Thursday, October 1, 2015

Flight Behavior - Communicating Science Through Fiction

Periodically I review books that have a science or science communication flavor. As might be expected, these normally are non-fiction books. This week I'm reviewing a fiction book called Flight Behavior, which touches not only on the science but on communication of science, especially when local beliefs are predisposed to deny that science.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

I can relate to Ovid Byron. He is the scientist in Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior, which I can say is one of the most extraordinary books I've read in a long time.

Byron isn't the main character. That would be Dellarobia Turnbow, a farmer's wife trying to make ends meet at the Tennessee end of Appalachia. Kingsolver successfully integrates valuable insights into marriage, country life, sheep-raising, and religion with the extraordinary ecology of Monarch butterflies thrust into potential extinction by the changing forces of climate. All in a storyline that keeps you devouring one page after another.

As an ecological scientist myself, I was fascinated by the interweaving of real scientific study with the evolving lives of the people simply trying to raise their kids and put food on the table. This interweaving is what makes the book so valuable.

And valuable it is as an example of science communication. That isn't necessarily Kingsolver's goal, but she succeeds in communicating the science of the butterflies in language most scientists rarely achieve, and much more effectively. She captures the thought processes and priorities that influence how people take in new information, especially information they find uncomfortable or disruptive to their lifestyle. 

At one point late in the book Kingsolver has a character relate the problems of communicating information when that informaiton comes from "outsiders." This is best summed up in one quote:

"The key thing is, once you're talking identity, you can't just lecture that out of people. The condescension of outsiders won't diminish it. That just galvanizes it."

Scientists would do well to read and understand the writing in this book as they strive to communicate man-made climate change and other scientific issues to the public. 

While my review above is biased toward the scientific element, the book also works incredibly well as a relationship story...and a family story...and a community story. 

I most highly recommend the book for all readers.