Matthew LaPlante didn’t set out to be a science writer.
The assistant professor of journalism at Utah State University began his career as a sports reporter and has spent much of the past decade covering military issues and international crises. But speaking to an audience of hundreds journalists from across Central and South America on Wednesday at theIberoamerican Journalism Seminar on Science, Technology and Innovation in Querétaro, Mexico, LaPlante said he’s always searching “for stories that give me chills.”
And these days, he said, there’s no subject that thrills him so much as science.
LaPlante, the keynote speaker at the third-annual international seminar, asked fellow conference participants to join him in an effort to promote more cuentacuentos para la ciencia — storytelling for science.
“If you consider the differences between our species and the other 8.7 million animal species on this planet, one of the things that is clearly most important is that human beings collect information and use it to share stories,” LaPlante said in his talk. “I don’t know how we arrived in this place evolutionarily, but after several million years of evolution, this is who we are. And if we are going to make it as a species for another million years, or even another thousand, or even another 100, this is who we need to continue to be.”
In his presentation, LaPlante spoke about his work alongside undergraduate student Paul Christiansen, to tell the story of Pando — an aspen clone in central Utah that is the world’s largest known and possibly oldest organism. After an estimated 80,000 years on this planet, the aspen grove — which is interconnected by an elaborate root structure — appears to be dying. (Christiansen has since graduated and is now a professional journalist in Oregon.)
Pando, LaPlante said, is “facing great obstacles and fighting just to survive.” As such, he said, the largest-ever discovered member of the species populous tremuloides is very much like another species that began spreading its roots tens of thousands of years ago — homo sapiens sapiens.
LaPlante said it will take great scientists to help humanity “get us out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.”
But, he warned, scientists cannot do their jobs if they fail to persuade others in an increasingly democratic world of the importance of their mission. For too long, he said, scientists have worried first and foremost about communicating with one another.
That, LaPlante posited, was one of the reasons why climate change denial is so widespread in the United States.
“Of course scientists are losing the battle for truth. Of course scientists are losing the battle for funding. And of course scientists are losing the battle for the public imagination,” he said. “Scientists are losing these battles because they are not talking in ways that many people can understand. And then when people don’t understand, instead of accepting the rightful share of the blame, they treat the people they’re talking to as though they are stupid. That’s a terrible communication strategy.
In response to a question from an audience member who wondered if religion was to blame for a lack of respect for science, LaPlante said science communicators would do well to take more cues from religion.
People are drawn to passion, he said — and that’s available in large supply in churches around the world. By contrast, he said, scientists are far too often stiff, stoic and supercilious.
“And it’s a real shame, because the truth is that we are living in an absolute golden age of science,” LaPlante said. “Our world is in desperate need of great scientists. But equally, and perhaps more so, we are in need of great science storytellers. There is an amazing story to tell about an entire species overcoming great obstacles and fighting just to survive.”