An Island In the Mountains: Interview with James Hrynyshyn

hrynyshyn.jpgJames Hrynyshyn is one of my SciBlings and part of the large North Carolina contingent. He lives in a small town of Saluda in the Western part of the state and blogs mainly about climate science and related policy on Island of Doubt. He is also one of those “repeat offenders” – he came not to one but to BOTH Science Blogging Conferences!
Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your background? What is your Real Life job?
I am a freelance science journalist whose current real job is father to a 14-month-old. My 20-year-career has consisted of full-time employment for newspapers and non-profits interspersed with the freelance lifestyle. I’ve managed to convince editors of dozens of Canadian and American newspapers, as well as New Scientist, Canadian Geographic, and Science & Spirit magazines, among others, to run my work. I have degrees in journalism and marine biology, but here I am in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, so go figure.
What do you want to do/be when you grow up?
A freelance science journalist. But one who actually makes enough money to pay the mortgage.
You started out as a marine scientist. How did you end up being a journalist and a writer (and a blogger)?
Actually, it was the reverse. After 11 years as a journalist focusing on science, I realized I didn’t know what the heck I was writing about. Not that I made too many egregious errors — I just decided that it would be a good idea if I didn’t need remedial instruction each time I tackled a new topic. So I went to university for another undergraduate degree, and marine biology seemed like the most efficient way to get a good grip on the broadest range of scientific subjects relevant to a world of declining biodiversity and climate change.
You have been traveling around showing Al Gore’s set of slides to people. Can you tell us more about this program and how you got involved with it?
Somewhere among the deluge of environmental listservs to which I subscribe I learned that Gore was putting together a team of presenters. I applied and was accepted late in 2006. As the training session was a mere five hours drive away in Nashville, TN, where my wife’s cousin had a spare couch, it was an inexpensive way to network and begin contributing more than just words to a subject I had first covered in the late 1980s. If, after 20 years, it hadn’t gone away, I figured climate change was worth more attention.
Why did you decide to omit some of the slides?
The full slide show takes almost 2 hours to present. As only someone with Gore’s charismatic talents can hold an audience for that long, most of us presenters have to trim a bit. I simply eliminated any slide or series of slides about which there is significant uncertainty among climatologists. For example, Mt. Kilimanjaro makes for a great intro to glacial retreat, but there is considerable debate out there about whether it’s an example of global warming induced retreat, or some other regional cycle. Similarly, the possibility of a halt to the thermohaline conveyor makes for great drama, but it’s hard to find a climatologist as worried about that as most of the rest of the subjects in the presentation.
What did you learn by listening to people in your audience?
So far, I have learned that the younger the audience, the better the questions. Older folks only come to see the show for two reasons: to feel part of a larger movement, or to beat a dead horse of pseudoskepticism.
When and how did you discover science blogs?
The first time I discovered a science-oriented blog was in early 2005. It was Chris Mooney’s Intersection. I had just moved to the US from Canada and was awaiting approval of my work visa application. So, to keep my writing skills sharp without running afoul of the INS, I decided to start my own blog, choosing to emulate Chris’ apparently successful model. After all, the guy wrote a book and made it to the Daily Show before he was 30. Thus was born The Island of Doubt. When SEED gobbled up the Intersection, I replied to SEED’s request for others who might like to join, and was accepted for the June 2006 expansion.
What are some of your favorites?
In addition to Chris’ (and now Sheril Kirshenbaum’s) Intersection, I enjoy Tara Smith’s Aetiology, PZ Myer’s Pharyngula, the RealClimate gang, the NY Times’ Andy Revkin’s
Dot Earth and Tim Lambert’s Deltoid.
Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?
Tom Levenson’s new Inverse Square.
Where did the name of your blog – Island Of Doubt – come from?
In the beginning I was fascinated by the battle between irrationalism and science. As doubt, in appropriate quantities, is endemic to science, it seemed like a good title. The phrase is taken from “Cross-eyed and Painless,” a track on the Talking Head’s 1980 album “Remain in Light.” (“The island of doubt/it’s a like a taste of medicine”).
Is there anything that happened at the Conference – a session, something someone said or did, a new friendship – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?
I was taken with the appearance of a wider array of professionals. Tom Levenson of NOVA and MIT, for example. And Stuart Pimm of Duke University. Their experience and wisdom has, I hope, induced a more thoughtful, bigger-picture approach to my own blog postings and writing in general.
It was so nice seeing you again at the Conference and thank you for the interview.
Check out all the interviews in this series.


3 responses to “An Island In the Mountains: Interview with James Hrynyshyn

  1. Appropriate, somehow. First an interview with Nunatak, then one titled An Island in the Mountains. Same thing. You gonna be able to follow up this theme?

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