Ed Yong went to the World Conference of Science Journalists, and came back with both an award (yay!) and some thoughts on embargoes and science journalism. What’s got me thinking is not so much the issue of embargoes – I’m not trying to compete with science journalists, and wouldn’t have time to read all the interesting papers that are out there, even if I had access to them (before or after they’re officially published). Instead, I’m thinking about a side issue (which Mike the Mad Biologist also picked up): “investigative science journalism.”
I’m not sure what Ed and the other journalists mean by “investigative,” but there is a type of science journalism that I enjoy, but which isn’t part of the weekly stories encouraged by press releases. I like it when journalists tell stories that incorporate the history of ideas, that pull together a long series of studies into some kind of coherent tale that gives me a sense of what a community of scientists think, or have thought in the past, or currently disagree about.
Most of the examples that come to mind are books – I don’t know if that’s because those stories are too long to fit in a magazine or newspaper, or if that’s because books sit on my shelf and remind me to re-read them. In any case, I’m talking about things like John McPhee’s Basin and Range and Assembling California (I know there are four books, but those two are my favorites). By the early 1980’s, most geologists accepted plate tectonics (though there were, and still are, hold-outs). But it took time for the theory to trickle down to the general public – my high school Earth Science textbook described continental drift as if it were some kind of fringe idea that probably wasn’t true. McPhee followed several geologists across the US and around the world, and told the stories of the theory, the rocks, and some interesting characters who worked with them. And the books that resulted are wonderful.
Other books that are fun to read, and do a great job of putting research into a larger context include:
- Natalie Angier’s Woman: an Intimate Geograpy
- Carl Zimmer’s Evolution
- Chris Mooney’s Storm World
Are books (and on a smaller scale, articles) like these investigative? I don’t know. There’s a lot of research involved in them – interviews, travel, reading original historical documents. But I don’t really care what they’re called – mostly I care that they exist, and that there are people who can get paid to write them, and that I have the opportunity to read them. (And no, I don’t think that scientists, even scientists who write well, are a good replacement for them. The people who are actively doing the science rarely have the kind of perspective necessary to pull off these kinds of things. We scientists don’t know our own history very well – textbooks distort and simplify it, and everything we’ve seen in our careers is filtered through our biases. And we’re usually too attached to our own models and hypotheses to be entirely fair to competing work.)
Paper-of-the-week articles often include context, especially if they’re written by good journalists. I don’t know if the embargoes help or hurt – maybe they provide the time necessary to research how a study fits into the big picture. But I don’t enjoy those articles as much as the stories that fill the gap between the active research and textbooks, because I think that good journalists tell those stories well.