Science: Writing About S&T for the Public
Jennifer Fisher Wilson
1996 acknowledgement by the British government
of a possible link between mad cow disease and
its human equivalent, a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob
disease, initiated a media frenzy. Although the
disease was rare, the world press carried articles
predicting that 500,000 beefeaters a year could
die of CJD.
compounded fear: the exact cause of the disease
remained unclear and the incubation period ranged
up to 30 years. The U.S. raised the possibility
of an epidemic of mad cow disease, but emphasized
the diseases rarity and the likely safety
of beef products sold in the United States.
reading these articles, almost everyone who had
ever eaten a hamburger suddenly feared the irreversible,
brain-rotting disease, which starts with confusion
and forgetfulness and ends with hallucinations,
panic and eventually death. But today, more than
five years later, fewer than 150 people worldwide
are known to have died from this new form of CJD.
Most people have returned to their beef-eating
ways, with the only aftereffect an occasional
twinge of fear.
retrospect, some of the initial news coverage
of mad cow disease clearly overstated the risk
to humans, and in doing so excessively alarmed
science writing is very destructive," says
Abigail Trafford 62, health columnist for
the Washington Post. Just as harmful as
science stories that scare people are those that
overstate the prospects of a "cure"
for devastating diseases. She points to gene therapy
as one example of how media hype irresponsibly
raises peoples hopes.
more than 20 years, newspapers, magazines and
broadcast news have touted gene therapys
ability to cure almost everything, from hemophilia
to Parkinsons disease to cystic fibrosis
to cancer. Gene therapy which would cure
disease by delivering a normal version of a mutated
cell's DNA to its nucleus was called tantalizing,
thrilling and revolutionary, and as early as 1992,
one magazine declared that the age of genetic
medicine had "arrived full force." But
despite such sensationalism, the technology was
only in its infancy. In fact it is only now, long
after premature reports, that gene therapists
are beginning to see actual progress in curing
about any new technology or scientific discovery
can cause science writers and scientists alike
to struggle to gauge what a discovery means and
what its implications are, let alone explain it
to the general public sensibly. In an effort to
avoid sensationalism when writing about new research
advances, Trafford banned use of the word "breakthrough"
in the health section when she was the Posts
science writing captures the excitement and the
innovation of science, but it provides context
instead of hype, according to Trafford.
write about science and health in a way that talks
about the human condition and reveals scientific
truths to everyday people," Trafford says.
Readers want to know why they should care and
what this means for them, she adds, and "you
want their eyes to light up and for them to say,
Look at this, this is really important."
Science is a window into what kind of society
we live in, she says. Trafford notes that many
of the most important stories of the past decade
have been primarily science stories the
human genome project, global warming, nuclear-waste
storage, cloning, stem cells and AIDS, for example.
like Trafford who write regularly about science
including medicine, health, technology,
the environment and laboratory research
employ a broad mix of research, knowledge, intelligence,
confidence and caution when doing their job.
photo: Peggy Siegal
writing about science, or anything else for that
matter, whats needed most is the ability
to think clearly, write well and have a passion
for the subject, according to Jennet Conant 82.
Conant is a magazine writer and author of the
recently published book, Tuxedo Park: A Wall
Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science
That Changed the Course of World War II.
have to think critically about your sources and
what they say. What is the context in which this
was being said? What prejudices of class or institution
or field were brought to bear in this remark?
And youre always having to keep in mind
the human factors, the jealousies, the petty competition,"
awareness of these factors, science writers also
need a knack for cutting through complex information
and answering the question: What is the significance
of this? More than with political writing or business
writing, perhaps, where typically the facts are
readily knowable, science is often about the unknown
or about the just discovered.
cant pretend to know more than you do, because
if you dont understand it yourself, you
cant explain it. This is true of any kind
of writing, but especially with science,"
says Ruth Guyer 67, freelance bioethics
professor in the Johns Hopkins University Master
of Arts in Writing program. When writing, Guyer
says, she tries to picture the solitary reader
and ask herself "What does she need to know
now?" after each sentence. "Its
got to be totally logical," she says.
the details of science right can be especially
tricky. Attending conferences, reading science
and medical journals, and taking courses are some
of the ways science writers keep up with the latest
discoveries. More than anything else, they rely
on interviews with the scientists themselves.
Talking to scientists helps the writers translate
complex scientific jargon into language understandable
to the general reader.
this myth of the unapproachable scientist, but
it totally befuddles me. There are wonderful scientists
who are terrific at explaining what they do. Ive
had marvelous teachers in scientists," says
J. Madeleine Nash 65, Time magazines
senior science correspondent for 15 years. Sometimes
shell review wording with scientists to
make sure that she hasnt misstated the details
or oversimplified the implications. And in an
attempt to make the science more accessible to
the reader, she may ask a scientist for a suggestion
for an appropriate analogy or metaphor.
many science writers, Nash doesnt have degree
in science, nor does she feel that it would be
especially helpful. After all, she says, she is
a writer, not a scientist. And it would be impossible
to be an expert in every field of science.
physicist approaching biology is not particularly
any better off than I am," Nash says.
also believes that it is better for her to be
a generalist because she asks the same questions
that her readers ask. "Sure I get overwhelmed
by the science sometimes. But thats what
experts are for," she says.
when Conant, also a generalist, was writing her
book, she approached the science aspects as she
believes her subject, Alfred Lee Loomis, a businessman
turned scientist, did: as an amateur eager to
the other hand, Guyer believes that her doctoral
degree in immunology and her laboratory experience
make her a more sophisticated science writer.
"I can read the primary data, and I know
how to analyze a scientific source. Thats
helped me to be credible," Guyer says.
Guyer finds her background in science useful to
her career as a science writer, she didnt
plan it that way. The choice to leave the laboratory
and become a science writer didnt occur
until after her first child was born. She started
writing for the NIH and from there became a writer
for Science, perhaps the most respected
and authoritative primary research journal in
the world. She was the first writer for the prestigious
weekly magazines "This Week in Science"
feature, short summaries describing in lay
terms the peer-reviewed research in each issue.
idea of the page was to help people understand
what was in the magazine. I would try to explain
advances in astronomy in ways that biologists
could understand," she says.
Guyer, Nash didnt graduate from college
planning to be a science writer, either. Nash
started as a "clip girl" identifying
newspaper articles that could be used as research
for writers and editors at Time magazine
after graduation. She advanced through the ranks
and after suggesting that the magazine needed
a national science columnist, she was given the
job in 1987.
attracted to immense, intellectually challenging
topics," Nash says, and science certainly
fulfills that ticket. Recently she completed a
book on one such topic: the climate phenomenon
known as El Niño.
Niño was global in scope and multidimensional
in space and time, and to understand it I had
to grapple with
every field of science that there is," Nash
says. While she never become bored with the topic,
she admits to becoming absolutely terrified at
one point in writing the book by the immensity
of its subject.
so, Nash says, writing the book was like climbing
a mountain. "Theres an addictive quality
to grappling with and writing about something
of such breadth."
opportunity to cover another immense topic, the
U.S. space program, led Trafford into her science
writing career. When her husband received a job
with the space program in Houston in the late
1960s, she started writing freelance news stories
about the race to land astronauts on the moon
for various publications.
was my great break," Trafford says. "I
fell in love with the big story I fell
in love with the reporting, with the bang of typewriters,
and with writing on deadline," she says.
Writing about the space program combined politics,
economics and human drama with science and technology.
When the program wound down, many of the reporters
who covered it went into general science and medical
it fostered an expertise in science, it was an
easy transition into covering health and medicine,"
Trafford notes. She first joined the staff at
U.S. News and World Report and then the
Washington Post, where she remains.
Over the years she has worked as editor, reporter
and columnist in the health department.
didnt plan on a career as a writer at first,
either. A political theory major at Bryn Mawr
and philosophy major at Haverford College, she
considered a career in law, but first enrolled
in a graduate journalism program at Columbia University.
There she fell in love with journalism, and an
internship at Newsweek, where she covered
technology, turned into a staff position. Later,
she became a regular contributor to GQ
and Vanity Fair, writing profiles
of scientists and business executives. Her recent
book, Tuxedo Park, tells the story of Alfred
Lee Loomis private laboratory, where experiments
contributed to the development of the atomic bomb,
among other things.
write the scientific portions of the book, Conant
used a combination of Loomis lab notes,
scientific periodicals of the day and newspaper
coverage. She was challenged, she says, "to
keep [the story] on a level so that scientists
would understand the complexity, the achievements
and the breakthroughs, but at the same time I
wouldnt lose the general reader by becoming
writers always keep their readers in mind, and
this is particularly important when writing about
science. Guyer notes that she gears her stories
toward the intelligent but uninformed reader.
She believes people can learn anything as long
theyre told what they need to know when
they need to know it. Nash says she attempts to
draw colorful images with language and avoid any
scientific jargon. She specifically thinks of
her mother, an intelligent person with no scientific
background, when she writes.
told me stories when I was little," she says.
"And at a certain point in my life, I turned
the tables and started telling her stories."
Conant 82 is the author of Tuxedo
Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace
of Science That Changed the Course of World War
II, published by Simon & Schuster in 2002.
She has been a contributing editor for GQ,
Esquire and Vanity Fair, and a reporter
Levy Guyer 67 has taught science writing
workshops in the Johns Hopkins University Master
of Arts in Writing program since 1994, and she
is a visiting professor at Haverford College.
Previously a writer for Science and
the NIH, she now writes commentaries, essays and
articles about bioethics and medicine for newspapers
and journals. She has also developed curriculum
materials in bioethics, science and medicine for
high schools and colleges. Guyer received her
Ph.D. in immunology from the University of California,
Madeleine (Berry) Nash 65, Time
magazine contributor, is the author of El Niño:
Unlocking the Secrets of the Master Weather-Maker,
published by Warner Books in 2002. She is a three-time
winner of the American Association for the Advancement
of Sciences award for science writing in
the magazine category.
Trafford 62 writes the "Second
Opinion" health column for the Washington
Post and hosts HealthTalk, a weekly
feature on the Posts Web site. She was health
editor for the newspaper for 14 years. She is
the author of Crazy Time: Surviving Divorce
and Building a New Life, Harper & Row,
1982; Harpercollins, 1994. She is currently researching
a book on the "Bonus Decades," the period
after middle age but before old age, to be published
by Basic Books.
Fisher Wilson is a contributing editor for The
Scientist. She writes frequently about science
and medicine for various publications, including
Lancet Neurology, Science and UCLA Magazine.