Why It’s So Hard to Write About Science

Understanding something like a pandemic requires engagement with more than just biology: Your weekly guide to the best in books

A double helix of DNA made out of words from the article
The Atlantic

COVID-19 put new and unexpected demands on science writers. For the famed journalist David Quammen, writing a book about it meant playing a constant game of catch-up, because, as Joshua Sokol writes, the science “refused to stay still.” Today, those on the beat are also up against a heightened mistrust of expertise, making the job even harder. Deborah Birx’s book on the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic clarifies the dangers of this attitude. She gives readers a sense of some of the misinformation that was coming from inside the White House—and the regret she felt at not challenging Donald Trump more assertively, mentioning an instance when the president “seemed to advocate consuming disinfectant” on live television, as Richard J. Tofel writes. Tofel makes the case that accounts like Birx’s are important; by providing a record of the government’s failings, the book can help us understand why we suffered such monumental losses in 2020.

Writing about certain corners of science, like medicine, can present other obstacles. Even when an illness has visible manifestations, it can be hard to put into words what’s going on behind the scenes. In her book, Rachel Aviv takes on the subject of psychiatry, exploring how it has intersected with, or defined, the lives and experiences of her subjects—and herself. As Jordan Kisner writes, psychiatry is “a limited and constantly shifting discipline, deeply influenced by the foibles and fashions of culture.” Something similar could be said about the challenges of describing viruses. HIV, a tiny virus with only nine genes, “upended an entire social world,” leaving unhealed “emotional scars,” Joseph Osmundson writes. Still, we “struggle to categorize” what it and all viruses really are—there’s still debate over whether they’re living organisms or not.

Perhaps what makes this writing unique, and uniquely difficult to get right, is what Osmundson points to: the impossibility of categorizing it. But Ed Yong argues that that’s how it should be. As he notes, covering COVID demanded not only engagement with biology and virology, but an understanding of racism, U.S. history, social media, and America’s carceral state. In other words, to write about science is to write about everything—and that’s as hard as it sounds.

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What We’re Reading

a photo of David Quammen

Alexis Joy Hagestad for The Atlantic

The science writer every science nerd wants you to read

“Science writing as a larger guild is in a tricky spot. It’s needed, yes. Future viral outbreaks are assured, ecosystems are collapsing, and the climate crisis rages on. But conspiracy-minded politics, the ceaseless chaos of social media, and a rising skepticism toward expertise make it harder than ever for anyone to establish themselves as a trustworthy source of information.”

A photo of Deborah Birx

Doug Mills / The New York Times / Redux

The clearest account yet of how Trump’s team botched the pandemic

“Birx’s refusal to publicly oppose Trump during her time in the White House continues to haunt her reputation. Her subsequent interviews—like her book—have been revealing, but they’ve also often been criticized as too little, too late. This criticism has some merit. Some cynics may believe that she has written her book to obscure the record. I’m more inclined to believe that she continues to be motivated by her own sense of duty, and wants the rest of us to see what she saw.”

a drawing of a face in profile with a person inside the head

Hoi Chan

The diagnosis trap

“One of the pleasures of this book is its resistance to a clear and comforting verdict, its desire to dwell in unknowing. At every step, Aviv is nuanced and perceptive, probing cultural differences and alert to ambiguity, always filling in the fine-grain details. Extracting a remarkable amount of information from archival material as well as living interview subjects, she brings all of these people to life, even the two whom she never met.”

illustration of the outline of a man

Ina Jang

The thin line between sickness and health

“Some scientists consider viruses not fully dead, because they can copy themselves, but not fully living, either, because they need a host cell to help them do it. In living organisms, cells divide in multiple rounds, one to two to four to eight. Viruses can make thousands of copies in one round of replication. These peculiar life forms have likely been around as long as, or longer than, life on this planet.​”

a beaker with a feather

Getty; The Atlantic

What even counts as science writing anymore?

“When this pandemic started, my background as a science writer, and one who had specifically reported on pandemics, was undoubtedly useful, but to a limited degree—it gave me a half-mile head start, with a full marathon left to run. Throughout the year, many of my peers caviled about journalists from other beats who wrote about the pandemic without a foundation of expertise. But does anyone truly have the expertise to cover an omnicrisis that, by extension, is also an omnistory?”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Maya Chung. The book she’s reading next is Kibogo, by Scholastique Mukasonga.

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