In defense of not knowing it all
I’ve asked my fair share of “dumb” questions.
As a science writer, I have a lot of conversations with scientists who have dedicated their careers to studying a certain topic. It’s up to me to ask the right questions so I can understand what they do —often in about an hour or less — and relay this information to the public.
A lot of times, I ask questions that could be perceived as dumb questions. But they aren’t dumb in the sense that I’m unprepared. They’re dumb in the sense that I have to ask for simple explanations of things that have been in the scientist’s vocabulary for years.
I’m sure I have — on multiple occasions — asked a scientist to define a term that is completely new to me, but is second nature to them.
This can be the hardest question to ask because you have to admit that you don’t know it all. But you have two options: either you admit you’re confused and get a correct explanation, or you shrug it off, brush past a term you’re unsure of, and risk relaying incorrect information to readers.
So I’ve come to believe that there are no dumb questions in science reporting.
After all, I’m not a scientist, I’m a writer. It’s not my job to know it all, but it is my job to learn as much as I can.
People sometimes ask me how I can write about science when I’m not a scientist and I wasn’t a science major. I’m not an expert by any means, and people often perceive this as a disadvantage. But I see it as a strength.
Author Mary Roach says she owns her ignorance when she’s reporting about science:
“When you don’t have an extensive background in a topic … you show up with a sense of wonder and curiosity, and you’re exploring something for the first time. That enthusiasm and curiosity that you bring makes it kind of fun for the researcher to be sharing this world with somebody from the outside.” — Mary Roach
In not knowing it all, she doesn’t focus on the jargon and technicalities of science, which allows her to explain the topic clearly and simply to her readers.
She embraces the fact that she doesn’t know everything. There’s a right and a wrong time to do this in life, and I believe reporting is the right time.
When you embrace your ignorance, you put aside everything you thought you knew and let your subject guide you.
You allow yourself to be wildly curious and show your willingness to learn.
You open yourself up to all the different directions that the interview, or the story, could take.
And you stop when you don’t understand something — you’re brave enough to admit your confusion.
Roach says she doesn’t prepare questions beforehand. Instead, she brings a list of topics she wants explained. That’s a pretty scary thought when you’re the kind of person who wants to be prepared for everything.
Sometimes I show up to interviews with just a few bullet points written in my notebook. This allows me to think about the big picture. What do I need to ask so I get what’s going on here?
It’s also a lesson in humility — a lesson I’ve learned countless times in my reporting.
Sometimes, you just can’t prepare enough, and you have to let that go and let your subjects take you down paths you never predicted. Sometimes, you have to step back from interviews that are full of details and ask yourself: “What am I supposed to get out of this?”
I think this is the key to being a good science reporter, or any kind of reporter.
As long as you keep the bigger picture in mind, show you’re willing to learn, and let yourself be curious, everything else will fall into place.
Reporting teaches me that I’m still learning. I’m grateful I get to do that.