Scientists vs. Journalists: “Guardian of Ocean Life, Armed with Pen and Brush”

This week’s theme of Scientists vs. Journalists proved itself more tenacious than I had originally expected, and after much searching, I finally settled on a profile in the New York Times of Richard Ellis, titled “Guardian of Ocean Life, Armed with Pen and Brush.” I encourage everyone to take a look at the other profiles running on the page – scientists, politicians, a biologist with a dramatic flair for atheism, and Ellis, an artist. This article stood out among the others because it begs the question, “Why is an artist listed among scientists?” In full disclosure, I am currently an art student, so of course I love that a truly passionate artist ranks highly in that list, but the article seems to be entirely written for the purpose of praise. Compare it to another profile on the site, for example the profile of Elizabeth E. Spelke, and you’ll notice that hers talks almost entirely of the work she does, rather than in Ellis’ profile, which talks mostly of his lucky breaks and personality in what seems like an overtly flattering tone. The article is lovingly written, and reads well, but in the context of profiles of scientific leaders, I believe that it falls short. It isn’t that the article focuses on the wrong subject, because it does make great mention of his work as a naturalist and contributor to the popularization of science, but the lens is all wrong. The author focuses on the man before the work, which I feel can be a great point on contention among scientists being interviewed. Which do you think deserve more publicity, the scientist who does great work, or the results of the work itself?


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About Cassidy Wasko

Senior Art & Design major at the University of Michigan. Part-time outdoor goods salesperson, full-time hippie. I love to ski and to draw (not at the same time).

7 Responses to “Scientists vs. Journalists: “Guardian of Ocean Life, Armed with Pen and Brush””

  1. I think it’s a challenging question to answer – which deserves more publicity? – because both answers have strong motivation. All too often, great minds are overlooked or due credit is not given for great ideas and discoveries. On the other hand, conservationists are rarely in it for the fame and glory, but for a passion for the natural world and a dedication to its preservation and appreciation. I think great scientists deserve credit and publicity, but I might argue that perhaps the spotlight is less important to them and that the result of their work is praise enough. I cannot speak for all scientists, but it seems to me that a detailed publication of their findings may be of more importance than a detailed publication of their personal biography. For an artist, his biography may inform his work more than a scientist, who’s education and who’s intellectual peers have helped shape the bulk of their work.

  2. I found the profile to be quite fascinating to read due to the integration of his personally biography and how that shaped his work in the field, and how he became known. I agree that for many scientists, they are not in it for fame, but are totally dedicated to the work. Only a handful of scientists with major discoveries are well known to general public. However, what makes Richard Ellis, and this article, unique is that his personal biography is what shaped his work. Without some of his big breaks, and Hollywood, his paintings of marine life would probably never have been seen or studied by anyone else. Therefore, for this article, it makes sense to study the person, along with his work. I personally had a difficult time following the article, as it seemed to jump around a bit from telling his biography, to describing his life now, to discussing his passion for naturalism and sharks and whales. Did anyone else find the article disjointed? Is there a better way to make the article flow more naturally? I think the author was trying to convey a more conversational tone, but I was easily confused on the timeline of many of these events.

  3. Katie, I see what you mean with the choppiness of the article, but I think the bigger question of giving publicity to the work or the worker. The piece on Ellis avoids this question by including both options. If the author had chosen to only focus on how Ellis’s life influenced his projects, the article might run a bit more smoothly. My opinion is that it depends on the field. Scientists’ work is (theoretically) unbiased, whereas an artist’s work, no matter how researched, is still an expression of the self in some way. In this sense, it is practical to delve into the artist more than the scientist. With that said, it is still important to note the sacrifice that scientists make for their work and the passion they put into it. Just because the product is more important to the scientist does not mean that their work did not begin with the same passion as an artist’s. Did the line “No advanced degrees have aided this ambition, nor courses in writing or painting offend anyone else. His career is rooted in pluck and curiosity” offend anyone else? Do advanced degrees mean that scientists have less “pluck” than Ellis? I say no.

  4. Although not assigned this article I would like to comment. The secondary sources are not very strong. One quote comes from a Dr. McCosker that Ellis wrote “a shark book” with; it is not clear whether this is the same shark book mentioned in the previous paragraph or an entirely different one. The article would have flowed better if the quote was someone more personal to Ellis, and if the introduction began like the video-with a synopsis of his childhood and how his passion developed instead of centering on his books immediately. The quotes by Ellis do not reflect the way Broad portrays him either, he comes off as quirky and funny but Broad scatters the quotes in a way that makes Ellis seem scattered. When it comes to quoting an interview it is important to reflect the structure of it in the piece, even an unstructured interview can still have predictability for the reader if the writer acknowledges changes in thought and subject. Broad does neither perhaps in an attempt to catch Ellis at his most authentic but to the reader it is just confusing. I’ve honestly read better profiles in the Daily but thank you for choosing this article because it honestly tells us how not to write in some aspects.

  5. It is almost not fair to ask that question about this article. I cannot claim to know the intention of Broad in writing this profile, but if I had to guess, I would say his focus was not to discuss Mr. Ellis as a scientist, but instead to highlight him and his work as an artist. It offers some background into who Mr. Ellis is, and highlights his artistic accomplishments. In the context of scientific leaders, then, yes, it falls short. If the author had intended to write a profile about Mr. Ellis as a scientist, then a better route could have been taken.

    To answer your question as to which deserves more publicity, the science or the scientist, it depends. When writing a news profile about a person, I believe the focus should be on the scientist that is doing the great work. When writing a news article that is not meant to provide a profile of one specific person, the results of the work could be more important. It all depends on the audience and the intention of the article.

  6. I think when asking this question we need to think about who the audience is. In publicity it’s usually the average person who reads the news regularly that may or may not know anything about science. Because of this I think that the scientist who does the great work deserves more publicity and not necessarily the work itself, although that could be a part of their story. I say this because the person behind the scientist or artist has a passion and people that have passion about something have the best stories to tell! I agree with what Katie said above that scientists don’t put in all of their time and research for the fame. They are dedicated to their work and often sacrifice their personal lives for it. Even if all of their work is not monumental it is the long hours of behind the scene research that allow for the big shot scientists to make the huge break throughs and discoveries and it takes a very special person to have the dedication to put in that kind of time with no “reward” or acknowledgment at the end. These kinds of people who have the passion are the ones I would be most interested reading about in publicity. I agree with Taylor that the Ellis article didn’t offend me and enjoyed reading about his story, even if it was a bit choppy. Although the article on Elizabeth Spelke included a little bit about her as a person, it was more focused on her work and I found myself losing interest in it much quicker then the more personable article on Ellis.

  7. I think the article by itself is not in the wrong lens at all. Having a back story to Mr. Ellis and hearing about how he got his breaks is immensely more entertaining to read about than just his work. His lucky breaks add character to the story and show how close the world was to never knowing who he was. I would argue that the article mentions enough of his professional work and actually strikes a nice balance with describing who he actually is as a person. i think most people would agree with Katie that most scientists aren’t in it for the money and fame, they have a passion for what they are researching. While these scientists probably would rather have their work known before their name, I find it interesting to know what cultivated such a passion in them. I think few people in the world are as passionate about their respective issues as leaders in a particular field and knowing about the man before the work can help readers relate to why someone may devote their life to a particular issue. I would ask if the other profiles are spending enough time on making the scientist a relatable person to potential readers?

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