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A Chemist Explains Why Scientists Write

Civics education, I’m told by experienced jurists like former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Jack Zouhary, a federal judge in Toledo, is in the dumpster in public schools.

Citizens including a new US Senator graduate without knowing the branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial), the difference between the U.S. Senate and the state Senate, or which came first — the U.S. Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. Justice O’Connor, who went to school in Texas, said she got sick of hearing about Stephen F. Austin, but she still listened intensely.

Now, she says, kids in Texas don’t know if Austin was the founder of Texas independence, or the guy who kept the Spanish from colonializing the Cotton Bowl.

So why do I write?

One reason is to bring things I know about to newspaper readers. I spent my life’s work as a chemist, and there are few scientists who try to make their fields understandable to the general public. Yet as the virus and pandemic have proven, when our lives are threatened, if we don’t turn to science and scientists, we are, well, doomed.

I spent nearly 60 years trying to figure how to explain why science was important, useful and interesting. A lifetime of this taught me something too.

What else is an old chemist to do anyway?

If you aren’t a writer, know this: Good writing is hard work. I labor over nearly every word, before my editor tears it apart to make it read better. Writing also takes guts. One can’t write a paragraph without revealing one’s personality. And you quickly learn that other people sometimes have a completely opposite opinion from what you are writing about.

So what’s any of this got to do with civics — or science, for that matter?

Well, that’s where newspapers come in. Newspapers are those relics of the past that these days, because they have lost so much of their advertising revenue to the internet, struggle to make ends meet so they can keep publishing for their readers. Believe it or not, there is more to papers than the editorial pages. Newspapers hire writers to write unbiased stories about important things. The Toledo Blade has somebody in Columbus worrying about the evils that there lurk. Why’s that important? Because misguided politicians can spend money, change your taxes, impose their will on you with new laws. If they wanted to, they could allow babies to carry a gun, and require football aspirants to supply their coaches with beer.

Most Toledoans, I would guess, have never been in the state house in Columbus – or had to endure those endless committee meetings of legislators. Nor have most New Yorkers ever set foot in the state house in Albany. I testified about some important issue once, and found that few people indeed are willing to show up for serious thinkers trying to decide the future of our state universities.

Yet if a reporter shows up, half the population of the state will know what that erudite bard of wisdom had to share. And if the great authority makes a mistake … that’s real news! Yes, journalists do like to play the gotcha game too.

Another reason to write is to tease, educate, and have a little fun. Once there was a long line at my polling place for a presidential election. I expected I knew the political party of most people in line, and wanted to rattle cages. I voted and then went out complaining that they made me recite the name of the Lieutenant Governor in order to vote. (They didn’t really) No one in line, including me, knew who the lieutenant governor was.

Lieutentant governor? Is that in Albany – is the person in the Army? Republican? Democrat?

I figured a little tweaking for fun was worth it too. Wanna bet at least ten people in that line went home and learned her name? I know I did. The devil made me do it.

The words the writer chooses to describe important events can help teach readers civics. Many of the folks reading this will know the name Mitch McConnell, the minority leader in the U.S. Senate. But I’d guess very few know the name of the minority leader in the Ohio senate. So a story about that person is a teaching moment.

When my fellow columnist Jack Lessenberry wrote a column recently about Michigan’s Frank Kelley, I had to ask myself if Kelley had been the attorney general (he was) or the secretary of state. I knew he was a colorful Irish Democrat, but I had no idea what he did.

Many politicians don’t especially care whether a story generated about them is good or bad. Getting their name in the papers is what matters. Any good music teacher knows, repetition is the trick to learning. And to politicians almost any publicity is good.

Writers write to teach; politicians scramble to get their names in the paper; and hopefully readers read – in cyberspace as well as in print. As newspapers become increasingly electronic, chemists won’t have a reason to study the chemistry of ink. But some, hopefully, will write stories about why what they do matters for digital papers.

By the way, for my Ohio friends in Jamestown, the minority leader in the Ohio Senate is Kenny Yuko, who lives near Cleveland. You are welcome!

Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, McMaster distinguished research professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University, and a former chair of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown.

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