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Perils of Click-Bait Science Communication, or There’s Many a Slip ‘twixt the Cup and the Lip

Metathesis

Science communication plays an integral role in bridging the gap between academia and the public. Science writers have the tricky job of distilling complex ideas into digestible pieces, and explaining highly-specialized experiments in a way the public might find interesting. Research highlighted in the media can become part of a larger cultural conversation and have a more direct impact on people’s lives. However, in this process, a research article undergoes multiple reinterpretations, and can become detached from the original material. As a result of this process, science for public consumption tends to overemphasize human relevance, lose qualifiers or context, and frequently employs ‘click-bait’ methods of choosing catchy titles that distort the results and implications of the research.

A particularly painful example of the pitfalls of a catchy title happened in the highlight of an article on primate sexual behavior. In December 2014, a group of researchers published a study on…

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Tolkien’s Heirs (I): Terry Brooks

It’s become something of a cliche in reviews of fantasy novels, especially those in the epic tradition, to compare a new series or author to Tolkien.  Of course, this isn’t a surprise, given how monumentally successful and influential The Hobbit and The Lord of  the Rings have been on the popular cultural consciousness since the middle of the last century.  Some fantasy authors, however, actually deserve the title of Tolkien’s heirs, starting with the focus of this blog post, the author Terry Brooks.

When it comes to fantasy authors working in the tradition of Tolkien, one name springs immediately to mind:  Terry Brooks.  In a career spanning four decades, Brooks has produced numerous bestselling novels and series, though his most famous and popular series has always been Shannara. Spanning several generations of the same family in a post-apocalyptic Earth, Shannara has long enchanted readers with its mix of adventure narratives, moral quests, and heavy ethical and environmental questions.  If Tolkien is widely considered the grandfather of modern epic fantasy, then Brooks, in my opinion, should be considered its father.  Or at least it’s favourite uncle.

Now, Brooks has taken considerable flack from many for being nothing more than second-rate, diluted Tolkien (even such a noted Tolkien luminary as Tom Shippey has said as much), but that’s a rather unfair criticism.  Though, admittedly, The Sword of Shannara did have a lot of plot similarities to The Lord of the Rings, the same can be said of practically any other author working in the epic fantasy tradition (David Eddings, Robert Jordan, and Terry Goodkind come to mind), and even Tolkien himself borrowed heavily from existing traditions and narratives in the construction of his great works.  Indeed, the subsequent volumes in the Shannara series have edged further and further away from the Tolkien paradigm, though Brooks, like his literary forbear, frequently considers environmental issues in many of his works.

Like all good fantasy authors, however, Brooks is not not afraid to plumb the darkest depths of the genre. Indeed, some of his finest work has gone to some very dark places.  The Genesis of Shannara trilogy, for example, takes place before the main Shannara saga, when our own world has brought itself to the brink of utter collapse.  This is a world that is both uncannily familiar and also terrifyingly alien, populated by the decimated and embattled populations of humans, their mutant counterparts, and the fiendish demons that seek to bring the entire world into utter devastation.  There are many points in this particular trilogy–as well as the Word and Void trilogy that preceded it–that are downright disturbing, and there are also scenes that are strangely and eerily touching.

These same themes, of struggle and adversity, of various powerful factions constantly straining against one another for ultimate domination, recur throughout Brooks’s oeuvre.   The world that his characters cherish is constantly on the verge of being overwhelmed by those who seek their own advantage rather than the good of others, from the Warlock Lord (the primary antagonist of The Sword of Shannara), through the numerous subsequent adversaries that have populated each iteration of the series.  Through it all, however, it is the smallfolk upon whom hangs the fate of the world, not those who would seek to dominate it for their own gain.  Each generation of the Ohmsford family has struggled against seemingly impossible odds, bound up in the threads of fate that continue to wind ever tighter around each successive generation, the weight of the past shackling them even as it opens up possibilities for further voyages of exploration and self-discovery.

What always stirs me when reading Brooks is how well he manages to evoke a strong sense of temporality, of previous moments in time always intruding in on the present.  Part of this stems from the fact that this is a series that has been going since the 1970s, so readers, and the characters, have a sense that this is a world with a rich and deep history, characterized by constantly shifting alliances.  Even now, many generations after the Great Wars ended the world that we currently know, the world still struggles to right itself, the contest between magic and science, between the bureaucratic/autocratic Federation and the independent Freeborn and their allies, constantly bringing it close to collapse.

It is, ultimately, this sense of precariousness, of a world constantly on the brink of cataclysmic change, that keeps me as a reader coming back to Brooks.  One can sense a grand design at work, fleshed out over all of this years, and I continue to eagerly await each book, waiting to see how not only how its own individual narrative will unfold, but also how it will fit into the overall pattern he has already established.  With his sense of scope and the grandness of his overall vision, Terry Brooks truly deserves to be known as one of Tolkien’s heirs.

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Austen & Darwin, Love Doctors?: A Valentine’s Day/ Darwin Day Tribute

Metathesis

A few months ago my Google Scholar alert for mate choice turned up a paper not about insect courtship behavior or sexual selection, but Jane Austen.[1] The only time previously I had ever thought about Austen and evolution together was while I wrote lab reports and wished I could watch Pride and Prejudice instead. However, as I looked into the connection between Austen and Darwin, I found abundant similarities: both are from similar social situations in Victorian England, are younger siblings, keen observers, and skilled writers whose works and ideas have persisted in the cultural psyche.[2] There is even an overlap in subject matter: sexual selection, mate choice, and kinship dynamics in Darwinian terms or courtship, romance, and family in Austen.

Although I ardently admire and love both Austen and Darwin/evolution, I have always been a bit dubious that either is able to capture the totality of human sexual…

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A Scientist Walks into an English Blog: Language, Gender, Feminism, and the Science of Sex

Metathesis

I spend my day thinking about sex.

Mostly, sex between male and female fruit flies. I am curious about what happens after they finish doing the deed and sperm move through the female reproductive environment on their journey to the egg. Interested in the changes that occur within the female after sex, how her body interacts with the foreign substances contributed by the male ejaculate, and how an egg gets ready to be fertilized. Ultimately, I try to use fancy scientific techniques to figure out what happens between sex and a baby/larvae on a molecular level.

I am an evolutionary reproductive biologist. While that may not seem like it has much to do with English and the humanities, they actually intersect quite a bit. I like to think of science and culture as constantly interacting, feeding off of and into each other (in science-y jargon, they are symbiotic). For example…

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The Surprisingly Complex Pleasures of Puppy Bowl XI

And, we’re back!  I know it’s been several weeks since I released an actual post to this blog, but I was busy doing my work on Metathesis, as well as my Prospectus (the next draft of which is due at the end of this week), but hopefully I’ll be able to get back into the swing of things.  And what better way to get back into my queer groove than by blogging about the ironic humour of my favourite January sporting event, the Puppy Bowl.

While over 100 million Americans were tuning into the Super Bowl, I was tuning in to what is, in my opinion, the real highlight of the January sports season, Animal Planet’s “The Puppy Bowl.”  Now, I know it might seem counterintuitive to suggest that a puff-ball special about a bunch of puppies running helter-skelter all over a make-believe stadium, with a Tweeting cockatiel and hamsters in a plane and on an exercise wheel, would have anything significant to say or a terribly complex way in which to say it.  And normally, I think you would be right.  This year, however, the annual special seemed significantly more self-aware than usual, a particularly noteworthy achievement for a mock sport event hosted on one of the most hopelessly bizarre of the plethora of branded cable networks.

I think my Mom (always a source of unexpected sagacity) said it best when she noted that the special (which she distinguished from Hallmark’s competing Kitten Bowl), did not take itself too seriously.  As she put it, we as the audience are always in on the joke with the Puppy Bowl.  And I would agree.  Even though it is as glutted with advertisements as the Super Bowl, I can’t help but chuckle a little at the absurdness of it all, and I think that the show wants me to do so.  After all, how seriously can you take a carpet cleaner ad when it’s being used to clean up fake turf in a fake stadium in a Super Bowl played by puppies?

This is not to suggest, however, that the Puppy Bowl doesn’t have its moments of seriousness, both implicitly and explicitly.  Increasingly, many of the puppy players are mixed breeds, a tactical move no doubt designed to remind potential dog owners that buying exclusively pure-bred pups from breeders leaves many, many shelter dogs unadopted, living out their lives in already-overcrowded shelters and rescue homes.  Just as importantly, the show frequently highlights the stories of the puppies as they have made their way to the Puppy Bowl.  Many of these puppies are indeed the products of shelters and abandonment, a sobering reminder of the alleged expendability of animal life and an urgent call for us to do better by our canine compatriots.

What really surprised me, however, was the way in which the show toggled between the serious and sentimental to the self-reflexive.  One of the key changes this year was the introduction of Henri the Existential Cat to the halftime show, which has in previous years mostly consisted of kittens (often reluctantly) playing with confetti and other toys.  Henri’s laconic (and entirely French) commentary on the utter banality and absurdity of sporting events is a cunning swipe not only at the Super Bowl–which is, let’s face it, one of the most hysterically and hyperbolically banal and absurd mass culture events in all of the blessed USA–but also at a culture that would produce a highly-popular television special featuring dogs playing a very fast-and-loose version of football.  We are simultaneously invited to have fun and to laugh at the antics of the puppies (which are, if I do say so myself, almost TOO cute) and to laugh at ourselves for laughing at them.  This is postmodern irony at its finest, made all the sweeter and rich due to its completely unexpected location.

Of course, all of this doesn’t negate the fact that the Puppy Bowl, and Animal Planet as a whole, remains thoroughly human in its outlook.  How could we expect anything else from a network whose tagline is still “Surprisingly Human”?  Still, we can’t entirely dismiss “Puppy Bowl” as mindless entertainment, especially now that is has begun to appeal to the more complex thinkers among us.  It may be a surprisingly human enterprise, but it also happens to be a surprisingly complicated, one might even say contradictory, one.  What’s more, we shouldn’t let its seeming simplicity blind us to the myriad ways it calls on us to spectators to engage in the mass cultural products with which we constantly engage.