#50) CASE CLOSED: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” proves how boring science is to the general public
July 1st, 2010
That’s right. You heard it here. And I’m wondering where else you may ever hear it. There is such a reverence towards the subject of science that virtually no one is ever likely to call it boring. I’ve got several books about communicating science sitting here on my table, and I’ve just looked through several websites on the subject. Virtually nowhere do I ever see the word “boring” even mentioned, much less in association with science. I searched an amazingly confident document titled, “A Scientist’s Survival Kit for Communicating Science,” published in 2006. The word boring only comes up twice in 70 pages of advice, and then only in reference to computer graphics and technical science meetings. It is clearly politically incorrect to refer to a subject as revered as science as being boring, yet we can see the indirect evidence of it in a masterfully written book about an aspect of medical science.
Rebeccas Skloot has written an amazing book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” that communicates a big dose of science to a very broad audience (it’s been on the bestseller lists for a while now). But the skillful way in which she tells the story of the most important cell cultures in history is a perfect demonstration of using the humanities to first arouse her audience before plunging into the dry details of the science behind the story.
It all starts with the simple principle of “arouse and fulfill,” that I cite frequently both here on The Benshi and in my book. I used to point to Stephen Jay Gould as the master of it, but now I think Rebecca Skloot is even more gifted in her ability to work this combination of elements that is essentially a communications bait and switch.
Look at her WONDERFUL book. It is without a doubt one of the best popular science books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. And yet, for nearly the ENTIRE first third of the book there is virtually no mention of science. It’s mostly the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman, stricken by disease, struggling to raise her children, dealing with racism, poverty, incest, abuse … a whole bunch of things that make no mention of science. The first third of the book is all based in the humanities. Just as Gould opened his monthly columns in Natural History by talking about baseball, Mickey Mouse or opera. It’s the hook, and it ain’t science.
As a result, the first 100 pages of Skloot’s book make for brisk and deeply emotional reading that locks you into the journey of this proud and courageous woman (and by the way, once again illustrating Nicholas Kristof’s point about the power of specifics — the book is not a story about all cancer victims — no, it’s the story of a single woman who provides the incredibly powerful through-line of the entire story) whom everybody adored but was eventually wiped out by cancer. By page 127 the author finally feels she’s done enough “arousing,” has firmly set the hook in her readers, and has finally built up enough momentum that she can afford to start tossing in some science. She does this for two chapters, diving into the details of the widespread use of HeLa cells around the world for biomedical research.
But then, almost as if she feels the attention span of her non-science readers beginning to flag, she jumps into a chapter about violence, telling about Henrietta’s son Joe who became a murderer (and we had learned earlier of the childhood abuse that might have caused this). So she gets you charged back up on the human side of things, and then, to delicately touch back into the science, she goes with the extraordinarily dramatic (for the science world) story of the “HeLa Bomb” in Chapter 20.
She clearly has a masterful touch. Storytelling is an art. There are some basic principles of narrative structure, but beyond that the storyteller has to have a feel for the audience and know how to mix these elements.
It’s time for there to be a more refined examination of “science storytelling.” The best place to start is with the most successful work, of which Skloots book is truly a great example, and not coincidentally continues to be on the bestseller lists.
So overall, I hate to bring it down to this level, but it’s the same story as our man “Scottie the Hottie” and his sixty second video that spent 40 seconds on arousal. This is the hard part for broad communication — figuring out how to arouse your audience. It’s the endless challenge. And with every new hunk of information added to our world, it becomes that much more difficult. And yet …
Science, presented well, even in this era of information overload, has the ability to be infinitely interesting and even compelling. But it doesn’t stand very well by itself. It is at it’s best when embedded in a broader, more humanized context. This is why Mark Slouka bemoans the decline of humanities curricula, and this is why Rebecca Skloot is such a successful author. You want to know how to communicate science to the broad audience? Read her book. It’s a true role model for science communication.
And lastly, just to double back and examine the reverse of everything I say here, I took a look at the Amazon Reader Reviews for her book. Almost everyone gives it five stars, which is heartwarming to see. But as I expected, you can find a few of the more literal minded types who say EXACTLY what you would expect them to say — basically, “Why’s there all this crap about the relatives of Henrietta Lacks and why so much of the author’s personal story?” These are the people who prefer a textbook to a novel, or will choose brussels sprouts over ice cream. Ho hum.
Comments on Skloot’s book:
TOO MUCH AUTHOR – 1
The author spends a rather substantial portion of the book describing her own efforts. It didn’t add to Henrietta’s story and leaving it out would have made for a better, more concise narrative.
TOO MUCH AUTHOR – 2
There is an iron-clad rule in journalism that reporters should never mix the process and difficulties of getting a story into the telling of it. There are many very obvious reasons for this. First among them is the reporter’s process detracts from the story. In fact the trouble that author has in running down the story is completely superfluous to the core story. About half of this book is a description of the ways and difficulties the author had in getting the story. It is a shame because it undermines a fascinating story and ruins the book. (“ruins” the book? sheesh)
TOO MUCH AUTHOR – 3
The focus of this book seemed off. Too much information about Mrs. Lacks’ descendants (whose claim to fame seems to be they were related to her), the author ( I don’t care that she’s white and agnostic and was born into middle-class suburbia) and not enough information on Mrs. Lacks’ life.
TOO MUCH SEX
It was as though the publisher kicked back the manuscript and said “more sex”. Awkward passages appear about incest in Henrietta’s family, then more stories about her relatives trysts that bear no value in the telling of Henrietta and her cells or of the science or scientists that studied them.