October 2002
Popular Science: Writing About S&T for the Public

Making Faster Computer Chips

When Galaxies Collide

Understanding Life by Understanding Proteins

Summer at the Bench

The Roundabout Path

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© 2002

 

Bryn Mawr College
A quarterly newsletter on research, teaching, management, policy making and leadership in Science and Technology

Popular Science: Writing About S&T for the Public
By Jennifer Fisher Wilson

The 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.

Mystery 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 disease’s rarity and the likely safety of beef products sold in the United States.

After 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.

In retrospect, some of the initial news coverage of mad cow disease clearly overstated the risk to humans, and in doing so excessively alarmed the public.

Avoiding Hype

Abigail Trafford ’62
photo: Washington Post

"Bad 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 people’s hopes.

For more than 20 years, newspapers, magazines and broadcast news have touted gene therapy’s ability to cure almost everything, from hemophilia to Parkinson’s 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 disease.

Excitement 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 Post’s health editor.

Good science writing captures the excitement and the innovation of science, but it provides context instead of hype, according to Trafford.

Providing Context

"I 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.

People 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.

Jennifer Conant ’82
photo: Peggy Siegal

When writing about science, or anything else for that matter, what’s 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.

"You 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 you’re always having to keep in mind the human factors, the jealousies, the petty competition," Conant says.

Need to Know

Besides 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.

Ruth Levy Guyer ’67

"You can’t pretend to know more than you do, because if you don’t understand it yourself, you can’t explain it. This is true of any kind of writing, but especially with science," says Ruth Guyer ’67, freelance bioethics writer and 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. "It’s got to be totally logical," she says.

Getting 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.

Madeleine Nash ’65

"There’s this myth of the unapproachable scientist, but it totally befuddles me. There are wonderful scientists who are terrific at explaining what they do. I’ve had marvelous teachers in scientists," says J. Madeleine Nash ’65, Time magazine’s senior science correspondent for 15 years. Sometimes she’ll review wording with scientists to make sure that she hasn’t 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.

Degree Not Required

Like many science writers, Nash doesn’t 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.

"A physicist approaching biology is not particularly any better off than I am," Nash says.

Trafford 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 that’s what experts are for," she says.

And 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 learn.

On 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. That’s helped me to be credible," Guyer says.

Career Serendipity

While Guyer finds her background in science useful to her career as a science writer, she didn’t plan it that way. The choice to leave the laboratory and become a science writer didn’t 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 magazine’s "This Week in Science" feature, short summaries describing in lay terms the peer-reviewed research in each issue.

"The 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.

Like Guyer, Nash didn’t 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.

"I’m 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.

"El Niño was global in scope and multidimensional in space and time, and to understand it I had to grapple with nearly 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.

Even so, Nash says, writing the book was like climbing a mountain. "There’s an addictive quality to grappling with and writing about something of such breadth."

The 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.

"That 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 writing.

"Since 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.

Conant didn’t 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.

To 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 wouldn’t lose the general reader by becoming too arcane."

Good 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 they’re 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.

"She 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."

About Our Sources

Jennet 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 for Newsweek.

Ruth 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, Berkeley.

J. 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 Science’s award for science writing in the magazine category.

Abigail Trafford ’62 writes the "Second Opinion" health column for the Washington Post and hosts HealthTalk, a weekly feature on the Post’s 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.

About the Author

Jennifer 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.

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