November 18, 2006KR BlogEthicsKRReadingWriting

An Interview with Michael Lemonick, Part I

Michael Lemonick is a senior science writer for Time Magazine, where he has written over twenty cover stories about topics like particle physics, Antarctica, and dinosaurs. He is also the author of The Light at the Edge of the Universe: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Cosmology (Villard Books, 1993), Other Worlds: The Search for Life in the Universe (Simon & Schuster, 1998) and Echo of the Big Bang (Princeton University Press, 2003).

After hearing him speak at the NYU Journalism School, I asked if he would mind talking a bit about science journalism for the KR Blog readers. Here, he offers his thoughts on the hardest science to write about, the cool factor of astrophysics and the ethics of presenting complicated science for a non-expert audience.

Liz Lopatto: How did you get started in journalism? You were an economics major, I think you said?

Michael Lemonick: Well, yes, I was. But that was only because I had not figured out anything I was actually interested in during college–seriously–and I had to major in something. Economics turned out to be the path of least resistance. I didn’t do any journalism. Journalism had not occurred to me by that point, and that’s mostly because science journalism was not really a very prominent field back then, so when I thought of journalism, I thought of political reporting, and that didn’t interest me at all. This was right during Watergate, during and after, so when you said “journalism,” you thought of meeting seedy guys in raincoats on street corners, or going into some war zone and getting shot at. That didn’t appeal to me at all. Journalism just wasn’t even worth thinking about.

I spent several years after college in low-level jobs that didn’t have much career potential. But a few years after I graduated, I was so sick of that. And this was around the time that science journalism suddenly became a lot more prominent, with the founding of new magazines–there were beginning to be science sections in magazines and newspapers. And suddenly journalism took on a new meaning for me, because I was interested in science. Not interested enough to major it in [laughs], but interested in a non-technical level. That’s when I suddenly realized science journalism was something I might enjoy doing.

So I went back to graduate school for that, at Columbia. It was one of the better-known ones.

LL: Why astrophysics? It seems to be a major interest, and what your books are about.

ML: Right, that’s the thing I’m most interested in, and always have been, since I was a kid. My father was a physicist and he used to talk about that sort of stuff in a very enthusiastic and appealing way. In fact, that’s what fooled me, because I loved hearing about it and learning what amazing things they were finding inside the atom and at the outer edge of the universe. And then I went to college and tried to major in astrophysics and was like, “Oh my God, this is really hard.” I really loved it but it was at the level of content where it sort of lost the wonder of it all–when you’re sitting in a laboratory dropping ball bearings to measure the force of gravity and then calculations–there’s no wonder there, just ball bearings. Or sitting in a lecture hall, or solving equations, you know, all that stuff. Using Greek letters a lot. I wasn’t interested in using Greek letters. I wanted to know how the universe began. So that’s why I was very interested in those subjects, and why I end up writing about them.

Is it difficult for you to write science stories for things you don’t necessarily have a background in?

ML: It’s certainly harder. What that just means is that I have to ask more questions, and ask for more basic explanations than I might for other areas I’m more familiar with, but my strong belief is that with a bit of effort, I can understand pretty much any area of science at the level I need to in order to explain it to–well, to you. Except mathematics, which I don’t think is possible to write about in a coherent way. Mostly. There’s a very small number of things.

LL: Do you ever worry about oversimplifying research findings? How do you balance simplifying research so that the general public can understand it and maintaining a level of integrity to the findings?

ML: I try to balance, yes. Basically, anything you write at a popular level is going to be somewhat false because the only way to really accurately represent what the scientist is doing is just to print the scientific paper, which nobody can understand, but which is complete. Anything else is a simplification, which at some level is going to be wrong. The question is how far down that road–it is a balancing act, because by definition, it’s going to be false at some level, but it also has to be readable. And some scientists are much more sophisticated about that fact than others.

I actually teach a course at Princeton that I teach with a scientist, and the topic of this seminar is “Science and the Media,” and that’s one of the things we talk about, how science is portrayed through the media, and how good a job the media does. And what the forces are that drive that transformation from the lab to the newspaper–you should take this course, it’s really interesting. [laughs]

Some scientists are of course far more sophisticated than others at understanding the necessity to simplify, and some are maybe even too loose. I remember one sort of appalling incident where I was at an astronomy conference. There was a press conference there about some new results from the Hubble telescope. And the next day, a story appeared in a major newspaper that shall remain nameless–a front-page story–that pretty much got the significance of what these scientists had said completely wrong. I mean, completely wrong. And you know, all the journalists there were scratching their heads. I went up to one of the scientists, and said, “You didn’t say this.”

And he said, “Yeah, but who cares? It’s The New York Times! Isn’t that amazing? I’m so proud!” You know, so it’s basically this scientist was so loose about it–“I don’t care if they got it wrong, I got my name in the paper.” And others are like, “I don’t care if you got it 99% right and the other 1% is a matter of interpretation. It’s not 100% right. I am furious!” So in a way, that’s the central problem of science journalism.

LL: Are there any specific guidelines you keep in mind for performing this balancing act, or is it always very story-specific?

ML: It’s always story-specific, and I don’t think guidelines–I don’t know how guidelines could exist. My guideline is, if it feels about right, then it is about right. It’s a matter of judgment. It’s an art and not a science. And any guideline–I once was looking into a freelance job of writing some textbook chapter, and they said, “This has to be pitched at an eighth-grade level, and here’s how you tell: you use the formula of words per sentence times syllables per word divided by the hypotenuse of something. It has to be that.” And I can’t write that way!

So whenever somebody gives me guidelines, I’m very skeptical. Let me give you another example. A number of years ago, a major newspaper that shall remain nameless had a front-page story about a potential cure for cancer that was incredibly effective in mice. And if you read through the story, there were no facts that were incorrect. And yet, the way the story was written, and the way it was placed in the newspaper gave the impression to millions of readers that we were about to cure cancer, like, you know, if you’re dying, just hold on a couple of years and it’s all going to be fixed. And there was a huge uproar and doctors were deluged and so on, and of course that impression was completely wrong–the impression that cancer was on the way out. But there was no fact in the story that was incorrect. The key thing that was there but buried is that it’s very easy to cure cancer in mice. Cancer has been cured in mice hundreds of times. And never yet has one of those cures turned into an effective cure for humans. So this is a very important thing.

If you’re writing about that kind of thing, in a real sense the most honest way to write a story like that is to write a lede [the opening lines of a newspaper story, which summarize what the rest of the story is about] that says, “In a discovery that will most likely have no consequences for human health, scientists announced today that“.” Really, that’s the most honest way to do it. But if you give that to an editor, the editor will say, “What is this? I can’t run a story like this. Nobody’s going to read a story like this.” And yet, that’s the most truthful story you can write. So those of us trying to make a living at this find that’s a dilemma. You’ve got to lure people into a story, and to do that you maybe have to hold off on the negative aspects until a little later. But is that honest? Is that dishonest? What is it? That’s another part.

Part two of the interview will appear tomorrow. Past interviews include: Claire Messud (here and here) and Marisha Pessl (here and here).