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October 20, 2004: Perspective

Illustration: J.D.King

When the truth isn’t a “good read”
Finding drama in the messiness of science

By Katherine Hobson ’94

Katherine Hobson ’94 covers medicine for U.S. News & World Report.

About a year ago, I was interviewing a medical researcher for a story about cancer, and she mentioned that based on her work, but not on any conclusive studies, she takes an anti-inflammatory every day in the belief it probably helps to stave off some kinds of the disease. I started to type. “But that’s off the record,” she said. I stopped typing. She was understandably reluctant to make a prescription for public health in the pages of a national magazine; given the real, but small, risks of aspirin and ibuprofen, it would be irresponsible without conclusive data to back up her stance. Research has since supported her ideas; recently, a large study was published in a respected journal, the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggesting the ability of aspirin to prevent breast cancer. But high in all the news coverage was a warning that it’s too soon to recommend any woman take aspirin solely as a preventative, and then the caveat I end up writing so often that I should make it a macro in Microsoft Word: “Scientists say further studies are necessary.”

Scientific discovery is incremental – it moves in fits and starts, building on the work of those who came before. It usually edges, rather than leaps, ahead, and even the most impressive advances must be duplicated by other researchers before becoming generally accepted. So it’s rare that a single study leads to an about-face in medical practice, and a successful treatment for a disease is usually the result of a slow accumulation of knowledge over time. It’s hard to cover incremental change. (It’s a whole lot easier, and more dramatic, to write one story saying “the temperature shot up 40 degrees today” than to write minute-by-minute accounts of the change.) Talk up a medical advance too much and you raise false hopes and oversimplify; weigh it down with too many caveats and the reader is left wondering why the heck he spent 10 minutes reading a story the author doesn’t even seem to think is a big deal.

I’m lucky, as my editors realize the complexities of science. They don’t push me to make conclusions that I, a layperson whose last life-science class was high school AP biology, have no business making, and they generally give me enough room to explain the nuances of what I’m covering. Unlike the stock analysts I harangued by phone when I covered business, the researchers and physicians I interview usually are happy to talk to me; each has spent years in a lab focusing on one problem and when reporters pay attention, it’s probably because the work is bearing fruit. But when a scientist’s work is reduced to a pithy or downright inaccurate phrase – say, an incremental advance in cancer research is hyped as a possible “cure” – she understandably feels burned, and probably won’t take any journalist’s call for a while. Readers lose.

The balance between reporting accurately and giving readers a conclusion – and, dare I say it, a “good read” – is a difficult one. It would be easier if scientific literacy, and an understanding of how discoveries are made, were greater. My father is a physician and my mother a medical technologist, and not surprisingly, many dinner conversations veered off into territory best not visited during a meal: the various micro-organisms my mom had seen under a microscope, the highlights of a difficult colonoscopy my dad had performed. But more than making us immune to gross-outs, my parents raised us with a firm belief in the power of the scientific method.

This was essentially our family religion, but even if you believe in a higher power there is room for the scientific method to test hypotheses according to empirical findings. Science is not perfect, and studies can contradict each other during this sorting-out period between theory and acceptance. When you read that the Atkins diet is good for your heart, or that hormone-replacement therapy is to be avoided at all costs, look to the end of the story. If it’s truthful, it should say: “Scientists say further studies are necessary.”

If I can’t give my readers a falsely simplistic conclusion, I can try to convey the inherent messiness of science, which is where much of the drama lies. To do that – to cover the fits, starts, missteps, and blind alleys in science without overhyping or underselling – you’ve either got to know the subject cold yourself or speak with an awful lot of people who do. During the first few years of my journalism career, I was in it for the writing. A good day was one in which I didn’t have to make a single phone call and instead could endlessly tinker with the first paragraph of a feature; I dreamed that I could write so well and cleverly that I could earn my keep writing essays – sort of like this one – based solely on my own musings instead of objective, verifiable facts.

I never got there, and after I started covering medicine I lost that desire. I started to love the phone calls and the interviews, the stuff I previously thought of as the spinach that had to be finished before I could get to the dessert of sitting down to write. Don’t get me wrong: Writing is important. But what’s most important in covering medicine is accuracy and clarity, not clever asides or a punchy style. That doesn’t mean I reprint word for word what my sources tell me; scientists are not always the best at speaking English, and often I use metaphors to make their work more understandable.

I have learned an appreciation for solid reporting, accuracy, and consistency by covering science, a field built on those same values. I’ve seen, over the past few years, how journalism gets into trouble when it values “too-good-to-check” stories and flashy writing over solidly reported, if less dramatic, facts – and pat explanations over shades of gray.

It is still not easy to reconcile the demands of sources and readers, good writing and good reporting, simplicity and nuance. Yet the vast majority of my colleagues in science journalism are trying, daily, to do so. Of course, we all still love a good takeaway. So here’s mine: The next time you see your doctor, ask what she thinks about taking an aspirin every day. end of article


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