An Appetite for Science Communication: Author Traci Mann Talks To PLOS About How She Explains Her Research on Health and Diets
Traci Mann is the author of Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again. Dr. Mann was a professor at UCLA for nine years before moving to the University of Minnesota and founding the Health and Eating Lab. Her research has been funded by the NIH, the USDA, and NASA, and is published in dozens of scholarly journals. She has received teaching awards at Stanford, UCLA, and the University of Minnesota, is the president of the Social Personality and Health (SPH) Network, and is an elected fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, The Society for Experimental Social Psychology, and the American Psychological Association.
Dr. Mann was kind enough to share more about her research and provide insights into science communication.
Sullivan: After decades of publishing your work in scientific journals on the subject of health and diet, what inspired you to write a popular science book?
Mann: I decided to write a book because after doing research on diets for all this time, I was getting really sick of people blaming dieters when they regained weight they lost. It was clear from the research that dieters were not to blame, but dieting was. Dieting leads to physiological changes to hormones, metabolism, and thinking patters that in turn make it hard to keep dieting successfully. So weight returns despite dieters’ best efforts. I really wanted to get that message out, and I thought writing a book for a general audience would be a good way to do that.
Sullivan: What have been some of the challenges that you faced in balancing your academic life with the arduous task of writing a book?
Mann: I had the good fortune and miracle of timing that my book deal lined up perfectly with my sabbatical at the University of Cambridge. So I had a full year off from teaching and departmental responsibilities (except for advising my grad students) just to write the book. With 12 chapters and 12 months to write, I actually had a more leisurely writing schedule – less writing to do – than during my normal job. So that was just a pleasure. The challenge came after the book came out. Trying to promote the book while doing my normal job was very difficult. It was incredibly time consuming and definitely out of my comfort zone. I think I eventually calculated that I spent more time promoting the book than writing the book.
Sullivan: One of the most challenging aspects of science communication is handling controversial subjects and explaining data that goes against conventional views. In your book, you argue that genetic determinism overshadows willpower when it comes to controlling appetite. Have you faced any backlash for this view? If so, what is your approach for dealing with it?
Mann: I was expecting backlash and prepared to handle it, but I have received very little backlash. When I give talks, I have many more people telling me that what I describe in the research literature fits their experience perfectly. The main people who argue with what I say are people who have always been thin and never dieted. Or people who have extreme anti-fat prejudices. But dieters – my main audience – have been incredibly receptive. I do believe I describe the research findings fairly, so I don’t have too much trouble handling doubters (though I’m not saying I necessarily convince them).
Sullivan: Without giving too much of the book away, what would you say are some of the biggest secrets you’ve uncovered from your “eating lab” research?
Mann: I’d give three: Diets don’t work in the long run. Willpower is not the reason why diets fail. And you can improve your health without dieting or losing weight.
Sullivan: I saw you on the “Fad Diet” episode of Bill Nye’s new show [Bill Nye Saves the World], participating in the panel discussion. How was that experience?
Mann: Oh man, that was way outside my normal experience. Let me put it this way, in my normal life, teaching class and working in the lab, I don’t have professionals doing my hair and makeup. Bill Nye was very nice and friendly – he was in the makeup chair next to me, actually – and he told me that my job was to explain to the audience why the other panelists (who had strong opinions, but not based on science) were wrong. I was very nervous, but he really put me at ease with his low-key manner and with his clear respect for science. Best part: I got a selfie with Bill Nye – mainly to prove to my son’s teacher that my son wasn’t making it up.
Sullivan: Many of our readers are budding science communicators. Would you like to offer any secrets you’ve learned about the business of science communication, or how to be an effective communicator?
Mann: I tried to write the book as if I was talking to my mom, or a girlfriend, rather than writing for an audience of experts. It was actually a lot like teaching – it is that same sort of translating from science language to regular people language. And you have to learn to let go of some of the details. You can’t explain each and every nuance. Some findings have to be simplified more than you feel comfortable with at first. Otherwise you lose the forest for the trees. I think communicating science is mainly explaining the forest, plus just some carefully selected trees — the coolest trees.
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