John Pearson






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Why don't journalists write about scientists the way they write about chefs?

11 December 2012

I make no secret of the fact that I love to read The New Yorker. Truth be told, I’ve probably read more than 95% of the long features published in the last seven years. And of those many, many pieces, my favorite category is the profile. Maybe because I’m fixated on high-achievers and the rarefied air in which they seem to live. (The academic’s version of tabloid-reading? Bernard-Henri Lévy as Lindsay Lohan?) Maybe just because humans are the most intensely human primates on the globe, and we love nothing better than gossip. Either way, as I was walking back from lunch after having enjoyed Jane Kramer’s piece about Yotam Ottolenghi, a thought struck me: why don’t journalists write about scientists the way they write about chefs? Or visual artists, for that matter? Or musicians?

It’s no secret that scientists are usually pretty disappointed with the quality of the media attention they receive. And we contribute to it. Even professional scientists writing for public consumption often wind up simplifying research in ways that make them blanch in professional company.

But who can blame them? Science is by its nature technical, and there’s no getting around the fact that it involves highly specialized skills, skills that the average American does not make a strong avocational investment in. What we like to read are stories, and stories, unlike most scientific discoveries and all contemporary research, must have a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end. Frankly, the deck is stacked against science writers, and the good find a way to make it work.

But the point I’d like to make has more to do with structure than with content. Because, truth be told, there are approximately five kinds of science stories:

  1. Very good scientist is surfer/iconoclast/rebel outsider. Succeeds by dint of undeniable brilliance, all the while thumbing nose at “the man.”
  2. Huge discovery changes the way we think about ourselves. Discovery must relate to sickness, sex, or the environment.
  3. Outsider is shunned by despotic scientific establishment, soldiers on with theory that might revolutionize human knowledge (but don’t bet on it). Because the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.
  4. Public health story. May or may not include science. Better if racing against the clock.
  5. New discovery proves science you learned in high school was wrong all along. Even if scientists have known it for a long time.

Of course it’s not really this bad. I’ve seen all of these types done well. But consider the difference between types 1 and 3 and artist profiles. The latter, whether of conductors or conceptual artists or Michelin-rated chefs, tend to focus on what makes the subject idiosyncratic and special, what sets her apart. Because our primary conception of artists rests on their style, the choices they make, most profiles focus on situating the subject both within and against the context of their contemporaries.

Science profiles, on the other hand, are mostly about ideas. Which is fair enough. Scientists, as a whole, are not colorful characters. But in my own field, for instance, choice of model animal species, brain area, disease focus, and research question are all key decisions that define the scientific program of an investigator. Even at journals where peer review is blinded, scientists have little problem identifying which lab produced a given result. Scientists have their own kind of creative DNA, and it’s a little surprising that even at the highest-profile magazines, many journalists seem to have little feel for the modes of thought and conceptual frameworks that distinguish scientists from one another. It’s like reading a food writer who couldn’t distinguish meals from Daniel and elBulli.

Is this asking a lot? Maybe. Maybe artists reading New Yorker profiles laugh at the coverage. I don’t know. But James Gleick and Richard Rhodes do a great job, I think, of giving a sense of how scientists’ personalities express themselves through the work they do. Not to mention John McPhee, my standard counterexample to the claim that some topics are too intrinsically boring to hold a reader’s attention.

Take it from a guy who will end up reading the entire food issue, even though his idea of a good meal is take-out pizza: I don’t just want to read about the food; I’d like to understand the chef.