All of My Faults Are Stress Related

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 There’s a lot of research involved in them – interviews, travel, reading original historical documents.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.


  1. #1 Lockwood
    July 5, 2009

    I love McPhee; I’ve read every book of his I’ve been able to lay my hands on. After Control of Nature, I agree- the two you list are his best geology books. I haven’t read the three others you list, but my favorite recent science read was Life on a Young Planet by Andrew Knoll. I thought he did an admirable job of both pointing out his personal professional biases and trying to be fair to others’ views… and the story itself, of life before the Cambrian, is fascinating. This was the book that first alerted me that the “snowball earth” theory had become widely (though not completely) accepted in the mainstream geo community.

  2. #2 mmr
    July 5, 2009

    What you like seems to be less investigative journalism (tracking money and political influence) than history! Though history is certainly also “investigative.”

    Sometimes journalists write great histories of science–like McPhee. But there’s a whole field of history of science out there, though the journalistic versions usually get a more prominent place on the shelf at Borders. Naomi Oreskes and Martin Rudwick come to mind in the history of geology, and their work is probably more “meaty” for working geologists.

  3. #3 Ron Schott
    July 5, 2009

    When you began describing the journalism of the history of scientific ideas I was convinced you would cite the example of Naomi Oreskes’ The Rejection of Continental Drift. If you haven’t read it yet I highly recommend it – I think it’d be right up your alley.

  4. #4 Kim Hannula
    July 5, 2009

    Ron, you’ve recommended The Rejection of Continental Drift many times, and I keep forgetting to order it when I go to my local bookstore. So I finally just ordered it online.

  5. #5 Thomas M.
    July 5, 2009

    I’m a big fan of the kind of work you’ve described — McPhee in particular (I’m working my way through Annals of the Former World now and I’ve finished most of it, currently on Assembling California). I think this type of material works better in book form than it would in article form, though. Perhaps I’m just a fan of the rambling form and larger context a book would allow for…That said, up to this point, my favorite book in Annals… is Rising From the Plains by a very wide margin. I also second the Rudwick recommendation if you’re looking for a high quality, meaty (to say the least) history of geology text.

  6. #6 Zetetic
    July 5, 2009

    I’m currently reading The Dragon Seekers: How an Extraordinary Circle of Fossilists Discovered the Dinosaurs and Paved the Way for Darwin by Christopher McGowan. I’m only about a quarter of the way into it, but so far it’s very interesting.

    I’m not sure I consider such books to be “investigative”. When I hear terms like “investigative journalism” I always think about reporters uncovering secrets and plots and exposing them to the public. So I think “investigative science journalism” would be somebody trying to dig up scientific scandals. This may not be what’s intended by the term, but it is my impression of it.

    I don’t know why anyone would need to qualify the word journalism with the word investigative. Isn’t all journalism supposed to be investigating something and reporting on it? It seems even more redundant when speaking of science journalism, since science is investigative by definition. Of course, since journalism has become a bit of a joke, with journalists sensationalizing everything and not bothering to do basic fact checking anymore, perhaps we need the term “investigative journalism” to describe when reporters are actually doing their homework.

  7. #7 Phyllograptus
    July 6, 2009

    Most people who follow and post on this blog seem to be hard rock types, but I’m willing to show my soft rock bias and recommend some fascinating geology books. I’m not sure if you can call these investigative journalism, definitely more historical and biographical, but both are very well written and enthralling, telling the stories of the birth of modern geology and two geologists who have to be considered its fathers. One book was a bestseller, “The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology” by Simon Winchester and the other is not as well known but I think is better written, “The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of Earth’s Antiquity” by Jack Repcheck.
    Along the side of straight history a wonderful book is “Salt: A World History” by Mark Kurlansky. A truly fascinating book describing how that the common mineral salt has influenced human development and settlement, and shaped countries and wars. Definitely worth a read.

  8. #8 Andrew
    July 6, 2009

    Stephen Jay Gould was a superb writer of essays on the paleontology of geoscience: how ideas arose and what they meant in their time and how they influence things today. I’m thinking of his longtime column in Natural History magazine, which are collected in several books.

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