Sunday, August 19, 2012

Can writers learn anything from scientists?

                                                By J. L. Greger
Editors of scientific journals require scientists to submit a full disclosure of their biases when they submit a manuscript for review. Then they charge scientists (or at least agencies funding the research) for space for their publications. Accordingly, the disclosures are brief.

Here’s mine: My novel Coming Flu (published in by Oak Tree Press in July 2012) is a medical thriller; it is also an example of a new sub-genre: science in fiction or Lab Lit. I am a biologist.

Besides keeping their disclosures brief, what can writers learn from scientists? Maybe a little bit about creating a public image.

Is the image of a profession important?
Most writers would agree with Oscar Wilde. “There is only thing worse in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” (The Picture of Dorian Gray).

Most scientists probably would not. They have seen the effect of free publicity for scientists in books and movies, like Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dr. Strangelove. Most Americans would characterize scientists as aging, unathletic, males with anti-social tendencies. Boys and men, who are fans of comic strips, have a different view of scientists because Batman, Iron Man, and the Avengers are all scientists and engineers. They think of scientists as handsome male superheroes. Although several of my male colleagues like the latter image, it’s equally false.

At this point you’re thinking, why would scientists care about their image? They know a good image is essential to gain the support of the electorate and policy makers for continued funding of scientific research through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA), National Science Foundation (NSF), and Department of Energy (DOE). They also know their past image has hindered recruitment of bight students, especially women and minorities, to careers in science.

Have scientists tried to improve their image?
Scientific organizations have held thousands of symposiums, museum exhibits, and news briefings to increase appreciation of science by the press, public, and Congress. Government agencies have spent millions to recruit the brightest students (especially women and minorities who generally have not pursued careers in science). For example, NSF will spend $829 million in 2012 on education; most of this will be used to support fellowships and assistantships for graduate students and post doctoral trainees at universities. Similarly NIH will invest large amounts in the graduate and post-graduate training of scientists and physicians in 2012, but will spend $24 million to promote science education for the public, particularly school children.

Depending on your politics, you may think these are examples of “too little too late” or outlandish uses of funds needed elsewhere.

Have these efforts paid off?
The University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center has surveyed 800 to 3,000 Americans annually since 1973. They noted no consistent change in Americans’ opinions about scientists; 35 to 45% of those surveyed expressed confidence in scientists. During the same period of time, confidence in educators fell from 37% to 26%, in physicians fell from 54% to 41%, and in Congress dropped from 23% to 10%.

Do these survey results reflect the lobbying efforts of scientific agencies? I’d say it’s impossible to assess.

But the producers of Contagion contacted scientific agencies for advice before and during filming to increase the accuracy of the science portrayed in the film. The film cost $60 million to produce and grossed $130 million in theaters. Now three popular TV series - CSI, Bones, and NCIS - are projecting positive images for scientists. All three have attractive men and women, who care about others, playing scientists. Granted Abby Sciuto of NCIS wears weird clothing, but she is appealing to youth.

The number of women majoring in science has increased. A few students in biology have admitted that TV shows influenced their career choices. Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the modern birth control pill, now writes novels and plays to increase interest in the “culture” of scientists. There is a website devoted to science in fiction called

Why should you as a writer be interested?
Scientific discoveries and controversies offer great ideas for novels, plays, and short stories. Tidbits of science, especially if you add the right criminal twist, can add a sense of excitement to your writing. For example, you could have a physician “rushing” to declare patients brain dead so he can sell their organs to those needing transplants. Or in a book for youth, you could have a theme park executive having a clone of a wooly mammoth made. Think of the problems of feeding and containing a 13-ton animal; most Asian elephants weigh only 5 to 6 tons.

Scientists, like police, are sometimes willing to share information with authors. Agencies like NIH, have put “non-scientist friendly” descriptions of cutting-edge science on the web. Start with Many universities publish e-zines, press release, and brochures, which are great sources of information on innovative science. They’re also often written in a catchy manner that may spark your imagination.

Finally, learn from the scientists. The effects of bad publicity can linger for a long time.

About Coming Flu 
A new flu strain – the Philippine flu – kills more than two hundred in less than a week in the small walled community nestled by the Rio Grande River. The rest face a bleak future under quarantine. One of the residents Sara Almquist, a medical epidemiologist, pries into every aspect of her neighbors’ lives looking for clues on how to stop the spread of the flu. She identifies promising clues - maybe too many!

For more information, see


jrlindermuth said...

Interesting blog. I made good use of NIH as a reporter. Thanks for reminding me of their value to the fiction writer as well. Your book sounds like a good addition to the TBR list.

jrlindermuth said...

Interesting blog. I made good use of NIH as a reporter. Thanks for reminding me of their value to the fiction writer as well. Your book sounds like a good addition to the TBR list.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I've had the good fortune to read this book and it was definitely exciting, compelling, and a new look at what can happen.

William Doonan said...

Absolutely fascinating! Research has always been a big part of my writing. "American Caliphate" made good use of my own work, but I had to do a lot of research as well to flesh out the drama. The challenge, of course, is to know when to stop researching and start writing.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Thanks for your comment on my blog. I think scientists and writers can learn quite a lot from each other.

J.L. Greger said...

I'm glad you found the NIH reference useful. Here's another one. If you want weird and wonderful science ideas, which are not medically oriented, try looking at the NSF (National Science Foundation) website
at htttp://

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