The American Spirit, As Embodied by 8 Animals

We’ve been snowed in for the last couple days and three-fifths of the household have been under the weather. So we’ve done a lot of nothing aside from lounging on the couch and watching TV. Having run through our collection of “Cranford” and movies based on Jane Austen novels, I started something new today — the nature documentary “North America.” The series debuted last May and, from the previews, looked like a localized version of “Planet Earth”.

Four episodes in, two things stand out: the stunningly beautiful shots and the heavy-handed jingoism. For one thing, the official name of the show may be “North America”, but it seems like the producers really just meant “America”, as in the United States. At least that’s the feeling you got from the narration, even though the show included numerous segments of animals outside the U.S. The not-exactly-underlying theme of the show is that the land and wild creatures of the continent somehow embody the spirit of America (i.e., USA! USA!). The first episode, “Born to Be Wild” (a title that no doubt describes Canada’s national character to a T), opened with this introduction from narrator Tom Selleck:

“Just beyond our own backyards — untamed wilderness. In its splendor, brutality, beauty, we find our own stories. Our spirit, forged in the land.”


The show then proceeds to draw various strained parallels between the animal kingdom and the American character (or more precisely, the macho, “tough-as-they-come” male self-image of America from days gone by). Newly hatched turtles sprinting for the waters are deemed a “band of brothers.” The seasonal movements of animals are introduced with, “In America, migration is a way of life.” There’s even a segment of dueling wild mustangs set, with typical American subtlety, to rollicking guitar and sprinkled with lines like “The stallion has earned the respect that only comes with defending what’s yours” and “They’re as American as the land itself.”

Here’s a typical scene:


All this led us to wonder what aspects of the American character are embodied by other animals from the show, such as:


The salmon, who is so fixated on sex that its digestive tract disintegrates to make more room for sperm and eggs, resulting in its death.



The chipmunk, who breaks into its neighbors’ dens to steal their nuts.



The pika, who has a rather rotund figure (and who also stashes dead birds and eats their brains).



The hundreds of male snakes who coil themselves around a single female trying to mate with her.



The male hummingbirds who settle their differences with beaks said to be “like Bowie knifes.”


hummingbird nectar

The female hummingbird who, in the words of Selleck, “licks the nectar with her forked tongue.” (I don’t think I ever needed to hear those words from Tom Selleck)


brown bears

The mother Alaskan brown bear, who has to choose between either keeping an eye on her young cubs or leaving them behind in order to put food on the table (definitely not embodying Canada here).


bald eagle

And this American icon, splattered with its victim’s blood and gore.

Showing, Not Telling, with an Infographic

One of the things I enjoy most about my job is the opportunity to produce stories about our researchers’ discoveries. I love this aspect of my work because 1) I get to learn something new every time, 2) I love explaining complicated concepts to a lay audience, and 3) it gives me the chance to tell stories in a variety of ways. Aside from writing news releases and feature stories, I always keep an eye out for opportunities to tell parts of the story visually, whether it’s a short video, an animation, or my favorite — an infographic.

Infographics certainly can provide eye-catching elements to draw people’s interest and to encourage sharing on social media, but that is not my only, or even primary, goal in producing them. In fact, whenever possible, I try to avoid adding to the daily online glut of “infographics” that are long on “graphic” and short on “info” — eye candies that are not much than a dozen or so words blown up to large point sizes, put against a colorful background, and sprinkled around some cute vector art. Instead, my main aim is to visually communicate a part of the story that is not as easily or effectively conveyed via text.

One such instance came last week, when I got the chance to put together this infographic to accompany a news release about a paper on racial and gender gaps in how likely heart-attack survivors are to stay on their preventive medications (PDF version).


When I started building the graphic, I wasn’t quite sure if the racial and gender gaps would be all that apparent, because the differences didn’t exactly jump out at me when viewed in a data table. Once I started placing the little figures in the slope graphs, however, the disparity quickly became obvious, and much more so than looking at the table. I think the the spatial differences among the figures on the two sides of the slope graphs really helped drive home the idea that while the different race/gender groups start out with similar odds of staying on the medications, significant gaps emerge within a year.

The graphs also allowed me to efficiently communicate several secondary themes, such as which racial groups consistently lagged behind, the differences in adherence across the three classes of drugs, the size of the gaps, and the steepness of the drop between the odds of adherence at one month and at one year.

If I were to try to articulate these themes in words, it would likely make the story significantly longer and bog down readers with an onslaught of numbers and comparisons. In this case, the picture was definitely worth a thousand words, if not more.

On #standingwithdnlee and #standingwithmonicabyrne


The quick version

The long version:

And then, in the science writing community, this happened (or more accurately in one of these cases, didn’t happen):

compare topsy


(Screenshot taken at 7:00 a.m. on October 16)


Doing it wrong

Naming Bora has a reasonable likelihood of destroying his marriage, his friendships and his professional standing in this case. You may feel that this is justified. But I can’t help wondering where the bar lies for wielding a private exchange (which admittedly led to serious distress) to causing serious and widespread damage.

I have corresponded with Bora on occasion, but nave never met him in person. I have no reason to doubt your account of your meeting with him. I do know that he has been a major factor in the rise of informal science writing and web-based science communication in the US and beyond. And that he is highly respected within his community. Whether these are adequate justifications for not calling him out by name I leave with you. But I would advocate for consideration and compassion at this stage.

Andrew Maynard, “When to name and shame on Social Media, and when to show compassion…”

Umm, no.


Also no.


At least they are writing about it

(and not in some veiled, hush hush manner that makes you hunt around to figure out what actually happened)

This is not an excusable thing. And what stings is that Bora is a friend, even a father figure, to me. Bora is the reason I have a job at Scientific American. He is the reason I am a science blogger. He has come to my aid many times when I have experienced personal, sexist attacks for writing the things I write.

So I know this is fumbling, and awkward, and awful, and I don’t totally know how to do it. But I want to figure out is whether it’s possible to completely trust, honor, respect and support targets of sexual harassment, and also care for the perpetrator and want to figure out how to help him never do this again.

Can this be done without causing additional harm to the target? I don’t know. I don’t know.

Kate Clancy


That does not mean that Bora’s outing was not painful and confusing to me. Bora has been a friend to me and a supporter of mine. I’ve always seen him as someone who was a champion for increasing the diversity of voices in science and science communication. So I didn’t say anything about it — I didn’t tweet about it, didn’t bring attention to it on Facebook or Google+ or LinkedIn.

But my not joining in the discussion on social media obviously does not mean I haven’t been thinking about the situation. As I said above, on a global level, I’m glad Monica came forward. On an individual level, I’m struggling with the correct context through which to view his behavior.

Seth Mnookin, “A chance to discuss sexism & misogyny in science communication: DNLee, Bora, & the SciAm fiasco”

Doing it right

 There is no outrage or shock. Yes DrugMonkey and Odyssey had posts that made me think they were talking about it but they didn’t really make it clear that Bora had sexually harassed someone and used a lame ass excuse. Except of this tweet from @MarkCC, I haven’t really seen any outrage. Why? Where is it? Unless I’ve missed it. Perhaps all the posts have gone up in the 45 minutes it took me to tap this out on my iPad? Or is it because Bora still has power in the Sci Communication field? I mean I saw tweets of people saying they support their friend Bora. WTF?! I’m not saying he can’t be sorry or he isn’t remorseful and can’t be reformed, but that doesn’t mean you excuse or treat him lightly.

ScientistMother, “#StandingwithDNlee and I’m #StandingwithMonicaByrne”

It underlines that push come to shove, people are going to side with someone with more social capital, even if that person did something that the people siding with him are against in theory — and that people are going to trust their own gut feeling that the person who harmed you is a good guy over the most careful and accurate recitation of the facts, even over what they see with their own eyes.

I have known Bora for years. I have respected his professional judgment. I have deep affection for him and for his wife. I count him as a friend. He has never harassed me.

But that doesn’t mean that I am going to offer apologia for his bad behavior. It doesn’t mean I’m going to preemptively disbelieve Ms. Byrne’s account, not just of what happened but also of how it affected her.

People who do great things for a community can also do great harm to individual members of that community — and, by extension, to the very webs of trust within that community that they worked hard to build.

— Janet D. Stemwedel, “This is not a post I want to write.”


From me

I don’t know Bora personally, but I’ve followed him enough professionally to know his contribution to science communication, and I respect him for that (see update below). No amount of good work, however, excuses or even ameliorates sexual harassment, and one should not need to have been a victim of sexual harassment to realize that. As Stemwedel points out, people are going to side with the person they know better. However, advancing to the “he made a mistake; let’s learn from this and move on” stage mere hours after the news broke seems a bit too soon, too convenient, too forgiving, too easy.

Or, as @drisis put it:

Update (Oct. 18)

This just keeps getting uglier. In the last couple days, two more of Bora’s victims have come forward and shared their experience:

At this point, I find it hard to retain much respect even for Bora’s professional contributions, especially since his misdeeds are so tightly intertwined with his professional realm.

On the positive side, these stories, and the way they trickled out one after another, have made it impossible to move on quickly from the scandal. To its credit, the science writing community has not shied away from the discussions that must be had. For instance, see the #ripplesofdoubt hashtag on Twitter for a sense of how pervasive such unacceptable behavior is.

Redrawing Darwin’s Finches

About seven years ago, while I was working for the DESTINY Traveling Science Learning Program, one of the illustrations I did for one of the program’s science-education modules was a graphic on the evolution of Darwin’s finches, the Galapagos birds that famously help spark the biologist’s theory of evolution. Because the copyright status of the finch illustrations I found online was never clear, I drew all thirteen of the finch heads in the graphic, a paintstaking process that involved a lot of dodging and burning in Photoshop.

Alas, when I left DESTINY, I forgot to take my source files with me, so I no longer have the illustrations except for a PDF of the whole graphic. Since I have had a little more free time lately, I started to re-create these illustrations, just to do something to keep my digital illustration skills sharp.

Here are the three finch illustrations I’ve done so far. They each took about 20 minutes, which was a lot shorter than the first time I did the illustrations (I guess that shows I’ve learned a thing or two over the last seven years). Here’s the reference image I’m using. The three I”ve re-created are the first three on the left of the reference image.

finches composite-01

I’ll post the whole redrawn graphic when I’m done and slap a Creative Commons license on it so others can use it if they wish.

It’s Not the Size of the Story; It’s How You Use It

Bora Zivkovic, the blog editor at Scientific American, posted a piece few days ago about the rise of forms of storytelling other than “the kind of short, inverted-pyramid article many in the professional media think of as “The Story”. Instead, Zivkovic envisions this “middle” form fading away in favor of either very short (tweet-length) reports or much lengthier narratives:

My bold prediction is that the length of a typical article will go in two directions: super-short, just the gist of the news, like a tweet; or super-long, an in-depth, detailed explainer or narrative. Long articles are doing very well these days, are popular and are quite capable of fetching money from their readers who are paying for such quality content quite willingly.

I especially agree with Zivkovic’s push for storytellers to make much greater use of the wide array of new forms at a storyteller’s disposal, such as tweets, links, and visualizations. However, there are a couple points in his piece I want to address in greater detail.

First, as some commenters on his post have pointed out, it is a false caricature to think that “for journalists, a story is a filed, fact-checked, 400-word inverted pyramid with the punch line in the title followed by the most important stuff.” Sure, that form was taught in journalism school, but so was feature writing — where we definitely did not write 400-word inverted pyramid stories — and now so is multimedia storytelling. Journalists write everything from three-sentence briefs to features, explainers or investigative reports that are thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of words long, and all of these are referred to, in the the industry lingo, as “stories.”

Second — and this is the point I want to focus on — the length of the story and, to a degree, the style in which it was written (e.g.: inverted pyramid vs. narrative), are not really the appropriate criteria by which to judge the effectiveness or usefulness of stories.

The beauty of the Internet and the new forms of storytelling is not that they give us the freedom to turn every piece into a lengthy narrative or a video or a tweet, but rather that they give us the flexibility to make a story exactly as long as it needs to be to serve its purpose and lets us pick and choose the optimal style and format for that particular story. A story’s value to its audience lies not in whether it’s 140 characters, 400 words, or 30,000 words, but in what the storyteller does within that length. Used correctly and effectively, any story length can inform and satisfy. Used poorly, any of these formats can make the audience loses interest and focus, and the story in turn loses its audience.

Zivkovic presented the example of how he used to “filter” a newspaper by selecting certain sections that he’s interested in, then skimming headlines before picking a story that he might be interested in reading. He concludes:

The point of this exercise is to realize that for the most part inverted pyramid can be reduced to just the headline. The ultimate inverted pyramid article is a single tweet.

And for those who want to know more than just that one sentence, a short inverted-pyramid article is not sufficient, so one has to look for a longer narrative explainer.

There is not much utility for the short article in the age of the Web, where limits of the paper medium do not apply, thus no article needs to always try to be both a part of River Of News and a part of News In Context – it does neither perfectly. And in the age of the Web, the two can be separated, yet linked by hypertext.

I’ll offer up my own example of filtering here by describing how I read Zivkovic’s post. I found his post via a link on Twitter. The tweet interested me and so I clicked on the link to read the story. When I got there, the headline at the top of the story kept my interest, so I read on. But then, the first five paragraphs had nothing to do with the subject of the tweet or the headline, which was what brought me to the story in the first place. I skimmed the first two sentences and quickly realized this to be the case, so I skipped past the first 300-some words of the 5,400-plus-word post.

After the real intro of the story, which sets up the rest of the narrative, I got to the section titled “What is a story?” and the first sentence I saw under that subhead started with “According to Wikipedia …” and immediately my attention began to waver because of how overused the “The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines X as …” device has become and how ineffective its usage tends to be in the first place. So I quickly skimmed through that paragraph and resumed actual reading with the paragraph below it. The ensuing section, “Narratives vs. Inverted Pyramid”, held my interest throughout.

And then I got to three consecutive sections that seemed to take a detour from the story up to that point — “Typology of science stories”, “Science in the story: hero or villain?”, and “Is a scientific paper a story?” While interesting, these three sections interrupted the train of thought and the line of argument that had been built in the previous parts of the post, and it wasn’t until almost 1,400 words later that we jumped back onto the narrative-vs.-inverted-pyramid train, with the section titled “How do readers know what to expect: inverted pyramid or narrative?” So for almost 1,400 words, I skimmed and my attention was starting to wane and I was beginning to wonder where this was all going because, after all, I have work to do and my job description doesn’t say anything about sitting here all day reading lengthy blog posts, as much as I wish it did (and yes, I do use Instapaper, but keep in mind there are also countless other stories out there vying for my attention and trying to keep me from coming back to this one).

The point of recounting how I read Zivkovic’s post isn’t to imply he’s a bad writer, to line-edit his post, or to suggest that all of his readers read the way I did. Instead, it’s meant to illustrate that filtering takes place not only while one chooses which story to read, but also on an ongoing basis while one is reading a story. The more someone has to skim and filter while reading a story, the harder one has to work to get to the central message of the story, the less effective and satisfying that story becomes, and the less likely the reader will continue reading. On the point of losing readers’ attention, Zivkovic wrote:

Unlike with Inverted Pyramid articles, in which the reader’s focus rapidly falls off after reading the headline, the narrative sustains focus (it may even rise as the reader progresses through the piece). The reader needs to concentrate better in order not to miss important clues and information. Thus, more information is retained. Thus, narrative form is more educational – readers can actually learn and retain new knowledge, not just get temporarily informed.

Here’s one place where I disagree with Zivkovic. Readers may need to concentrate more in order to not miss important clues and information in a narrative, but it doesn’t follow that they will. The latter only happens if the story, regardless of format, gives them a reason to stay engaged. What sustains focus isn’t so much style or length, but rather substance. A story loses readers not because it’s long or because it’s short, but because it runs out of interesting substance or becomes so much work to follow that it outweighs the quality of the substance being presented. A 400-word story that runs out of steam after the first three paragraphs is bound to lose readers, but so will a narrative that takes too long to get to the point or takes so many twists and turns that the readers give up after a while (ever hear someone tell a story in excruciating detail and think to yourself, “Get to the point already!”?). In fact, I’d argue that it’s more difficult to keep readers engaged throughout a narrative — especially in online reading — because by its very nature, a narrative takes longer to develop and covers more ground and more angles than an inverted-pyramid story, and thus has to contend with more potential distractions. It’s different when someone opens up a novel. That’s a situation where one not only expects the narrative form, but also a case where the narrative journey to the big reveal is as much a payoff as the reveal itself, if not more. In online reading, however, and especially in online news, where the overwhelming majority of pieces tend to be more informational, one is conditioned to expect a more direct path to the point of the piece — since the point of the piece often is the payoff — and generally has less time or tolerance for detours.

The Internet has removed the space constraints that previously prevented us from saying what needs to be said when more needs to be said. However, it cannot do anything about the pitfall at the other end of the spectrum — saying too much and getting in the way of what we are trying to say. A lengthy story where one ends up mentally filtering out big chunks of the story may not be as effective as a much shorter story that grips people’s attention throughout. The same idea applies no matter what length or style a story adopts. The 400-word inverted pyramid is definitely not the perfected universal form of storytelling, but neither is the 140-character tweet, the 5,000-word narrative, or the 90-second video. Each style serves a particular purpose better than others, and the ideal choice changes from story to story, depending on a myriad of factors, including the content, the intended audience, and the aim of the storyteller.

While the Internet has liberated storytellers to write as much as they want to, no less significant, especially in the realm of news, is the fact that it has also liberated them to write as little as they need to. I’ll be happy to see the extinction of the short stories where the writer strains to turn three sentences into 400 words because that’s the allotted space, but I will be just as happy to celebrate the continued existence of the short stories where someone writes 400 words because that is exactly what’s necessary to serve its purpose, no more, no less. I suspect Zivkovic and I probably agree on the idea of “the right length and style for the right story” (see the example of the runaway elephant story in his post). I think where we diverge is perhaps how often a short story is the appropriate choice. Whereas he seems to think the Web selects against short stories, I think people’s reading habits on the Web will help keep that format alive. After all, as Zivkovic points out in his post, reading a short, inverted-pyramid story is a less risky venture because it requires less investment of time and it’s easier to quit at any point (though I don’t think guilt has anything to do with it, as he suggests), whereas longer narratives require readers to be more selective in what they read because they are a much bigger investment.

Also, this is not necessarily an either-or scenario, since we’ve seen that people are segregating their reading into different times set aside for content of different lengths (think Instapaper). True, the short story does not do the “river of news” as effectively as tweets, nor does it do explainer as effectively as lengthy narratives (then again, neither of those two formats would effectively fill each other’s role either). However, those two are not the only important niches, and the short story can serve as an effective compromise of the two, balancing our need for more details than what’s conveyed in a headline and our need for pieces we can finish and get something out of without making a substantial time investment. Aside from being appropriate for the low-information stories that Zivkovic wrote about, the short story can also serve as the risk-free trial period for meatier subjects — a low-investment gateway to help you figure out if you are interested in a topic. In fact, Zivkovic entertained this possibility in the section of his post titled “A link is worth a thousand words” (and to serve as an effective gateway on the Web, a short story would indeed need to embrace linking as he describes). If you find you’re interested in the subject, you can move on to the linked narratives for total immersion. If not, you can quit without having lost too much time.

I think this gateway function will become an ever more important niche — important enough to keep the short, inverted-pyramid story a key part of people’s daily reading routine — because it helps people filter through the endless streams of available information vying for their eyeballs. In the age of the Web, it’s no longer the limits of the paper medium that we should worry about; it’s the limits of the human audience — their time, their interest, their attention span. With a little evolution, the short, inverted-pyramid story would still be an important and effective tool in that role.

Update (7/18)

See the discussion (below) I had with Zivkovic on Twitter after this post went up. He makes a good, and important, point that he was talking specifically about science stories, which often require much more context to truly make sense of and be useful to readers. After our discussion, it does seem that we pretty much agree on the key things and where we may disagree is only a matter of degrees. And also an important mea culpa: While writing my post, I had misread a sentence in Zivkovic’s post in a way that was definitely not a matter of degrees, as you’ll see in the Storify item below:


Using Multimedia and Social Media to Communicate Science

I’ve tweeted this and spread it around on Facebook, but it’s well worth posting again. Veteran science communicator Dennis Meredith has a very nice presentation on how and why scientists should use multimedia and social media to advance their research.

Meredith makes some very good points in the presentation, but I’m also impressed with the way he makes his points. The presentation was obviously tailored specifically for scientists. He cites examples and issues that matter to them, and shows them that he understands some of their reluctance to use social media. He gives them reasons for using multimedia and social media that are specifically incentives for scientists.

As for the points Meredith makes, I’m a big fan of using multimedia to communicate science, and I think Meredith is dead on in encouraging researchers to think visually when looking at how to present their research. Having worked in different fields, in both design and non-design roles, it’s amazing to me how often thinking visually is one of the keys to effective communication and the failure to do so creates problems.

Religion and Evolution

Charles Darwin would be 200 years old this week. There are a couple articles today (NYT, suggesting that it may be time to drop “Darwinian” from in front of the word “evolution”, because, as advocates of the move argue, it implies that the theory of evolution has remained stagnant since Darwin presented it to the world in Origin of Species in 1859, and that the terms “Darwinian evolution” and “Darwinism” leave the door open for the intelligent design camp to argue that there are other types of evolution or other “-isms”.

What really caught my eye, though, was the graphic accompanying the article. It breaks down by religion the results of a survey on Americans’ views of evolution as the best explanation for the origin of human life.


The results show that whether one believes in evolution isn’t necessarily tied to whether one is religious, as those surveyed who belong to several non-Christian religions overwhelmingly believe evolution to be the best explanation for human origins. No Christian religion, however, topped 58 percent, and Muslims came in at 45 percent.

As for the debate over whether it’s time to lay the term “Darwinian” to rest, I think it misses the point. America’s lack of understanding about evolution won’t be cured by a change in wording. It’s about increased efforts at education and a much better showing by the scientific community in the field of public relations, where the ID camp has traditionally fared much better. I work with scientists, and I can tell you that most of them aren’t exactly great at PR or communicating scientific ideas to lay people in an easy-to-understand manner. For more on this thought, check out “Flock of Dodos”, a terrific documentary by Randy Olson about the evolution-vs.-ID debate.

2008 Will Be a Second Longer

clockIf 2008 feels like a long year for you, maybe it’s because it is, by a second anyway. From the “Things You Never Knew You Didn’t Know” category: Apparently a “leap second” will be added to the clock on Dec. 31 at 23:59:59 to make the timescale match the Earth’s slowing rotation. So remember: Start your New Year countdown a second later this year.