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Underwater aliens, COVID journalism, the language of science

Rose Eveleth (Flash Forward)

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For more than six years, Rose Eveleth has hosted one of the best science podcasts around, Flash Forward. In every episode, she takes listeners on a trip to the future to explore "possible (and not so possible)" scenarios, such as: What if we killed all the mosquitoes? What if every volcano on Earth erupted at the same time? What if we never fixed any of the Y2K bugs?

The podcast has also spawned an illustrated companion book, featuring comics based on Flash Forward episodes from artists such as Matt Lubchanksy, Sophie Goldstein, and Ben Passmore.

On today's show, Rose talks with Eric Johnson about four people she follows online: A fellow enthusiast about marine biology she wants to be friends with; a brilliant writer she's already friends with who sends her top-notch TikToks; an award-winning science journalist who has inspired her to keep podcasting; and a one-of-a-kind consultant who's fluent in the languages of both journalists and scientists.

Follow us:
- Rose is @roseveleth on Twitter
- This show is @followfridaypod on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok
- Eric is @heyheyesj on Twitter

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Theme song written by Eric Johnson, and performed by Yona Marie. Show art by Dodi Hermawan. Additional music by Purple Planet Music.
Full transcript of this episode
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ERIC JOHNSON: What can we learn from hairy-chested crabs? How well did the media cover COVID-19? And what, exactly, is the language of science? The answers to all those questions and more are coming up, today on Follow Friday with Rose Eveleth.

[theme song]

ERIC: I'm Eric Johnson. Welcome to Follow Friday, a podcast about who you should follow online. Every week, I talk to writers, podcasters, comedians, and other creators about who they follow. They will be our guides to the best people on the internet, who we should be following, too.

To get new episodes of Follow Friday every week, please follow or subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast app.

Today on the show is Rose Eveleth, the host of Flash Forward, which is a podcast I have recommended to so many friends over the years; dozens and dozens, now hundreds more. On each episode, Rose examines a future scenario like smart cities, robot teachers, or what would happen if we killed all the mosquitoes. And her trips into the future sometimes take some really unexpected, fascinating turns.

For example, on a recent episode called "Can you mine an asteroid?" it's not just about the science of it all, Rose also talks about the potential of labor unions iiiiiin spaaaaace. Here's a clip of that.

ROSE EVELETH: So, can you unionize in space? The answer is: Maybe? But also, maybe not, because your employer will control not just your workspace, but also your lifelines. Your air supply. Your meals. Your connections back to Earth. And if your employer is – just to pick a random example – Amazon, well, they are probably not going to want you to unionize. And in fact, there are other questions too about what happens if you, say, want to come back down from space.

ERIC: You can and should find Flash Forward wherever you listen to podcasts. Rose, welcome to Follow Friday!

ROSE: Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited.

ERIC: It's so nice to finally meet you. I've been listening for years. And I think you recently passed the six year anniversary of the show. Does that sound right?

ROSE: Yes. We did a big celebration last year for five, and then this year, it just slipped right on by. I forgot to do anything.

ERIC: Time means nothing anymore. You start every episode of Flash Forward with a fictional sketch, illustrating the hypothetical world you're going to be talking about. Which one of those was the most fun to make?

ROSE: Ooh! That is a good question. I love them all. That's where I get to have extra fun on the episode. I always try to do something where I'm like, "I've never done something like this before." Truly, moments before we got on the phone, I pushed "Publish" on today's episode of the show, which is why I was five minutes late to our call.

And today's is actually written by our producer, Julia Llinas Goodman. It is a sitcom about living underground. And we actually commissioned an original theme song about living underground from an amazing podcast called Song Salad, where they do these remixes of songs and original songs based on different topics. I asked them to make a theme song for a sitcom about living underground and they delivered. I laugh every time. It's so corny and so funny to me. That was a really fun one.

ERIC: I had to restrain myself from reaching to grab my phone and download that right now. I'm preoccupied. I will listen to that right after this. Let's find out who Rose follows. You can follow along with her recommendations today. Every person she recommends will be linked in the show notes and in the transcript at

Rose, before the show, I gave you a list of categories. I asked you to tell me four people you follow who fit in those categories. Your first pick is in the category "someone you don't know, but want to be your friend". You said Sabrina Imbler, who is on Twitter @aznfusion. They are a former writer for the travel site Atlas Obscura and several other outlets.

They're working on a collection of essays about underwater sea creatures called How Far the Light Reaches, which is due out next year. Talk about Sabrina's work and how you discovered them originally.

ROSE: You know how there are some people who, when you read their work, you're like, "God, I would never have thought of that?" Or just turns of phrase where you're mad, because they're so good? I feel that way every time I read something that Sabrina writes. It's always thoughtful and weird, and it hits all of my buttons. I think we have similar interests.

I am also obsessed with weird ocean creatures, nudibranchs, and all of that stuff. I just find their work so lovely to read. They're just such a good writer and interesting thinker. I don't remember how I... I'm sure I was reading Atlas Obscura and was like, "Wow. The same person writes all of my favorite articles on this website. I should go follow them and see what they're up to."

I find their work so good. We've never met, we don't really know each other, but I'm a fan on the internet. I love their work and I'm so stoked for their books.

ERIC: Yeah. The book, How Far the Light Reaches, it's based on the column they used to write for Catapult Magazine, which I hadn't heard of. It was a column called My Life in Sea Creatures.

I remember you did an episode a couple of years ago, a flash-forward about SEALAB, about underwater research, but have you ever done anything on the show about sea creatures, about undersea life?

ROSE: Not quite. They come up here and there because it is an obsession of mine. We did the episode about living underwater and then on an episode last year about a future in which we meet alien life in some ways, we talked about this purple orb that a submarine found. At the time they were like, "What is this?" And it looks like an alien. It turns out it is not an alien.

I got very obsessed with the purple orb at the time and I talked about it on the episode because it's a good allegory for: If it was an alien, what would we want to do with it? Would we immediately suck it up and bring it to the surface and kill it? That doesn't seem like the right choice to make!

I've talked about the purple orb on that episode and every so often I will talk about it. I talk about it a lot in my life. I'm obsessed with the purple orb. That's one. I feel like we should do another underwater episode because my first love is underwater creatures.

ERIC: Yeah. Underwater creatures, to me at least, they are scarier than aliens because they're already here, they're freaky as hell. We don't understand 90% of them. It feels a lot more real to me than aliens do.

ROSE: Well, I originally wanted to be a marine biologist before I became a journalist. So I got scuba-certified when I was 12. I was very into it. I have done a lot of scuba diving and I'm very invested in what's going on down there and being interested in it. I would live underwater in a heartbeat. It would be so fun. Yes, I love a good underwater creature. I have a big tattoo of an angler fish.

ERIC: So Sabrina's original column for Catapult, My Life in Sea Creatures, explored the way that their life as a queer immigrant compared to octopuses, jellyfish, other sea life. My favorite of the ones that I read before this taping is called How the Hairy-Chested Yeti Crab Taught Me to Survive Trump's America. An all-time headline, by the way. Even if the essay weren't good, and it is, that's still amazing. Have you read any of the entries in this column? Do you have a favorite of your own?

ROSE: Ooh, do I have a favorite? I do love that one. Man, I'm trying to remember. That is a very good one, not just for the headline because it is beautifully written. It delivers on being funny, but also deep and cutting in certain places.

I think that the reason I love Sabrina's work is they're so good at hitting a lot of different notes, but without it feeling like the piece is all over the place. There are jokes and then there's also deep, emotional resonance in there. It's very impressive because I'm either like all jokes or all dire, and there's no in between.

ERIC: If you were friends with Sabrina, what would you want to talk about with them? Obviously, you have a shared interest in marine biology, but what would you want to do together?

ROSE: I feel like tide pooling would be an obvious choice to hang out and go look at weird squishy things in small pools on the beach. Yeah, I feel like that would be very fun, any kind of nature walk, just being able to point at something and be like, "Look at that over there." It would be very fun.

ERIC: Your own private expert to explain whatever the hell it is you're seeing.

ROSE: Exactly.

ERIC: That was Sabrina Imbler, who is on Twitter @aznfusion. Let's move on to your next follow. Rose, I asked you for someone who makes you laugh, and you said Rahawa Haile, who's on Twitter @RahawaHaile.

She has a book coming out later this year called In Open Country. And if her name sounds familiar, it may be because you read something that she wrote a few years ago that went viral. We will get to that in a minute. But first, Rose, I want you to talk about why she makes you laugh. In the email that you sent to me, you said that she sends you TikToks. Is she your private TikToks delivery service?

ROSE: For the longest time, I only used TikTok on a burner phone because I didn't there's a lot of security issues with TikTok and it's not the best in terms of giving up all your data. I do love a good TikTok. Rahawa would, and still does — and now I have to talk on my main phone. I succumbed to not wanting to have to grab my burner phone every time I want to watch a TikTok.

So we will trade funny TikToks and it is a nice, shared language of being able to say, "I don't really want to talk about why I'm stressed out right now. So I'm just going to send you a bunch of animals set to music." And she always finds the best ones. Mine are subpar. Her algorithm is trained to find the perfect ones. So yes, she's great and also an incredible writer. I'm super excited for her book as well.

ERIC: It sounds like you like each other in real life?

ROSE: Yes. We are real-life friends.

ERIC: How'd you meet? How did this start?

ROSE: I think we met many years ago. We were both living in New York City and I believe we met through a writer named Tim Carmody who was a big connector of people at one point and probably still is. I know that he's been in and out of the writing world. Back when it was new to have a Slack with people but not for work, where people would join a Slack? There was a little writer's Slack and I believe that is how we met. I'm trying to remember. It was many years ago now but I think that was it.

ERIC: You met many years ago. Have you two helped each other out with your respective journalistic careers over time, as a result of that friendship? Not that funny TikToks don't help, but...

ROSE: Yeah. I think being a freelancer is hard. Having emotional support and also someone who understands what it's like to be a freelancer is really helpful professionally. Also, having someone to vent to. She's one of my dearest friends, and having somebody to vent to sometimes when I just need to yell into the void — except for not into the void, into my text. Yes, we now actually both live in the Bay Area, so we see each other once a week or so and get to hang out.

ERIC: That's wonderful. Well, the thing that Rahawa is currently best known for is a piece that she wrote for an Outside Magazine called Going It Alone. It's about solo-hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in the summer of 2016. I'm going to link it in the transcript. It is one of the best things I've read in the past decade.

Rahawa's upcoming book is also about the Appalachian Trail. Has she shared any of the book with you? Have you got the inside lane on this?

ROSE: It's funny. Rahawa is very protective of her pages. So I have not read any of the book, but I know a lot about it. I know what is in it and it's going to be incredible. I am already, preemptively, so proud of her for writing it. It's going to be great. The world is not ready for how good it's going to be.

I am so excited for it to be out in the world and for people to get to see it. It's going to be amazing. It threads so many needles around the hike itself, but also about borders and movement; all the things that that original piece did, but in a fully fleshed-out form. I'm so excited for people to be able to hear it.

ERIC: Have you ever done anything like that? Hiking the Appalachian Trail?

ROSE: No! I actually have done a lot of short-term camping, week trips, but nothing close to what the Appalachian Trail is like.

ERIC: Yeah, because what a lot of the piece is about is she did this in the summer of 2016 at a time when it was especially fraught to be a person of color in America; just a politically bitter and charged time. It's really about who is allowed in nature and how do people see you? How do they talk to you?

As a white person who doesn't get out enough, it's eye-opening on multiple levels. I really thought it was an incredible piece. Make sure to read that. That was Rahawa Haile, who's on Twitter @RahawaHaile. We're going to take a quick break now, but we'll be back in a minute with Rose Eveleth from Flash Forward.

ERIC: Welcome back to Follow Friday! Rose, I asked you for someone who inspires you and you said Ed Yong, who's on Twitter @edyong209. He's a science writer at The Atlantic. And if there's any justice in this world, I think a future winner of the Pulitzer Prize. That's just my 2 cents.

ROSE: Agreed.

ERIC: Explain what Ed writes about, and why he inspires you.

ROSE: Well, Ed normally writes about animals and the natural world and evolution. And he wrote this amazing book called I Contain Multitudes, about microbes in the microbiome. And then, during the pandemic, when the pandemic really ramped up, he was actually on book leave to write a book about animals and about animal perception.

He came out of book leave to work at the Atlantic, to cover the pandemic and has been really, in my opinion, the guiding light, journalistically, helping people understand the big picture questions of the pandemic. So not as much the day to day this variant, that variant, but more like what is going on here?

ERIC: What is this doing to us, as a society?

ROSE: Right. And he's so good at synthesizing so many storylines together and making you feel like, "OK, this doesn't make sense in the sense that it is chaotic and the world is confusing, but at least I understand how we got here and what happened." I think he's so good at that. He's so thoughtful and compassionate and really thinks hard about how to write these things.

He takes his role very seriously and does a lot of thinking about how to cover the pandemic in a way that is useful and helpful, as opposed to panic-mill stuff, which is hard to avoid when you're trying to cover day-to-day news. I don't think anyone is intentionally doing that kind of work. I just find his work incredibly inspiring.

ERIC: Yeah. On a previous episode of this show, I was talking to Devindra Hardawar about Zeynep Tufekci, who was his guiding light during the pandemic. A similar thing, another journalist way ahead of the pack on COVID.

So I'm wondering, as a science communicator yourself, someone who's really surrounded by people who are talking about all sorts of things, how do you think that the media overall handled the past 15 months? How would you grade the way we were talking about COVID and talking about the health and the science of it all?

ROSE: That's a hard question. There's a couple of ways to answer it. There's the public-facing; how good did science journalists do at explaining things to the public? And then there's the question of how good of a job did journalism do at taking care of its own journalists, which was terrible. F on that one.

And communicating to the public ... It's really hard to make a blanket statement about journalism these days.

ERIC: "The media," it's not one thing.

ROSE: And I think it's hard because you do walk this really fine line, for a story like this, where you want to give people information and you want to give them information that is accurate and that it's up-to-date. At the same time, sometimes those day-to-day updates, you lose the forest through the trees. And it can feel really confusing for people: like masks or not masks or this or that, or whatever it is.

I think it's also hard when you add on top of that, a highly polarized population, politically, and then also, frankly, extremely chaotic response from the people in charge. I think it's really hard to do a good job covering all of that. So I don't know. I want to say that we could have done worse.

I don't know. And I think that's the kind of thing that in two years, we might be able to better look back and be like, "Okay. Here's what we did well, and here's what we really didn't do well." And I think that conversation is ongoing; all of the news about different variants in different places. How do you cover that in a way that feels responsible, but also useful to people? I think it's really hard.

ERIC: Exactly. Yeah, I think that the thing that is so helpful about Ed's writing is when he's doing the thing that you were talking about. When he's synthesizing all this messy information and the ongoing nature of the fact that this is not a discreet thing that's over and done with quickly, that this is going to have ramifications for so long to come...

Even though we're not in control of the situation, having someone like him to analyze it, to synthesize it in that way, at least for me, it is calming. It brings my stress level down just to have some sense of step back, what is the forest, to use your metaphor from earlier.

In your email to me, you described him as incredibly kind and generous. Has he gone above and beyond to help you in some way?

ROSE: Oh, yeah. Ed is one of those people where it's almost annoying how nice he is and also talented. You're like, "You should not be allowed to have all these things."

ERIC: How dare you, sir?

ROSE: How dare you? Exactly. He's always been really supportive of all the work I've done. He's been a huge champion of Flash Forward. He blurbed the Flash Forward book.

A couple of years ago, I had a couple of hiccups with ad sales on the show and I was like, "Maybe I should just do something else." He was like, "No, no, no. This is worth doing." He's always been really kind to me and encouraging and supportive. It's small stuff, but it makes a huge difference to have someone who I greatly respect their work be like, "No, you're doing something good." I'm like, "If Ed says it's good, then it's good."

ERIC: It must be good, right. Well, that was Ed Yong, who's on Twitter @edyong209. We have time for one more follow today. Rose, I asked you for someone you've followed forever. And you said Liz Neeley, who's on Twitter @LizNeeley. She's the founder and CEO of the strategy and consulting firm, Liminal Creations. Incidentally, she's also married to none other than Ed Yong.

In your email to me, you said that you've been really honored to know her for a while and watch her come into her own. Could you explain that? How did you meet her and how has her star risen over time?

ROSE: I met Liz many years ago when I was first getting started in science journalism. She was working with an organization called Compass and they were doing these training sessions to help scientists learn how to talk to journalists and also learn how to tell their story. Not just do interviews, but also give talks that are personal. I don't want to call it media training, it is technically media training, but in a way that isn't just, "Here's what you have to memorize to say."

ERIC: It's not just talking points.

ROSE: I was just starting out. She had helped create this program at Compass and she invited me to come and be one of the journalists for the scientists to talk to. And it was a really cool experience to have honest conversations with scientists about what they're nervous about when they talk to journalists, understand how I can be a better journalist and also how they can understand what I do.

After that, she became the executive director of The Story Collider, which is an organization that does a similar type of thing; teaching people and helping people tell stories about science, whether that's a scientist or just a regular person because we all have stories about science in some way or another. She did incredible work there. And now she's got her own thing that is this incredible consulting business that everyone should hire if you have any need to tell stories, of any kind.

The thing that Liz does so well that I'm so impressed by is that when you start looking into the science of storytelling or storytelling training, there's a lot of people out there who will say whatever. It's very easy to be an expert in this field. But Liz knows all of the research, the actual research and the neuroscience of storytelling, the actual things that work, like what the data says about what happens when you do ... narrative transportation and all this stuff.

And much like Ed, she's the only one that I've ever met who's been able to synthesize across all these different disciplines and have a data-driven approach to this very artistic process in a way that is both art and science in the best possible combination. She's so good at both. Similarly, unfair: She's so good at so many different things!

I have really enjoyed watching her take all of this stuff and create this worldview and strategy and curriculum and way of talking about it that is so strong and so convincing. Everyone would do better in their lives if they just took one class with Liz, I feel.

ERIC: It's so fascinating. This is something, as a non-scientist, that I hadn't really considered. Everyone else is asking scientists to speak their language and Liz is bilingual. She speaks both fluently. She's able to go back and forth, which is helpful for educating. That's fascinating.

I don't want to give away all of her secrets that she shares with her clients. But do you remember any of the things that she says scientists are afraid of when it comes to dealing with the media; things that they don't understand or that they worry about?

ROSE: I don't know if this is something that Liz said specifically, but I know that when I would do those courses and help scientists, I think it's anything. It's easy to forget, as a journalist, that the way that the media works is very opaque to most people.

We know that most of us don't write our own headlines. Or, here's the process and some places fact-check and some places don't. When you're on the outside of it, you're like, "I don't know! How would I know?"

There are plenty of journalists who aren't very good at covering science and who will write articles that aren't right. And that makes the scientists seem like they're saying something they're not. So I totally get it, that scientists feel burned sometimes. And sometimes they get burned. That's bad and should not happen.

Some of what I would talk to them about is how to vet a journalist, frankly. How do you know that this person's worth talking to? Read their work. Make sure that when you read it, you're like, "Yeah, that seems good."

ERIC: They're not exaggerating, they're not ... yeah.

ROSE: You can ask them what their process is. You can ask them if they're going to fact-check. And scientists were like, "I can ask them questions?" I'm like, "Yes, you can."

ERIC: Please do!

ROSE: So I think that helping clarify how journalism works in a lot of these cases and why we can't show you quotes before we publish most of the time and explaining why that is, and talking through what the process is going to be. That was quite helpful for a lot of people because ... Much like I don't know how to do a study on the brain, I don't know how that works, they don't know how a story gets put together. And it's helpful to walk them through it.

ERIC: That's so helpful, at a time of really heightened distrust in the media, if at least a couple more people are able to trust the process, so to speak. There's a Twitter account; I think it's called "in mice". Do you know the one I'm talking about? [@JustSaysInMice]

ROSE: Yes! [laughs]

ERIC: It's bad science journalism, where it's some headline like "Coffee cures cancer". And then there's some small study where it's only effective in mice and the headline has curiously chosen to leave that out.

ROSE: Yes. Headlines are the bane of many journalists' lives. Often, you don't pick them, but you're held responsible for them. That's a good account.

ERIC: Well, bonus recommendation for you there, "in mice". That was with Liz Neeley, who's on Twitter @LizNeeley.

Rose, thank you so much for sharing these recommendations with us. Before we go, I want to make sure that listeners know how to find you online. Where do you want them to follow you?

ROSE: I am on Twitter @roseveleth. I am the only Rose Eveleth on the internet. If you Google me, you will find me for better, for worse. There's no hiding. Some days that's good, some days, I would like to not be perceived quite so much.

Twitter is where I am loud and have lots of opinions. I'm also on Instagram, which is more like, "Here's my pottery, my weird hobbies and stuff." So that's where you can find me. You can also find Flash Forward, the podcast, wherever you're listening to this podcast. That is where you can find that. And if you want more about Flash Forward it's

ERIC: Do you also want to plug Advice For And From The Future?

ROSE: Yes. It's on hiatus right now because I am doing a bunch of other things, but I also have a show that is about advice for and from the future, which is called Advice For And From The Future. Every episode is a question that people have about the future, or maybe when they're in the future and they're like, "I have a problem that I need help solving." It's a little bit of an interview and then there's always a little bit of a surprise coda at the end.

ERIC: I love that concept. It's so great. You can follow me on Twitter @HeyHeyESJ. And this show on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok @FollowFridayPod. And of course, please follow or subscribe to Follow Friday in your podcast app to get more interviews like this one every week.

Follow Friday's theme music was written by me and performed by Yona Marie. Our show art was illustrated by Dodi Hermawan. Additional music by Purple Planet Music.

That's all for this week. This is Eric Johnson, reminding you to talk about people behind their backs. And when you do, say something nice.

See you next Friday!

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