Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Focus editor and writer Marco Ferrari talks about the best science writers in the U.S. and his forthcoming book on the “evolutionary thinking of everyday life.”

"I segreti dell'equilibrio", "The secrets of balance,"
one of the many articles written by Marco Ferrari for Focus.

Today I have a very special guest: Marco Ferrari is an Italian science journalist and a science editor for Focus, one of the major popular science magazines in Italy. Marco has a degree in a biology and a deep love for the theory of evolution. Between science reports, he is working on a book about the “evolutionary thinking on everyday life.” Intrigued? Read on as Marco explains what that means.

Welcome to CHIMERAS, Marco!

EEG: How did you become a science writer?

MF: By chance, as it were. My degree is in biology (animal behaviour), and my first real job was as researcher (psychopharmacology) in a pharmaceutical firm in Italy. In 1983 I was sent to NIMH in Washington D.C. to teach the researchers there some methods in ethological pharmacology and conducting research in anxiety inducing endopeptides. At the end of the year I didn’t find anything that “pleased the boss” and grew disillusioned with the research milieu. Looking around to find a job, I discovered in a newsstand a new nature magazine, called Oasis. I called the editor in chief and asked him whether his staff needed a (kinda) zoologist with a good knowledge of scientific English. He said, “Yes, come over.” And the rest, as they say, is history. After Oasis, I worked as freelance journalist and consultant. I wrote some books and translated about ten. Finally, I landed a job in the most important pop science magazine in Italy, Focus, where I now have the position of science editor.

By the way, this path is highly unusual. Some of my friend and colleagues followed another journey to become science writers, such as going from being journalist mildly interested in science to write about physics or biology. Up to some years ago, in Italy the journalist was supposed to be able to write about almost anything, and you could jump from politics to science without even thinking about it. With somewhat appalling result, if I may say so. As a matter of fact, contrary to popular belief, I think a degree in science or engineering is a requisite for good science communication and journalism.

Fortunately, almost all the younger colleagues are scientific writers by training; we have in Italy many masters in science writing, though most of them are pretty ephemeral. To sum it up, regrettably, not all the science writers and journalists have a degree in science, though this is true for the most seasoned ones. Among the newest and better ones, we have physicists, physicians, biologists, chemists and so forth.

EEG: What do you love the most about your job and what, on the other hand, do you find most challenging?

MF: Being an ethologist and evolutionist, I enjoy very much writing pieces on animal behaviour and evolution, environmental issues (such as global warming) and the like. I love to interview at length scientists and experts around the world to clarify topics for an article, and, at the same time, to try (desperately) to deepen my knowledge on it. And the most exhilarating moment (for my ego, at least) is seeing other people reading one of my articles, on a train or a bus.

Challenging are the predicaments which I find myself in very often, trying to explain articles to the editor in chief (kidding), and especially navigating between various approaches to the science writing and communication. For example, in science there’s no such thing as the so-called “balance treatment”. By this I mean the habit of listening to two different voices on a given issue, a commonly modus operandi among journalists. I have a hard time explaining how I dislike this, especially on big topics such as evolution and global warming, because the “voice” in these topics is just one. Furthermore, trying to cut down the complexities of scientific news and pigeonhole them in a pop magazine is a time consuming job, and sometimes not at all fun.

EEG: That seems unfair. I can name so many scientific debates that would benefit from that rule, and I'm not just talking about the obvious ones like evolution and climate change. Virtually every conference I go to has some kind of disagreement among the major players in the field.

Who do you see as a role model among today's science writers and/or science communicators?

MF: Since you aren't familiar with the Italian players, I will name only the American ones ‒ at least the ones I know here at the periphery of the empire. In spite of what I said before, I think the best ones now don’t have a degree in science whatsoever: Carl Zimmer and David Quammen. They’re crystal clear, elegant in writing and curiosity driven. Quammen is the best writer, Zimmer the best journalist. Andy Revkin of the New York Times is a wonderful reporter, and Ira Flatow on the radio is very good and entertaining (at least listening to him on a podcast). If I may say so, Neil deGrasse Tyson on Cosmos wasn’t as good as I thought, and Bill Nye should have avoided debates on evolution. My rule is, don’t debate with creationists. As far as “historical” science writers are concerned, I can’t forget Stephen Gould and Jared Diamond. The baroque prose of the first one really captured me in the Eighties. But there are many others.

EEG: He, he, 'don’t debate with creationists' is a very wise rule! What's the difference between a science writer and a science journalist?

MF: Well, maybe it is an idiosyncratic position, but I think a science writer has a more narrative approach than a journalist. He/she writes, e.g., long op-eds and books. A journalist should be a watchdog at heart and should be writing real articles, using a much deeper investigative approach.

EEG: Tell us about the book you are currently working on: what is it about and what inspired you to write it?

MF: Well, it’s a book by a journalist, so I hope is at least entertaining without being full of horrible mistakes. It deals with “evolutionary thinking on everyday life,” aside from the strict natural process, that is. By this I mean the application of evolutionary ideas to agriculture, medicine, conservation biology, literature, social studies, cosmology, robotics and so forth and so on. I really had fun writing it.

As far as inspiration is concerned, I can point to my love for science fiction, truly alien worlds and weird natural act and species, the all encompassing Gould’s essays and maybe, just maybe, a typical Italian humanistic-philosophical approach to knowledge (but this is too big a word for me).

EEG: Your book sounds truly interesting and I feel honored to be one of the advanced readers because I really can't wait to start digging into it. Thanks so much for chatting with us today, Marco!

MF: Thanks a lot for the questions, you helped me clarify some of my own ideas...

Focus magazine can be found online and in bookstores/newspaper shops everywhere in Italy.

Marco Ferrari

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