"Writing About Science and Society"


 Michael Specter

The New Yorker Magazine


Northwestern University "Literature of Fact" Lecture Series

February 26, 2007



That was shockingly kind. I sound a lot better on paper than in real life. And I'm really happy to be here. And I wouldn't have come to talk to you if I knew that Alex was going to be here, because he's much better about what I'm about to talk about than I am. But I'm going to fake it nonetheless. I don't give speeches, as will become apparent in about 30 seconds, but I had been asked to write about how I write about science and society and mix those things together, so I will say a few things, and then maybe you guys have questions I'd be happy to discuss with you.


When I started, I didn't study science, except a little bit, in college. It hardly occurred to me to be a journalist, let alone a science journalist. But I ended up at the Washington Post, and everyone at the Washington Post - and I do mean everyone - wanted to write about politics, which just bored the hell out of me. And in 1986, right after I started, the space shuttle Challenger exploded. And I was at the time covering the airport system outside of Washington Dulles International Airport, and I was at Dulles Airport, and I called my editor, the Virginia editor, and he said the shuttle just blew up. And I said, being a New Yorker, I said, "Oh my God, Pan American or Delta?" Because I didn't even know there was a space shuttle. So he then said you go to Cape Canaveral right now.


And the reason that he sent me was because science was not an important thing then, and our science reporter, a very sweet guy, our space guy, was a drunk. He was famously a drunk, it's been written many times, and he was off on a bender, and we had to have some physical presence there, so why not me? This also, by the way, happened with a friend of mine from the Chicago Tribune in the same way, and we became very good friends, she is now the editor of the Chicago Tribune so we are very grateful for being thrown into that. Didn't know what I was doing, didn't know what I was doing at all, and Bill Broadmore for The New York Times basically helped Ann Marie and I enough so we didn't look like idiots, but not enough so we that we actually could write a good story.


But it because really fascinating, and then when I came back to Washington, it was also the time AIDS was emerging as an important national issue. And more than anything else, I think, AIDS is what made science writing a fairly serious business because people were freaking out about it in a bad way and in a good way. More attention was being paid, nobody understood the mechanisms, there was a lot that was difficult to explain. And the Post asked me if I wanted to write some stories about AIDS discrimination, and I did. And people were and still are, but very clearly then, were being discriminated against just because they may have been infected with HIV or they may be the type of people that one assumed to be infected with HIV. It was a terrible time.


And from then they asked me to write a few science stories, and it just built. And I began to be the medical writer. And Ben Bradlee, who's the editor and my personal hero who got me going, he never really got the whole science thing.  And every six months he'd come out of his office and say, "Are you done with this crap yet?" Because he expected that I would do well, and that doing well was that I would go in and get a political job. But I just never saw the point in that. It wasn't for me.


So I wrote about AIDS, and it opened up a whole new horizon for me. But I think also at the same time a new horizon for journalism was opening. If you look at The New York Times today, and you take a broad view of it and you say to yourself, "What in this paper is about science?" - and by science I don't mean just like molecular biology. I mean touching on scientific issues, touching on the environment, on medicine, even economic issues sometimes - Everything. I mean, it's just astonishing how much of the newspaper and how much information today is based on things you need to know about science or scientific ideas. That was either never true before or never perceived to be true. And so I think that the field of science journalism has benefited.


There's lots of good science writers right now. Yet it's also much more important that we do a good job, and sometimes we don't. There's a lot of hype in journalism in general. I mean, it's not just celebrity journalism that overdoes things; it's science journalists do, too, and scientists do, too.


And I think we're all very guilty of the curing every disease syndrome. Every drug that comes out is going to cure a disease. Go do a search on Google for things involving stem cells that in the next 10 years are going to cure Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and diabetes. You know, God bless, I hope its true, and I think those things are wonderful. But the truth is that ever since Watson and Crick discovered DNA, the sort of genomic vanguard has not produced that much in terms of better medicine. What usually produces better medicine are empirical testing, trying and failing, and it's not this sort of magical solution that we mostly write about.


We're always writing about how there will be a magical solution. You'll lock this onto a molecule and you won't have AIDS and you won't have cancer and everything will go away. And I like to think that eventually that will happen, but we're way far away from it, and journalists probably need to ratchet back their hype about it.


The other important thing that's going on in the world, to me, more important than anything else that's going on in the world, is the fact that we're destroying our world. And the writing about global warming is, it ranges from good to appalling, or even great to appalling. There's lots of wonderful things being written. But you don't necessarily know what the data say, and that's because the data are very complicated. I think we now, I think even people who like to stick their head in the sand, acknowledge that humans are warming the globe in a dangerous way. But how dangerous, we don't really know. We don't know what a two-degree centigrade rise in temperature will do in the next 100 years. It may be terrible. It may not be. I mean, I think one would do well to operate under the assumption that it would be terrible, because if we use fewer fossil fuels, then I think the earth's going to be better for it no matter what.


But there's a lot of definitive things that are said and written that are quite rarely true or backed up by science. And that's because science reporters, like all reporters, we like a good story. So when a report comes out saying, you know, sea levels are going to rise 100 feet, and the Caribbean's going to go away, it's scary, and it's good for us, and its good for those people, and I actually am one of them who believe that we should do what we can to get people to care about these issues.


But there's a downside to that. Because when you start telling people things are going to happen and they don't happen in the way that you tell them, they give up. They don't care what you say anymore. And I fear that that is happening.


When I was a kid, when I was young, really young, the president of the Untied States was a really important guy, and everyone wanted to grow up to be the president. Who wants to grow up and be the president now? I mean, nobody wants to be the president because they're corrupt and they're impeached and there are wars. It's politics. And there's just a completely different view that people of, I believe, of your generation and even of mine, have about leaders.


That's also true in many other fields. I wish that it weren't true in journalism, but I think that it is. And we shouldn't allow it. There are people there who do the opposite, and you can trust them and put what they say as money in the bank. But you can't always do that when you pick up a paper, and we need to change that because we need for people believe what we say, especially when these issues are so important.


When we're talking about global warming, we're talking about really do you guys want to have grandchildren who can grow up to the age of 50 in a normal world? We're not talking about seven centuries from now. We're talking about in, probably not in my lifetime, but yours.


These things are really serious, and we need really careful science writing. You don't have to exaggerate it. It's bad enough. It's bad enough. If you read, my colleague, Elizabeth Colbert, Betsy Colbert, wrote a three-part series on global warming in our magazine last year. It was extremely depressing and down. She took a sort of dark view, but everything in there was true, and she did not exaggerate anything. And there are other sides to the issue, and you could have written a different kind of story, but she didn't have to hype things to make people want to, you know, go cry, because things are serious.


I guess all I'm saying is when it comes to science, we've had a pass as journalists for a long a time, because people just sort of assume, oh, you're science journalists, who lies about molecular biology? But the truth is everybody wants to get ahead, and there's too much of that. There needs to be more careful checking of what we do, of what scientists do.


I think scientists are competitive people, too, and many of them, if not most of them, are wonderfully not self-involved, just pursuing intellectual pursuits for curiosity because they want things to be solved and to be better. But some of them are just as brutal as everyone else is in the world. And we need to apply our critical faculties to everyone, not just politicians. And I don't think that happens as much as it should. I'm as guilty as anyone.


So I guess what I would say about science writing is that it's a tremendous opportunity. And it's probably more of a growing opportunity than some other fields in journalism because society needs us more. But we have a greater responsibility than some other fields, and I'm not sure we're living up to the responsibility all of the time. And I'd love for people like you to be science writers because we need them. But, you know, take more classes than I did. Be smarter and pay attention. It will be better for all of us if you do.




Q&A Session


Q: For reporters who haven't taken a lot of science, how do you approach complicated technical stories?


Specter: I'm sort of an example of that kind of person because I didn't take that many science classes. I was lucky. I started out at the Washington Post and I had a really good editor who wanted me to learn and gave me the time to learn. The answer is I think find out who the experts are in whatever you're writing about. There's always somebody who's really smart and really eloquent and you can call them up and talk to them and they'll probably answer your questions and they'll lead you to the next guy. It's just sort of a dominoes thing. You can start the reporting and you'll find the good books, the key articles, and the key experts. It's not that hard to do. At a certain point you'll have lots of information and you'll have to sift through differing assessments of the same problem. But in terms of just going out and reporting, try and read some basic stuff and you'll see some names pop up again and again. I did this story last year about water, and how we're having real trouble with fresh water in the world. I didn't know much about it but when I started reading, there was a guy named John Brisco, he was in every article, he is now the head of the World Bank's program in Brazil but for thirty years he was the director for water for the World Bank. I went down and saw him and he was great. A lot of people don't agree with him but he gave me an overview and told me other people to talk to. There's always somebody like that and if you can't afford to get on a plane to go see him, he'd have been happy to talk to me on the phone. And always ask who should I be talking to about this? And they'll tell you. And sometimes it'll lead you to false ends but quite frequently it won't. I mean people want you to find out information. They want to help you.


Q: (Muffled, something about what sciences classes to take at Northwestern.)


Specter: Molecular biology, I would probably try to take physics although I don't think physics would settle well in my brain. Geology? Anything that sort of breaks down how we are into the constitutional parts. I write about medicine all the time, and it would be nice to have studied some molecular biology. Now when I went to school, it wasn't easy to do that and still be a journalist, but I think it's easier now. There's just so much going on, how does DNA work, how to prodionomics work, and there's another area I sometimes write about, which is plane technology. Does anybody know how your cell phone works? How images and messages come into your phone? How you can send a picture home to your mother from your phone? How she's hooked up to the internet from her desk there? People don't generally know these things yet they totally rely on them on all aspects of their lives. I don't' know how to fix a car yet I drive one. I don't think you need to know how everything works. But I think there's a pretty big gap between how the world works and what we need the world to do in our knowledge of it.


Q: What is your day to day life like as a staff writer for the New Yorker?


Specter:  oh, you know, luxurious breakfast at the Four Seasons, I watch eight to ten hours of daytime television, um ballroom dancing╔no. it depends what I'm doing. If I'm reporting a story, I get up and either write or interview people for the story. When I go to write a story I tend to run around all the time because India or Africa or even California because I just feel like wherever I am I'm probably not going to go back so I talk to as many people as I can. Lot so times those people will not end up in the story and some of them won't be useful in retrospect. And when I'm writing it's just such a horrible existence of getting up and looking at a computer until I'm forced to write something and then I go to bed. I mean, it's a weird sort of unusual job because it's this three month deadline so I try to be somewhat disciplined about it because you can't write a 10000 word story in a weekend, or at least I can't. It's sort of a thing where you go around and you're social and you around and do things and go out and have a life and are social, and then the writing where you don't' talk to anyone. That's basically it.


Q: (Muffled╔question about fact checking.)


Specter: Well first of all, one thing about Google, and I love Google, is that they're not a religion. It's an algorithm based basically on popularity, and if you type in how many home runs did Mickey Mantle hit in 1956, it will give you the wrong answer because the wrong answer is in rotisserie baseball magazines and that's what gets the most hits, so you gotta be careful. So you gotta be careful. I couldn't' live without Google, but it isn't going to solve those kind of problems. When you talk to a scientist and he's done a lot of work, first of all, it is peer reviewed, is it reviewed in a scientific journal, did other scientists sit down and evaluate it, did they judge it to be acceptable for publication. If it isn't peer reviewed, why not. If it was, are there other sources? Any peer review has 93 footnotes, go look at them. Some are going to be in agreement, some are going to be in disagreement. There is always going to be someone who doesn't agree, find out who that person is and go ask him why he's wrong. How long did it take him to do it? Who did he do it on? Did anyone do this study before? Just sort of basic questions that you would ask of a murder case, but when it comes to science writing, when someone publishes a scientific document, they usually publish it in something like New England Journal of Medicine. Science publications have their problems and so does peer review but in general I would argue that that's a good system because it allows people in the fields to look at things quite carefully before they're accepted and they're quite vigorous about something not looking right. But there might still be fraud, there will always be fraud, but you can try. All I'm saying is sometimes we take things at face value and it's not necessary.


Q: If it's not in a peer review thing, is it not as valuable? Do I go the other way and not present it?


Specter: The Framingham Heart Study which is a group of people studying heart disease for years published something based on 10000 middle aged man over 30 years. It says if you take half an aspirin every day it reduces your chances of heart attack by 40% and it's been peer reviewed and looked at for years if not decades, and that's seems solid to me. if some guy says to me if you take huge doses of vitamin C and you're not going to get cancer and I can show you 27 people who have done it, and I've got that guy in mind because I've just been writing about him, no, that's bull shit. And he was wrong. And he was proven to be wrong. I'm actually writing about one of his accolades. He's done way more damage than good. He's a brilliant man but vitamin C does not cure cancer! But brilliant guys are wrong all the time. You just can't assume anybody's right, you're not going to be a good journalist. You have to be a little skeptical or else you're going to get burned. I've been burned many a time.


Q: You write articles that are thousands of words long. How do you know when there is an ending that makes sense?


Specter: I stop when either my editors yell at me or I feel like I've done enough to get paid. No I'm just kidding.  Experience a little bit tells me, length is a bit of a factor, but when it comes to a long story, I think long form stories have a natural length, it could be 10000, 8000, whatever the length is, some 10000 stories zip along and some go a little too long and you get a sense of that. There's a certain amount of information that you gather in the reporting that you feel like you really have to have this stuff in there and usually you run into the situation where you gather more information that you can put in your piece, but that's a good problem to have because it helps your piece. It's better to have too much information than too little. It drives you crazy but it's better to have that than to write a thin piece where you're really not doing the work. Over time you really get a sense and sometimes I'm wrong, sometimes people say, I wish there was a little more of this, a little more of that, but that's why God invented editors. But you do get this safecracker feeling and you kind of get the sense of when it's right or kind of right. It ain't no science.


Q: You said you aren't interested in politics but quite a few of your stories are political these days. Why?


Specter: These things that I write about have become important political issues. I don't think twenty years ago, you'd hear about the Bush administration's approach to science policy. It'd be a negative story to say the least. That was a political story but it was also a science story. It wouldn't have happened twenty years ago, nobody would have cared. The same with AIDS. AIDS did a lot, not just for AIDS, but it opened up the whole advocacy world, whenever there's a disease being written about, there are advocates saying why aren't we getting this amount of money, why is research taking so long, why aren't you giving us the drugs? That's kind of all from the AIDS advocates, and I think it's a good thing. All that stuff is political and I think the science and the politics have merged in many issues that interest me, but I'm still interested in politics from that angle, not just blue state red state electoral college.


Q: When did science start becoming important?


Specter: It probably isn't so recent but it's so recent that it's that important. I don't think science has been so ubiquitously important in society before so yeah, sure Ulysses S Grant made political science decisions that mattered and certainly ever since the nuclear world presidents have been making decisions that matter for us all but I think that in everyday life these scientific issues like global warning, health, technology, are just sort of pervasive in a way that they weren't before. Or maybe they've risen to our consciousness in a way that they haven't been for. I enjoy it.

Q: Where do you find information for science stories? How do you go about researching?


Specter: Now that I've denounced Google╔you'll type in "meteorite impact" and they'll be 257 million sites, and you'll look at it, and read a couple things, and in an hour, you'll get a sense of what things might be serious, what things might not. You call the PR department and say who in the astrophysics department should I talk to and somebody will tell you and then he says but the person you really ought to talk to is so and so. And it's that kind of thing. It's not that hard to get going. , it's a little hard to get up to the level you want to be. I try at this point to do stories I know a little bit about or a lot about. It's hard for me. I couldn't write about something incredibly complicated, it'd be very difficult for me to write a good coherent piece. I'd be very lucky to.


Q: Are science journalists living up to the responsibility that they have to be fair and accurate?


Specter: When I worked for the Washington Post, the New England Journal would come out on Thursdays and we'd get it on Wednesdays. We'd look at it and I'd just go to the editors and say there's this story about easy tea and if women take it it'll reduce their chance of getting HIV by 6% and it should be on the front page. And he'd say fine. And I'd call 2 people and write it up and call two people and it'd be on the front page. And nobody would say but who cares and is this study good or does it compare. Those questions were never asked. It was just I was a science writer, I knew stuff they didn't know, they listened to me. I think a lot of science writers have used that information in a way that isn't useful. I think what we need to do is when someone comes out and says something, especially if it's important, you need to evaluate it. Do you know how many stories have been written saying a woman taking hormonal replacement therapy, you will get cancer, you won't get cancer, you'll get a stroke, you won't get a stroke, if you have coffee plus that, literally every permutation that exists, coffee itself, it causes cancer, it doesn't cause cancer, it's good for you, it's bad for you. It's impossible to make a judgment based on the dribs and drabs of the information that comes out. And lots of times a study will come out and it's a perfectly reasonable one saying something about liver cancer among rodents of whatever had lots of cancer and drank lots of coffee. But lots of coffee could mean 17,000 cups of coffee a day. It's one study. What do the understudies say? Lots of times you will see stories like that, is it one cup, two cup, 11 cups, is it 1 year or 27 years? These questions are often not asked and they're important. In science and math you have numerators and denominators. One thing out of 1 billion doesn't mean very much. One thing out of one means a lot. And lots of times we just give the top number, we don't give the top and the bottom number so it's impossible to evaluate a risk. That's sort of what I'm trying to say.


Q: Where do you make the distinction between the technical journals and the New Yorker?


Specter: If nobody reads your story, it doesn't matter how good it is, what it says, how much work you put into it, if they stop at the 3rd paragraph because you used a stupid technical term. I just changed something in a story today about infecting a hose╔a hose is just a person. People don't want to read about infecting a hose, they want to read about infecting people. You just have to write the stuff in such a way that a normal intelligent person will read it and not want to cry. Because they'll just put the magazine down. Life is too busy, people have too many competing demands. By the way, I think it's the hardest thing I've ever done and do. I've covered wars and when I did that, people would think it was a really big deal, but it isn't. People shooting each other, you just write it down and send it in. it doesn't require any analysis so all you have to do is continue to stay alive and do your job. It's not hard. But explaining how the malaria vaccine might or might not interfere with the cycle of infection is really hard to do in a way so that normal people like me would understand it. It took me a long time and I'm not sure if I did it properly but I tried. And that's hard. But it's fun. And if you're writing jargon, just go work for a technical publication.


Q: Do you come up with your own story ideas?


Specter: I only write a few stories a year so I don't have to come up with very many ideas. I do come up with most of my own ideas, but some of my better stories are ones my editors came up with, including that water story. Lots of them don't interest me and it's fine just to say I'm not doing that. But they have an idea and they know what I'm good at and they know what I like to do and quite frequently they have ea good sense of that. I always find, and I think it's going to be true for all of you, it's always better to have your own ideas, you'll be enthusiastic, you'll have an idea of what it is you want to do, and I much prefer to do that. But I'm not at all closed to editors, or even people, like friends, people tell me things all the time. If it's a good idea, then sure.


Q: What dangers would there be if science journalists wrote frauduently about stories?


Specter: If you write things that aren't true and people believe them and they act on it, it's one thing to write a story saying Britney Spears is psychotic when maybe she isn't because it's just gossip, but if you write a story saying continued use of a certain drug is going to cause some illness or we recently found out you can take this stuff and it'll be fine for you people will believe that and it's not fair because it's often wrong and it's usually part of the truth, but things are more complicated than yes or no, there's rarely a case in science, like taking an aspirin will reduce your chances of heart attacks, it's usually genes have a role, and health has a role, and it's complicated. And people like the simplify things, and I think that's dangerous. We have a tremendous responsibility because people's lives are affected. And I think on the global warming side what I'm worried about is people keep saying the sky is falling and the sky doesn't immediately fall, we're going to have a lot of people close their ears. And the sky's definitely gotten lower, but it's not going to fall, and people are just going to close their ears when they hear that, and I think it's enough to just say we're entering an era where we can just say there's a problem and we need to do something to stop it, we don't just say this is X and in the next 23 years it'll be Y, because we kind of don't know that. 


Q: Why science writing?


Specter: I do it because I like it. the main thing is I have to get up in the morning and do something that I like to do and I've found over the years, I've been a foreign correspondent, I've covered a variety of things, this is something that I never totally get bored with. I want to come back to it. If I'm not writing about water or I'm not writing about molecular biology, I can be writing about energy. There's just so many different aspects to it that personally, it's just fun. In terms of your other question, I think it's important that we develop a vocabulary so that people basically understand scientific concepts because science is an important part of our lives and it's this mysterious thing – and I don't think it should be. We should have more familiarity and we should feel more comfortable with it. And on a day to day level, I'm not a day to day reporter anymore but I want people to have intelligent things to say and think about so that they can formulate thoughts. I want people to understand what's at stake when they get on a plane, is it bad, is it possible, we should think about it and put thing sin perspective, and the only way we can do that is to have some sort of vocabulary to talk about the risks and benefits. We tend never to talk about risks and benefits. We talk about just the risks, global warming is bad, or just the benefits, you can go to Banglalore for $500, and we never combine those things, and I think we should.


Q: What do you like to read on a regular basis as background for your science writing?

Specter: The newspapers have lots of science writing, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. I read a couple specific nature and science publications, they're kind of on top of what's going on and I get some interesting ideas out of those and it talks about who the people are in the fields. There's not lots of fabulous science publications. There's something called The Scientist that I read. I read them more for tips. There's some blogs that are really good. There's a woman named Terrace Smith who teaches at the University of Iowa. She has a blog called Etiology. She's so much better at what I do, she's fantastic. She talks about issues that I care about and she's aimlessly entertaining and smart about science and focusing on certain issues, how to do an HIV test, she's a real smarty. So they're out there. There's lots of good science writers, it's just that I can't say, read this magazine. You kind of have to just look. Some of it's crap, some of it's good. You just need to know where to look.




Copyright 2007 Michael Specter. All rights reserved.