Spillover and science communication

22 October 2012

Spillover by David QuammenDavid Quammen, whose book Spillover was recently published, has been the recipient of a good deal of publicity in the past week. Last Wednesday he participated in a New York Academy of Sciences Symposium called ‘Wrath Goes Viral‘; on Saturday he was profiled in the New York Times (The Subject is Science, the Style is Faulkner), and yesterday Spillover was reviewed in the Sunday Book Review by Sonia Shah. Publicity for science is always good, but Shah identifies a key shortcoming of the book.

Shah notes that Spillover describes the “unfolding convergence between veterinary science and human medicine, and how veterinary-­minded medical experts discover and track diseases that spread across species”, detailing “Quammen’s prodigious, globe-trotting adventures with microbe hunters in the field, trapping bats in southern China and hysterical monkeys in Bangladesh”. But Quammen shies away from explanation, saying that he “would rather dazzle us with the difficulty of the science than help us comprehend it”:

He practically apologizes for having to describe fundamental concepts like the basic reproduction rate, or “R0” (the number of new infections caused by an initial case), critical community size (the number of susceptible individuals required to sustain transmission of an infectious disease) and the high mutation rate of RNA viruses. C’mon. Kate Winslet explained R0 in Steven Soderbergh’s film “Contagion” in 20 seconds. As “Spillover” so richly details, we’re talking about the potential end of the human race here. We can take it.

On page 305, before presenting an equation for R0, Quammen writes “There will be no math questions in the quiz at the end of this book, but I thought you might like to cast your eyes upon it. Ready? Don’t flinch, don’t worry, don’t blink”. I’m not fond of this approach. If you have read this blog or listened to any of my science podcasts, you know that I don’t believe that science needs to be dumbed down for a lay audience.

I’m not sure why Quammen shies away from the details. Perhaps he doesn’t feel qualified to explain science (he was an English major in college), or did not believe it was within the scope of the book (Walter Isaacson calls it a ‘masterpiece of science reporting’.) Fortunately, there are many other places online where you can learn the details of virology (see the sidebar of this blog for some examples), or for that matter, any type of science. Sadly, Quammen does not appear to be aware of any of these sources of good science.

I have a copy of Spillover on my desk and when I’m finished reading I’ll have more to say here, and perhaps also on TWiV. The good news is that he had a number of scientists read over the manuscript. At least Quammen doesn’t shy away from fact checking.

  • Alan Dove

    There’s an old saying in the science publishing industry that each mathematical equation in a book will cut the readership in half. As many smart science writers have proven over the years, though, such “dumb it down” directives are completely wrong. Perhaps Quammen didn’t get the memo.

  • Diane

    As someone who has virtually no science background, I really loved Spillover. I did wish for a more thorough explanation of R-nought (don’t know how to make a subscript 0 on my phone), but the jokey “Math is hard” tone didn’t bother me. I felt like this book is a great intro to why someone should care about zoonotic diseases, why they matter. I’m sure, I *know*, that there is way more to the subject, but as a lay reader, I found even “just” this info fascinating.
    The only part I did get annoyed with was the section where he invents a story for the first SIV/HIV infection, and then the wholly invented tale of the “Voyager.”

  • jackie

    Alan, you completely miss the point. Quammen gives science to non-scientific readers. And he is a gorgeous writer. It took him 6 years to write the book and he vetted it with dozens of scientists along the way. Quammen hardly “dumbs down;” he educates the everyman–he leads an adventure. He is fresh. He opens eyes, not like most drowsy science books. To diss Quammen, I’d say, you obviously missed the memo, my friend.

  • jackie

    PS: Read the book before you comment on it–it’s brilliant.

  • EllenHunt

    I haven’t read it, but I wouldn’t be too hard on Qammen if he does a good job of educating. Look at what Garret accomplished, and she never defined R0.

    I started on a bio-science book for the popular market a while ago. I decided I couldn’t accept the direction the editor insisted on. To get a popular publisher you have to write in a certain way, and do what your editor says or – no dice. So keep that in mind when you read Qammen’s book. No popular book is ‘the author’s book’. It’s the editing process’ book. One editor I tried working with turned out to be a guy who had edited a whole slew of bestsellers. He admitted to me on the phone that his bestselling authors were no better, maybe worse, than average. I believed him, he knew his stuff. But even so, I couldn’t stomach writing ‘my book’ his way. At least – not yet.

    That said, in reality R0 is slippery in the field where network theory and superspreaders are real. R0 is an extreme mathematical abstraction of what really goes on, so abstracted that I don’t like using it because it has no practical utility, where network theory and explaining superspreaders has very practical utility to the layman.

  • jackie

    Read the book–it is peer reviewed to the teeth. It is so easy to disparage without knowing what you are talking about! Quammen spent six year writing the thing–before you tear it down, at least read it–it is brilliant… People who disregard unexplored sources are lazy and pompous. It is so annoying.