Science Book a Day Interviews Mike McRae

Mike McRaeSpecial thanks to Mike McRae for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Tribal Science: Brains, Beliefs and Bad Ideas

Canberra-based science writer Mike McRae started his science career testing other people’s poo in a Queensland medical laboratory. With a passion for education, he jumped ship and found himself teaching science to adolescents in London’s notorious East End, followed by a year touring Australia with Questacon’s Science Circus. Today he writes and illustrates CSIRO Education’s popular ‘Science by Email’ newsletter while producing radio documentaries forABC Radio National. Mike is also a regular on the public speaking circuit discussing all things science. – From University of Queensland Press

Mike’s Twitter:

#1 – What made you decide to write this book?

I initially pitched a completely different book for young adults on illusions and neurology. The publisher loved it, but wanted to know if I could write something for an older audience. I went back over some notes I’d written for a talk on pseudoscience, and how the social tools our brain had evolved to survive as a collective made science and pseudoscience possible. They loved the idea, and it went from there.

#2 – Do you think that tribal thinking is getting better or worse in today’s media climate? And how can we improve it?

There’s an irony in modern social media that makes us feel as if we’re reaching out to people from different cultures, while making it easier than ever to filter information based on ideology. With so many media sources, we can fine-tune our social groups to create echo chambers that aren’t commonly exposed to critical opinions from a sympathetic source. So in one sense, we feel as if we’re more worldly, better informed, and better connected. In another sense, our tribes are bigger but more homogeneous. The boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are more distinct and our impression of the ‘other’ is typically more maligned.

What can we do about it? In part, we’re limited by our brains. It’s not like we can simply stop being tribal animals any more than an ant can strike out on their own and live in their own nest for one. But I think as individuals we should endeavour to be aware of how constraining our tribal thinking can be, and understand beliefs (including our own) aren’t chosen but are formed in the context of social groups.

#3 – Several reviews have reported that your book is ‘fun’, ‘quirky’ and ‘original’. What is your philosophy in the way that you communicate science?

We’re story-telling monkeys, basically. Language is all about narrative – sharing models between minds that describe events in time, and relating it to the experiences and emotions of others. Of course it’s a little more complicated than that, but basically our brains are wired to like a good story. That doesn’t mean science always needs to be told as a narrative (though it is a good tool). It does mean the elements of story-telling – sharing experience, aligning values of good and bad, using metaphors to communicate intangible concepts – are vital for communication.

Too often we think about how science appeals to us, and communicate it that way. The result, unsurprisingly, is that the story will only appeal to those of our tribe. People who share our experiences, values, and understand our metaphors will understand and like what we’re saying. That isn’t a bad thing if that’s our target audience. But for those outside our own spheres, we need to think about their experiences and values in order to sell our stories.

#4 – How do you feel about being called “Australia’s next-gen Dr Karl”? 🙂

Haha, yeah … no. Dr Karl is awesome. He is a master of science storytelling. But I’m not the one who will be filling his shoes.

Marketing is a funny beast. I really wasn’t sold on the marketing of Tribal Science at all. But I can see what the publisher was aiming for – the general public have few science icons to really identify with, especially in Australia. Dr Karl is one of the few icons generally recognisable to people who otherwise have little connection to science. So in many ways, I wouldn’t want to be the next Dr Karl. We need more icons to reach more cultures, not clones to keep reaching the same group.

#5 – I believe you do more than write books. What are you working on at the moment that you can tell us about?

My day job is writing and editing the CSIRO’s children’s publications, The Helix and Scientriffic magazines. My passion is writing – fiction, science, even scripts for plays or animations – but if I’m not writing I like to be out giving talks, or switching off that part of the brain altogether and doing art. The more ways I can shape an idea, the more diverse my audiences will be.

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