what ecology taught me about writing about sex science

I’ve been getting feedback from beta readers about the first chapter of the book, and here is the forehead-smacking moment of “duh” that I’ve just had as a result:

Science is an island species, like the lemur or the komodo dragon or the kakapo. If you transplant it to the mainland, it simply cannot compete under the intense selection pressure of mainland species – the tiger, the hawk, the rat.

Anyone who’s read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death can tell you that what gets put into the popular media is what HOLDS OUR ATTENTION. Not what’s true or what’s Truth, certainly not what’s important, not even necessarily what’s NEW, but what HOLDS OUR ATTENTION. True things, The Truth, important things, and new things all find their way into mainstream media, but the quality they share is that they hold our attention; if they don’t, they disappear, victims of the natural selection process of media.

The endeavor of science, on the other hand, is devoted to What’s True. In science, What’s True is also (usually) What’s Important and even What Holds Scientists’ Attention. Crowds of scientists, populating all the corners of reality, piece together an increasingly fine-grained picture of the nature of the universe, of humanity, and of life itself.

With such different end-goals – what’s true versus what’s captivating – the endeavor of science is more or less antithetical to the endeavor of popular media production. The only science that can survive transplant from the island of empiricism to the mainland of pop culture is the science that is captivating to a general audience.

Some of you will not agree with me about this, of course – many of you, like me, genuinely just LOVE the science itself. Some of you even, like me, are happy to visit the island of empiricism to see science in its natural habitat, rather than in a zoo, where it is most often kept on the mainland of pop culture.

But having spent 5 years writing a blog about the science of sex and then spent the last year seriously investigating why writing such a blog is SO MOTHERFUCKING HARD, I’m totally convinced that my academic training has been among the biggest liabilities in my ability to communicate sex science to non-sex-scientists. It gave me the characteristics of the island species, and I’ll be out-competed unless I adapt.

Now. If we assume – as I do, and as I always will – that science holds the keys to the future, then the lock for that key is public understanding of science. To get funding, to create policy change, to promote social justice, and to connect the general public with the nature of life, the universe, and everything, science literacy is necessary. Science simply MUST take up more space in the mainstream.

So how do we maximize science literacy, when mass media, the gateway to large-scale awareness of anything, is governed by the oligarchy of What Holds Our Attention regardless of what is true, important, or even new?

Answer: by translating the language of scientific endeavor into the language of What Holds Our Attention. Or, to use the endemic/invasive species metaphor: by breeding a hybrid. A hybrid that is near enough to the island species to satisfy the natives of that island, and yet robust enough to tolerate the vicious inter-species competition of the mainland.

Which leads us to the question: what are the attributes of a robust species in a mainland habitat? In other words, what holds a mainlander’s attention?

I looked at the science on what holds our attention, and it turns out it’s stuff that’s exciting, awe-inspiring, frightening, enraging, novel, sexy, and generally thrilling. Stuff that makes our hearts beat faster. What doesn’t hold our attention is stuff that slows down our heart rates – stuff that makes us feel calm, sad, defeated, or hopeless. Despair doesn’t get shared the way hope gets shared. Facts don’t get shared the way stories get shared. Statistics don’t get shared the way case studies get shared.

For me personally, and for many of you, science makes my heart beat faster – of course it does; I’ve lived on the island most of my life. But the need for literacy around the science of sex is far greater than the few thousand people who will read this post.

So I’m now thinking about the task of writing the book as the daunting task of breeding a science-pop culture hybrid that will both satisfy the scientists whose work I’m representing AND compete on equal footing with the large scale cultural myths around sex.

And dude. It is DIFFICULT.

If you’ve ever read a popular science book that you feel really succeeded in appealing to a mainstream audience and also satisfying scientists, would you tell me about it? I’m looking for role models and inspiration. Or possibly a step-by-step guide to breeding hybrids.