also like to practice what Los Angeles Times writer K.C. Cole called “stealth math.” You write a column that is supposedly about climate change, for example, but really it’s all about the math that goes into climate models. If the reader doesn’t even realize it’s math, you can sometimes get past that emotional resistance many people have toward the subject.

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