Robert Sapolsky on Writing and The Popularization of Science

“You know, I’m basically a scientist; I don’t really think of myself as a writer,” says the neurobiologist and author Robert Sapolsky. “And it’s something that I need to discipline myself to do less of because it is much easier for me than doing the science …”

If you aren’t familiar with Robert Sapolsky, he is known not only for his work on stress and baboons but also his popular science writings. His most popular books include Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (1994), The Trouble with Testosterone (1997), and A Primate’s Memoir (2002). He’s also a recipient of the a famed MacArthur “Genius Grant.”

While slumming around the Internet today, I came across a lecture transcript I wanted to share for those who may interested in the popularization of science. In it, Sapolsky briefly discusses his own writing process, his disdain for deadlines, and an experience with an editor that quickly turned into a therapy session. It’s a longer read, but if you’re interested in the ways in which scientists find themselves straddling the fence between the natural sciences and creative nonfiction, check it out.

Reading through it, what I found amusing was the slow process in which Sapolsky found himself becoming a writer (a title he’s quick to deny). In fact, it all started as a way to pass the time while doing field research.  Writing letters to friends and family, he’d repeat stories and along the way revise them to make them clearer.

I never took a literature class in college, or any English course or anything. And I was not particularly into writing, and it was not until after I finished college—right after, a week after graduation—I went off to Africa for a year and a half to begin to get my field work started, which I have been doing ever since for twenty-five years and it was fairly isolated site, where a lot of the time I was by myself. I would go 8 to 10 hours a day without speaking to anyone, I would get a mail drop about once every two weeks or so, there was no electricity, there was no radio, there was no anything, and I suddenly got unbelievably, frantically dependent on mail. So as a result you wind up sending letters to every human that you have known in your life in hopes that they would write back to you. So what would happen is, all I could afford at the time were like these one-page aerogram things that you could sort of get in these big stacks, and something vaguely interesting would happen every couple of days or so. So you would write to somebody about it, and then you would write to the next person about it, and you would realize that before the end of the day, you had just written 25 versions of it, each of which was a page and a half long. …

Doing this over and over,

I would get incredibly bored with the damn thing and would thus start editing and make it more concise, and all of that, and you could sort of see it shrinking until it was half an aerogram, and then I would have to come up with something else to say. So I think just sort of in passing it kind of forced me to start editing.

As for the transition from writing letters to friends to writing articles for a popular audience, it happened subtly. First submitting to Psychology Today about his baboon work, he followed this up with an article in Discover Magazine. From there,

there was this sort of transition that as I got a few more of these out, I started to be able to write about stuff that I knew absolutely nothing about and had no, like, had no grounds having any opinions on, and then they would start asking me to have some, like, unfounded opinion on something, which I would gladly oblige and it just sort of started spreading out from there.

Although he was able to start publishing articles on an array of subjects, this did not come without its consequences. For as ridiculous as it sounds, it’s not uncommon for popularizers to be dismissed within their discipline – as if one became unclean by engaging with the Untouchables (you, me, and your mother). It’s actually, I think, the worst example of cannibalization in academia, and having spoken with several scientists known for their outreach, everything I’ve heard is the same:

Carl Sagan with his billions and billions of stars, he’s like the most successful science writer of his time, and, as a result of doing that, he totally destroyed his scientific career. And the snotty term that’s used for it among scientists is, that one gets “Saganized.” There’s a presumption that if you’re spending so much time doing this that you can’t possibly do good, serious science any more. And it actually, it did quite literally damage his professional career. So there’s an assumption that they cannot be simplified or whatever, and, you know, obviously there’s a certain amount of distortion that comes in with it, but, you know … people really need to learn this stuff.

Has this jeopardized his scientific career?

Um, I am convinced that this is the case, but this is probably just my rationalizing every time I get a crappy grant score. Every now and then I do get evidence that this is the case. Because all I have to do—with science stuff what you do is write a paper, and you send it in to some professional journal and it’s reviewed anonymously. And this is this amazing dis-inhibitory process that allows people to be just total shits to each other in this business, and it’s really like brutal. And I am guaranteed if in some paper of mine … all I need is like one incoherent sentence in there, and there is going to be a snotty comment, “Boy, for someone who publishes in this and that, that was sure incoherent; I have no idea what you’re saying!”

While I’m not a scientist, I can’t stress enough how much this attitude upsets me. Of course, this transcends more than just the natural sciences — it’s as prevalent in the humanities and philosophy as it is in astronomy and biology. When trying to explain complex concepts and theories to a popular audience, there’s always bound to be some asshole sniper taking their shots. There’s always going to be someone calling you dishonest, a joke, etc., for choosing the common tongue over esoteric jargon. But remember, when they decry your work for “not telling the whole story,” calmly explain to them that some journal articles are to the story what The Hobbit is to The Lord of the Rings Appendices. Sure, they’re nice, but most people don’t care.

I won’t belabor the point, so I’ll just finish with a “manifesto” written by the neuroscientist/author/benevolent employer David Eagleman called “Why Public Dissemination of Science Matters.” If you won’t take the time to read the Sapolsky interview, at least read this. In short, he argues that we have a duty to share scientific knowledge in order to:

  1. Thank Your Funders
  2. Inspire Critical Thinking
  3. Stem the Flow of Bad Information
  4. Inform Public Policy
  5. Clarify What Science Is and Is Not
  6. Share the Beauty of Scientific Pursuit

Sounds good to me!

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