Recently I was fortunate to interview David Quammen, author of 'Spillover', at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL). On the way back to our hotel we noticed that the taxi driver had a podcast app on his car’s dashboard. We suggested that he might want to listen to This Week in Virology, to which he answered 'not today', a response that summarizes the difficulties in explaining science to individuals who are not interested in the subject.
Later that evening, Quammen delivered a talk at Boston University entitled 'Scary Viruses in a Globalized World: Telling the Story." All of us science-communicators have a great deal to learn from David’s approach to explaining our field. During his talk he gave some advice to those interested in communicating science to the general public.
People want to read about people. They want human stories, even if you are talking about scary viruses. Who is that poor man trying to escape from the Ebola treatment unit? Narrative is essential, and a mystery story is even better. Communicating about emerging infectious diseases fits this requirement perfectly, because every one is a mystery to be solved.
Dial down precision, and never compromise on accuracy. You can’t deliver high precision to the general public: they don’t have the attention or background, but you absolutely must be accurate.
When Dr. Watson comes calling, talk to him! In other words, scientists should talk with journalists. Not all of them, but find some that you trust and confide in them.
Jargon is now always bad.
Everything starts somewhere. Go to where the diseases are.
When I asked David where he would go if he were working on a book about Zika virus, he responded: Miami. Brazil. The Zika Forest of Uganda! There he would find people to talk to and get stories that he would write into his explanations of how the virus emerged and spread.
I implored David to write a book on Zika virus, which I would love to read. Sadly, he is working on another project at the moment, and won’t be doing a book on Zika virus soon. At least we have Spillover, which I highly recommend.