What we talk about when we talk about fire: Part 1

The title of this blog is adapted from a 1981 short story by Raymond Carver and the collection it first appeared in, called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” I’m not the first to co-opt this phrasing, far from it. Another short story is titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.” A Google search turns up a wide variety of articles with similar titles, talking about everything from violence in Chicago to Haruki Murakami to birth control to hoodies and even Sriracha. Why is it such a popular title? Why did I choose it? It’s not terribly creative. Do we choose it because it makes us feel smart, makes our articles and websites seem literary and intellectual? Because it just sounds good? Maybe these things play a role. But I choose it, and I suspect it is popular for similar reasons, because it so well captures an idea about discussing difficult or complicated topics: when we talk about one of these things there’s often more going on under the surface of our words, more threads pulling and shaping and connecting our narratives than one can see on the surface. Thus, to talk about hoodies is not just to talk about an article of clothing–it’s about race and societal attitudes and stereotypes. To talk about love is to talk about buying furniture and violence and affairs and children and bingo. I know I haven’t yet said a word about fire yet, but bear with me. I have a point, I promise.

The thing is, we often choose this title to talk about topics that we know are complicated and multifaceted and involve deeply held opinions and beliefs. What the above topics have in common is most have little to do with science (I did find one article in Cell, focusing on the classification of adipocytes, though this was just a quirky title). This is perhaps because those focused on science are less familiar with the short story, but it reflects, in a way, attitudes towards scientific topics. Science reporting is largely about “facts” (as is much of science education). Scientists discovered this, a new study shows that. There is some discussion of implications, but rarely with much detail. In contrast, a topic like fire is often reported with regard to current events with little mention of science. The threads that tie together science and the big picture are frequently missing or incomplete.

More and more, I see excellent, in depth, feature articles on fire (like this one from last year in the NYT Magazine and this one from the other day in NY Magazine), but these are long articles, 8 or 9 pages apiece, and your average reader won’t read the whole thing. The articles that most people read are about how many houses were destroyed or how many acres of forest were “lost” or how people were evacuated off of Half Dome. When wildfire is presented as a uniformly bad thing for forests and humans, it’s hard to get people to accept strategies like prescription burning or managed wildfire, even if the fire community is largely in favor of using these tools.

There are a few topics that regularly get more nuanced coverage, where science is part of a bigger story–climate change and evolution come to mind–but even these topics are presented as an us vs. them situation. Either you’re anti-science or you accept the science. When the science conflicts with your beliefs, the scientists must be wrong. Values and priorities currently determine whether you believe the science, not how you choose to use it. It’s rarely a case of “here’s the science, the best we’ve got, now how should we use this knowledge, taking into account our values and priorities?” Fire could be a good model for discussing science and policy in the latter form. While politics and fire are certainly linked, attitudes towards fire are not yet tied to political positions simply because the general public is poorly informed on the topic in general.

How do you communicate the nuance of your work in the kinds of articles that people actually read? How do we help people understand the implications of scientific work without binding science to particular political positions? In the case of fire, how can we bring the discussion that happens in the fire community outwards such that we can talk about revising fire management policy on a bigger scale?

I’m going to try to explore these questions a bit in this blog. Some of the time I will examine articles about fire from different types of publications. Which articles are effective and why? What language do they use to talk about fire? Some of the time I will tell my own story, about my own research and interactions will colleagues, friends, and family where we talked about fire. And some of the time I will talk about topics other than fire, because lessons about science and education and communication can help us understand the how we talk about and teach about fire, just as fire can serve as a model for these topics as a whole.

Talking about fire, as with many topics we explore in science, means talking about ecology, history, evolution, conservation, tourism, health, property, and more. This is why I chose the title I did. I want to help tell a story where fire is neither good nor bad, where the science is neither good nor bad, but where science is a tool that helps us understand a larger story of nature and society. Where the story is interesting because of the way the puzzle pieces fit together, not only because of cool facts and hot flames.

That’s all for now folks. Stay tuned for Part 2: Actually Talking About Fire, in which I get the ball rolling with some stories about fire (with pictures!).

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