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April 13, 2012 / markforeman92

Perspective and Personal Memoirs: My Genome, My Self

Perspective in writing is an extremely important element of an effective story or article. Writing in the first person perspective gives us the feeling of intimacy and a more personalised understanding of a topic, particularly when it is written as a personal memoir. This is what Steven Pinker has done in his article for the New York Times entitled My Genome, My Self. As a professor of psychology at Harvard University, Mr Pinker has taken an interest in how genes affect our personal qualities and characteristics.

Image

In this particular article, Pinker takes a genome test (a test to identify certain amino acid sequences to determine if a gene is present or not for a particular focus), and shares this experience with the reader throughout the progression of the test. By using a first person perspective, his communication becomes a lot more personalised. I find first person more interesting than hearing a story in a third person perspective because it gives the story more impact and more interest. We are hearing the story from somebody that has been through a particular experience rather than just the boring progressive recount of facts. That is not to say that all third person texts are dull, in fact some are outstanding, but for this particular article, a first person perspective gives it added interest and certainly more impact. As well as this, being such a long article means that writing it in third person and recounting events would have likely made this article extremely boring. But maybe my opinion on first person writing is too simple? What did you think of this style for this text?

As mentioned, the personal memoir gave the article added interest because of the actual telling of a personal story. The way Pinker weaved his science into the article was also effective. But I found the article too long and struggled to read it, in its entirety, with interest, and also found that the science was far too dominant compared to the story and experiences of the genome test he was taking. Not all long articles are dull, but I found this one to drag out due to the amount of scientific content. However, what was effective was the construction of his article. Pinker would describe phases of the test he was experiencing and would then discuss possibilities of results and what these mean. From here the “scientific floodgates” opened and we were bombarded with all sorts of diseases and their genetic make up. As I’ve said, this aspect outweighed the entertainment far too much, but the method of introducing scientific content couldn’t be questioned. In a nutshell, I think Pinker was clever in his idea to expand on science through the progression of the genome test, but he lost me with far too much science and hence the flow was compromised. Maybe this is because genetics doesn’t interest me as much as some, but am I the only one that wasn’t a huge fan of the article? I did however like his idea of moving from personal experience, to personal impact, to scientific relevance in terms of introducing scientific content.

After all, communicating science isn’t easy and saying all you need to whilst still being interesting is the ultimate goal. What is the most effective way to weave science into a piece of writing while still maintaining the interest of the reader?

This article wasn’t in the folder and was pretty hard to find, so if anyone wants a read (it’s not all doom and gloom, some of it is interesting!!!) then here’s the link. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/11/magazine/11Genome-t.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

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21 Comments

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  1. fullclever / Apr 13 2012 1:55 pm

    Thank you for the link, Mark. The article is really interesting. So is your post, of course.
    I totally agree with you, because no one can talk about us better than ourselves.
    Furthermore, he was really brave by experimenting on himself. Surely, the test was completely safe, but we never know about the findings, because one can end up discovering some unexpected abnormalities.
    However, I seriously question the realibility of someone who writes about himself. Personally, I prefer a third person’s perspective. Though in this case the author is not able to know for sure about the other’s feelings and thoughts, he can be more impartial. Mainly when they have no direct relationship.
    In addition, when the author narrates about someone else we are certain that the matter is relevant for at least two people with possibly distinct points of view.
    Still, one shall not waist a valuable oportunity to read the delightful Pinker’s article.

  2. caitiedunlap / Apr 14 2012 4:57 am

    It is a very long, but very interesting article. I have to say I do like that it was in the first person because it was a truely personal thing which was happening and I feel like you get a much better insight into its effects on him and how he felt regarding everthing when it is told in this way. Its like when you have a story in book and movie form. Book form always can tell you more indepth things, like exactly how the characters are feeling and whats going through their heads, where as with movies you just have to infer from the situation and their outward actions.

    I think you did a very good job deciphering that article because at times i found it a bit long winded, but over all very interesting. Ive always been interested in genetics and the medical side of science so i find papers like this very interesting to read.

    Well done again 🙂

  3. kflint93 / Apr 15 2012 2:26 am

    I find it really bizarre that such a long-winded article was published in The New York Times Magazine. Whilst I know the readership for said publication is huge, I imagine very few people actually want to read an article that long especially since it’s not strictly scientific.

    I thought you analysed this huge article quite succinctly, which is something to be congratulated on!

    I agree that the amount of science, as opposed to entertainment, was overwhelming, even for a genetics student that generally enjoys such topics. I do have to say though, I disagree with fullclever’s comment when he says “However, I seriously question the reliability of someone who writes about himself.” I believe, in this article, personal memoir was used to interest the reader enough to read the article but not to get in the way of accurately communicating science. A similar issue to this was discussed in shortfletch’s post ‘The Story of Science’ (30 March, 2012). If ‘science communication’ is considered a spectrum, this would be close to the ‘scientific journal’ end as opposed to the fictional end. I would say. therefore, that the science in this article is reasonably trustworthy despite the personal additions.

    Perhaps the question asked should not be “what is the most effective way to weave science into a piece of writing while still maintaining the interest of the reader?” rather, “what is the most effective way to weave entertainment into a piece of writing while still maintaining scientific accuracy?”.

    • baileymoser / Apr 18 2012 8:22 am

      I agree with your concerns about the suitability of this article for the target audience of the magazine.

  4. kellyfitzsimons1 / Apr 15 2012 2:38 am

    Firstly I loved your introduction. You introduced the topic of perspective, the article and author very clearly and effectively. The image you included was eye catching and very clever. For me it symbolised how perspective can change depending on what glasses you are looking through. Was that your original intention? I also particularly liked how you explained the jargon that you included; such as your explanation of a genome test – however maybe next time you could explain it in a way that describes what amino acids are as well. Maybe through the use of a metaphor or simile?

    Thanks for the posting the link to your article. I also agree with you, in that the article was at times very difficult to read. I also think that the sometimes the flow was interrupted by the scientific component.

    Overall your blog was engaging and interesting to read however at times I felt like you repeated yourself a little.

    Well done! 🙂

  5. keikok / Apr 16 2012 7:48 pm

    I agree to kellyfitzsimons1. Your introduction is clear and grabbed my mind to read whole of the article. Good job! I also thought your image was catchy but can I ask the reason why you choose this picture? Do you have a personal reason for this?

    In my opinion, even though this article shares experiences of Pinker, it is too long for me to read in magazine and I actually skipped reading some parts. I think using stories of personal memoirs is very effective and interesting but at the same time, I think writers have to think about the audiences. This article seems to be targeted to scientists and genomic students. However, even though I have a background of genomic, it was not so interesting so that I was maybe out of target audience.
    This is why I have to say you did great job to explain this article understandable and interesting way. Your article actually made me to jump to the link and made me to read at least part of them!
    Well done!!

  6. elenav90 / Apr 17 2012 12:49 am

    Well done, Mark, I think that your biggest achievement was probably getting so many of your readers to open up the article, despite the less-than-enthusiastic review you gave it!

    You’re right, it was very, very long. Possibly the first person narrative was a major factor which engaged readers’ attention to its end; had it been narrated in the third person, I think it would have lots half of its readers.

    @fullclever does have a point though, about the reliability of the author. Of course science values objectivity in the presentation of ‘facts’. I think we automatically assume that a third person point of view is more “true” and “reliable” partly because we have grown up reading textbooks which drill into us what we should accept as the truth. But, two things to note: not all textbooks (hence third person narratives) are that true/balanced/unbiased! Think of past dictatorships like in Germany or Russia, where leaders had history authors re-write school curriculum texts just to ‘modify’ people’s memories according to the ‘correct’ national perspective and history. And secondly, simply because one writes using the “I” form, it doesn’t mean he’s being completely biased or lying. Much of the time, he will be rather unbalanced in his discussion, shall we say, but I think our society has learned to pick that up quite quickly with the recently increased value on critical reading. For this reason, writers are often encouraged to construct a more balanced argument, presenting multiple perspectives and examples, even if they still use the first person narration. In France for example, a university essay can not be “unbalanced”, this is considered as unacceptable: students must first argue for a topic, then present an equal argument against, and then, only MAYBE, summarise it with their own point of view and justification.

    Going back to the author reliability which @fullclever sees as questionable in a first person narration, I think that we can make a judgement from case to case. To me, it is very appropriate here for three reasons.
    Firstly, in this article the first person narrative works because we feel we can TRUST the author – a Harvard psychology professor? I’m bound to respect his point of view, and trust that he’s not lying when publishing something in the New York Times!
    Secondly this technique is acceptable and effective in this case because the piece of writing is so personal – the subject is himself, his own DNA, you can’t get any more personal than that.
    And thirdly, I was thankful for the personal narration in this article because the technique usually tends to be accompanied by shorter, more direct sentences, the occasional question, and slightly more colloquial language than a third-person “textbook” narrative. The article is greatly structured as you say, by having a series of short paragraphs – but the sentence structure itself flows very well, and I think this is partly due to the first person narration.

    And finally, in regards your image, I’m surprised @keikok didn’t see its representation of “personal perspective”, to me it was a very effective way of representing such an abstract concept, it wouldn’t have been easy to find a viasual, so you did well. I also loved the photo which introduces the article itself, it kind of introduces to us “the crazy professor” as well, and hey, he’s actually the subject of the story! So it’s not only a great image (for it gives us an idea of the story’s content), but it makes the first person narration more effective, because we are more likely to believe it once we can put a face to the author, are we not? And the Professor sure is presented as a respectable, reliable individual (although due to my film culture I can’t avoid linking it to the “crazy professor” idea!).

  7. priscillalyf / Apr 18 2012 5:53 am

    I found that you did a good analysis on the article. The article was quite long, and at times I too lost interest and it was hard to focus on after a while, maybe because I am not into genetics as well. The style of the article was quite interesting as it used first person, which made it more personal and it could relate to the reader much better. Being scientist we were taught to write in the third person, so being able to read an article in the first person was more exciting and gave a different perspective.

    As I mentioned before, the article was quite long, and like what kflint93 said being in a New York Times Magazine, it is quite of a read for that kind of magazine, I don’t know if many people would have read the entire article.

    I guess he did try to make the article as interesting as possible based on the subject and his personal experiences and tries to tie in the audience as well by using the first person, but not everyone would be particularly interested in this topic no matter how interesting someone tries to make it. If it is not in your field or something you would like to read, you are probably skip over the article. I agree with you saying that “communicating science isn’t easy.” Not everybody will be interested in the same topics, therefore short paragraphs are nice, facts to the point, sometimes communicating the topic like a story can help, relating personal experience with the reader and getting the reader engaged by putting questions which could get the reader thinking about the topic and be interested to read more can help to communicate science better.

  8. baileymoser / Apr 18 2012 8:42 am

    Relatability. I was so off-put by the author of this article–does he realize how he’s being perceived by his audience?

    “I have been tested for vocational interest (closest match: psychologist), intelligence (above average), personality (open, conscientious, agreeable, average in extraversion, not too neurotic) and political orientation (neither leftist nor rightist, more libertarian than authoritarian).”

    The whole tone of the article was narcissistic to me. I would have been just as intrigued by an article with the same content done in the third person.

  9. markforeman92 / Apr 19 2012 4:28 am

    Thanks guys! It sounds like we’re all pretty much on the same page; it was pretty boring! And i tend to agree with most of you in that, he did his best to incorporate techniques to keep his article interesting but perhaps he wasn’t as successful as he thought he would be given the response to this post and this article.

    I’m inclined to disagree with fullclever though (unless i have misunderstood your comment) because i think he can still be a reliable author who has told a reliable story. Kflint93 made a good point; a personal memoir helped keep the interest levels up which was crucial in such a long winded article which, as we all know, lost us all at times. So i understand where fullclever was coming from, but i tend to agree that the personal memoir was necessary to try and boost the interest.

  10. markforeman92 / Apr 19 2012 4:34 am

    In regards to Keikok’s post, elenav90 was spot on. The image represented perspective. The person can look through the glasses or around them, creating different colours/light etc, hence gaining different perspectives. It’s probably a fairly cryptic interpretation but that’s what i was going for.

    Beyond that, the good thing about images is that they can be fairly open to interpretation from person to person. Even though perspective was my main goal of representation, elenav90 has seen it as a “crazy professor” which is absolutely fine. If it engages the reader (or viewer in this case) then that can only help in terms of who will will read the post and the article.

    Thanks again everyone!

  11. chadabbot / Apr 19 2012 7:42 am

    I thought that markforeman92 was quite dismissive in his description of the article, and in his analysis of perspective used. To say that “writing it in third person and recounting events would have likely made this article extremely boring” is very unwarranted.
    As some other posts have pointed out, the use of first-person narration is a technique that Pinker has used to tried to communicate his scientific message to the public. However, it is just one way he has tried to do this. The author would have consciously used a large range of techniques while writing his article as to communicate effectively. The use of image is an example that was highlighted by elenav90. So the written perspective, though clearly very important and useful in this article, is not the be all and end all.
    Even so, the use of persona was very effective in this article because of the personal nature of the experiment, but would probably not be as effective in a different forum. Third-person perspective is what a large majority of articles are written in, and is clearly effective, so to say that it would be boring if ‘My Genome, My Self’ was written in the third-person is very naive.

    If this article did fail, it is because of the bombardment of jargon and theory-talk (pointed out by markforeman92) that came typically and inevitably, that did not allow his message to be interpreted as well as it could have been.

  12. chimk / Apr 19 2012 9:49 am

    After reading Pinkers articles i thought here is first hand information just because he personalised the articles, however to experienced communicators and generally in science this type of writing would probably be rated as unprofessional. I am happy you have pointed out that not all third persons articles are dull, it depends on the flow of the article.
    Overally Mr Pinker managed to communicate his ideas although too much science involved as has already been pointed out.

  13. mmaideni / Apr 19 2012 5:09 pm

    Quite a good piece of writing indeed. Though too long to hold somewhat reader in a hurry, I still had interest to read on. This displays the saying, ‘love is in the eyes of the beholder’, so could science writing be. Steve Pinker has tried to draw the attention of the fans to his type of thinking as an English Premier soccer player would do with his hat tricks and fame on the pitch. However, this personalising would also keep away some readers who would have interest but just don’t like Pinker’s work from reading this valuable finding in science. In this case a third party narration like in a play or acting by a non scientist would be much more interesting. One would think that Pinker was somewhat greedy to sticking to detail than a guinea pig would have achieved, no wonder too long the article is. I would prefer that delegation to science writing should be considered a way forward as good as it is in project or organisational management technics. This is none other than division of labour in team work.
    Sometimes you are tempted to think that Steven Pinker had to do it himeslf as the New York Times and many writers would want to twist the science and then mislead the target audience in the process. It is also a good to understand the feeling subjects undergo in a similar situation.

  14. shortfletch / Apr 20 2012 2:03 am

    First I thought it was a brilliant idea, to attach a link to the article.
    Did I click on the link and read the article? Yes.
    Would I have bothered to search for the article on my own? No (I don’t know if I should admit this to the markers).
    Well done!

    I actually went through and read all the comments before reading the article so I was a bit worried. My undergraduate degree was in genetics and human medical genetics was my least favourite course. It was so depressing (plus I am not a huge probability and statistics fan.)

    I have no problem with a good first person narrative. However, when I talk about myself I have a tendency to ramble. I think Mr. Pinker shares the same trait. Quite frankly I didn’t think the fact that he grew up in Quebec during the 70s was relevant to sequencing his genome (unless A. Quebec is /was a leading centre of genome sequencing or B. The test results were produced in French).

    Overall I think there was too much information because I kept forgetting the point. Was he talking about evil genome corporations, terrible medical disease, the lack of understanding about gene-gene interactions or physiology? And how in the world to they all come together? He starts off with a large background about behavioural genetics, then spends a long time talking about medical genetics, then flips back to behavioural genetics (of course by now I forgotten that we had been talking about behavioural genetics).

    I understood his main point to be that: although companies can tell you what genes you have because gene-gene interactions are complicated behavioural geneticist cannot predict exactly how all genes influence behaviour (particularly intelligence). I suspect he could have got the same point across in about half as many words. It might have even made the article clearer. Still, considering he authored a book on the subject, to him this article may have seemed incredibly succinct.

    Overall great job!

  15. stinaboroe / Apr 20 2012 4:53 am

    Hi,

    Great introduction, straight to the point and informative. I love your visual. It goes nicely with the text in an almost poetic way. The title is catchy and informative as well.

    I reckon writing from a first person perspective immediately makes a story more personal. If it is a story suitable for a personal view, this is a very powerful tool in making a story engaging. It is also a great way to introduce a difficult or complex topic in more understandable matters.
    However, as with all techniques of writing, it is only effective when used in the right way. Although I can’t seem to come up with any examples from the top of my head, I am sure there are certain topics best written from other perspectives.

    Nice work 🙂

  16. rhiandyer / Apr 20 2012 5:36 am

    I am going to go out on a limb here and say that I loved this article. The depth of the information really covered all bases and gave a really inspiring understanding of the topic.

    “parents and coaches started swabbing the cheeks of children so they could steer the ones with the fast-twitch variant into sprinting and football. Carl Foster … had a better idea: “Just line them up with their classmates for a race and see which ones are the fastest.”

    This was such a clever way of saying “what is the difference between measuring a gene for a trait or a trait itself?” but he really managed to say it in a way that made me feel foolish that I hadn’t explicitly thought it myself. Just saying.

    But in answer to your post, I felt the first person narrative was a good choice as it perfectly compliments the subject of personalised medicine.

  17. sthompson / Apr 20 2012 5:47 am

    I think the image you used is very effective, and especially so because of it’s ambiguity. I think there’s something intriguing about images that you aren’t necessarily instantly sure of their intended meaning, and instead they’re rather open to your own interpretation. Having said that, I did see it as a rather clear representation of perspectives, but also saw other possibilities for it’s interpretation. If you have to think about how you see something, it can make you more interested, and pull you in (too much though and it could just be too confusing, causing you to give up and move on). I think the image you chose has a good balance, and is very effective.

    Your assessment of first person vs. third person perspective gets across your opinion, and explains all your reasoning for the way you see it. Although it doesn’t sound like you loved the article, you don’t let that taint the rest of your blog, and I think you’ve done this very well.

  18. amber0699 / Apr 20 2012 5:49 am

    I loved the photo and the introduction to your blog post, well done! I think you analysed the article very well, and have sound reasoning to back your position. I agree with you on some points; I think the article is better written as first person rather than third. I did think the article was long, but I disagree with you on the science overwhelming the personal story.

    I enjoyed reading about the science and didn’t think that it detracted from the personal story at all. If I had been in a hurry, I probably wouldn’t have read the whole thing, but I otherwise I thought it was a very interesting read. Why not encompass all the possibilities that the future holds for reading genomes? There is quite a bit to cover for such a new technological advancement and I believe that Pinker made his transitions in a very informed way. Thanks for the link – that was really helpful!

  19. chantellerichards / Apr 23 2012 6:53 am

    Great post! I like how you have left some questions at the end for us to answer ourselves, and as other have mentioned, the link at the end of your blog post definitely invited me to simply click and read on.

    I like the way that the article is written, and despite it being a rather long article, the fact that it was from a personal point of view made the connection much easier to make, hence, a more enjoyable read! The photo says a lot as well – before I even read your blog post, the photo caught my eye, and my initial thought was that we would be ready about something through an individual’s point of view so great choice.

  20. michaelpetersen1 / Apr 23 2012 8:33 am

    This was a good post. I agree that first person really does make us feel that we are taken along on this intimate journey with Steven Pinker, it allows us to know what he is thinking while he is undergoing the tests and also gives us answers to his personal motivations in the article and makes us feel like we know him better.
    I did think the article was long but I never felt that he rambled on or got into too much technical language, I really enjoyed the article and your analysis of it

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