Science Writing Smackdown: Henig vs. Shenk, Part I

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The accomplished science writer Robin Marantz Henig has a fascinating piece about the science of anxiety in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, entitled "Understanding the Anxious Mind." Henig and I have been acquainted for a few years and, I think it's fair to say, have admired each other's work. So when I got in touch to take issue with a few of her word choices, she was open--even eager--to discussing my gripes. We both thought it might be interesting to quibble in public, since this is about trying to help the public understand how each of us becomes who we are. So, let the geek-tussle commence!

DS: Really interesting piece, Robin. It is amazing to learn how inklings of a person's temperament can be detected at such a young age -- as early as 4 months of age, or even 1 month. And as you document, we know that these inklings are real, because longitudinal studies show that they are stable over time. My concern here is in your use of the words "innate" and "inborn," and your phrase "wired to worry." These words strongly suggest that these early temperaments derive straight from a person's genetic instructions. From our initial (off-line) exchange, I gather you didn't mean to imply that. But could you speak to your use of those words and what you mean by them?

RMH: Well, you caught me, sort of. When it comes to some of the phrases I used, like "wired to worry" or "born to fret," I am guilty of trying to come up with something vaguely cute and vaguely memorable.  (Much like your use of the word "smackdown" in your title, above, which isn't literally true, either.)  This is an occupational hazard for journalists, and even more of one for journalists who write about science for a general audience.  I do want to emphasize that these were my terms, not the scientists' -- who often have odd language peccadilloes of their own.  Jerome Kagan, for instance, the psychologist whose work I focused on in my piece,  REALLY didn't want me to use the phrase "anxious brain," which he said is an absurdity.  "The brain can't be anxious," he said.  "It's like calling something a happy kidney." I had to do some last-minute scrambling to change it in the title my editor had already sent to page proof!
I know that your own particular beef, David, is the language we use to describe the gene-environment interaction, which makes words like "innate" and "inborn" especially loaded. But I'd argue that what these words mean is just "present at birth"--an observation, not a presumption about provenance.  Maybe it's time for you and me to go back to the article itself, and see the full sentences in which I used the words that bother you -- and if a casual reader would have made the same assumptions you did.  I'd also like to hear how you would have me rewrite those sentences in a way that makes it clearer that neither I nor the scientists are biological determinists.


DS: I completely agree that this is a very difficult task, to distill very complex science and ideas into easily-understood and hopefully memorable phrases. And it's that much harder to do on deadline, which you had to worry about and which I effectively didn't when I was writing my book. I also think you and I are swimming upstream here: we're working to dispel long-held notions, using tools (specific words) that come loaded with fixed meanings in the public mind. 

I'll be glad to take this sentence by sentence and look at the alternatives. First, though, I want to focus on something you said above. You said you used the words "innate" and "inborn" to mean "present at birth." But do we actually have any indication that these temperaments are truly present at birth? Even one month of infancy is a lot of time for a nascent trait to develop. And from what we understand about gene-environment interaction, it is overwhelmingly likely that there is some significant dynamic-developmental process going on that leads to these traits -- influenced by genes, to be sure, but almost certainly not immune to outside stimulus. Can we agree on this much, before we go further? 

RMH: Yes we can. Specifically, we can agree on two things: that it's a stretch to assume that traits that are measurable at four months were present at birth (though as the mother of two very different babies, I can attest that SOMETHING is present at birth, and it tends to remain pretty consistent in the first months of life); and that environmental influences on gene expression exist not only from the moment of birth, but before. I've long tried to make the case for this second concept when writing about human cloning. Clones seem to be the best argument that two organisms can be distinctly different even when they have identical DNA -- especially if the intrauterine environment is different. Remember the first cloned cat, that made headlines back in 2002? It was a calico, which means its coat coloration depends not just on genes but on which genes turn on and off in utero. (I'm not sure of the genetics involved exactly, but it has something to do with X-inactivation. Coat color genes are carried on the X chromosome, which is why calico cats are almost always female.)  It seemed to me that most of the news reports of the cloned cat's birth missed the learning opportunity it provided, the vivid, graphic demonstration of the fact that the environment can change the way the genes are expressed. I mean, that cloned calico didn't look at all like its DNA donor!  

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David Shenk is a writer on genetics, talent and intelligence. He is the author of Data Smog, The Forgetting, and most recently, The Genius In All of Us. More

David Shenk is the author of six books, including Data Smog ("indispensable"—The New York Times), The Immortal Game ("superb"—The Wall Street Journal), and the bestselling The Forgetting ("a remarkable addition to the literature of the science of the mind."—The Los Angeles Times ). He has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and National Public Radio. Shenk's work inspired the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary The Forgetting and was featured in the Oscar-nominated feature Away From Her. His latest book, The Genius In All Of Us, was published in March 2010. Shenk has advised the President's Council on Bioethics and is a popular speaker. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

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