Jason Davis came from a non-science, non-writing background, but eventually earned a master’s degree in journalism with a specialty in science and digital publications. Now, Davis works full time as the editorial director for The Planetary Society, the world’s largest non-profit space advocacy group. Among his notable works are Desert Moon, a documentary voiced by former astronaut Captain Mark Kelly.
What makes somebody a good writer?
I’ve learned that what makes you a good writer—I don’t claim to be a good writer—but I know that what makes a good writer is being willing to kill your darlings. Being able to self-edit and look at something you wrote that you initially thought was precious and the best thought in the world, then you coming back to it and thinking this is not good, for whatever reason. It’s not getting my point across correctly. Edit it, delete, and say that it’s just out of this story. I strongly believe in that when you’re writing. You have to check your ego and not hold on to pieces. Just because it came from you doesn’t mean it has to go out into the world.
Does that apply to the world of science, as well?
Sure, a scientist may have spent years writing a paper that’s about some esoteric subject that is making an important contribution to the academic literature or is very important for colleagues. But, at the end of the day, it’s just not relevant to the wider public. The challenge comes when you have a scientist who’s very connected to what they do, and they feel very strongly that something needs to be communicated about this particular thing, and they won’t trust you as the writer to say “You know what? That’s actually not important for what we’re trying to do right now, right here.” Which is, tell people about their science.
Do you think that having a background in science, or not, changes the way we communicate scientific topics?
I don’t have a formal science background, personally, so I know I see things in a different light than scientists that I have spoken to for interviews. Then there’s people that are a kind of hybrid of both, maybe people who had a science background and moved into a more communication direction. They’re somewhere in between, whereas pure scientists, who are really holed up in academia, communicate about things in a totally different way. Some people are just naturally better at knowing their audience and being able to distill what they’re doing into something digestible for people who have no background in what they’re doing. Whereas, other people just can’t make that leap, or they’re unwilling to make that leap in the way they communicate.
Do you think it’s important for scientists to communicate about their work?
It depends on what we mean by important. It’s important that the science gets communicated, in my opinion. As far as the scientist personally communicating their science, it’s certainly helpful but I don’t know if I would say it’s required or a necessity, as long as someone is communicating about the science. On the other hand, if you say that some people should just do their science… it’s kind of the theory of the lone genius, slaving away in a lab and working on something that’s really important to them or the world. Should they just not have to deal with the communication part? Should other people have to carry the emotional weight of doing that?
What are your thoughts on the general state of science communication in the U.S.?
I think it’s very complicated. There’s some fallacy in thinking that the problem with society is that people just simply aren’t educated in science. I think it’s been shown that with something like climate change, more education and facts alone will not necessarily convince people to your way of thinking. That’s unfortunate, but it is the reality of the situation. On a shallow level, people think we need to educate more about science, and we need to communicate more about science. While I certainly think those are important and that we should be doing those things, I don’t think that those are necessarily the problem. The problem is more systemic and deeper than that. I wouldn’t profess to know what the exact problem is. There is a problem. There’s a lot of people who are doing a great job communicating science, but as for how that information gets digested and internalized and leads to policy decisions—real change in the world—that is a tougher question to address.
Is there anything you would change about we go about communicating science?
There’s just so much noise out there. It’s very difficult to know just how your message is being sent or received. At The Planetary Society, a lot of people joined our organization because they’re very deep into the science of space exploration. They want to hear the 3,000-word essay on some very minor thing that happened on a space mission. To me, that is serving only a very specific audience. How do you serve those people that hunger for that deep dive information, while also serving someone like my mom? If I were going to tell my mom about the same subject, I would not send her a 3,000-word essay. I want to reach both audiences. It’s a real challenge, knowing how to present the information in a way that it appeals to people. That needs to be a much larger part of the conversation—how is it being received?
Where do you see the future of science communication?
I think it’s very hard to predict. If you told people ten or twenty years ago about the way things look now, I don’t think they would have seen it coming. Social media and the spread of information now is just very different than the way it was, even in the recent past. I don’t see social media going away any time soon. It seems like this is the reality we’re living in, where Twitter and Facebook are the ways that information is going to spread. Even if they fold, or enough people get fed up with them, I think something will replace them. If we are to succeed in getting quality science information out to people and for that information to be actionable for making the world a better place, it needs to adapt to that scenario and that landscape.