Science Writing Smackdown: Henig vs. Shenk, Part I

04cover-395.jpg         shenkcover.jpg

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!

So with that out of the way, David, I'm braced for whatever you have next. Fire away with an example of a sentence in my anxiety article where I was wrong in my word choice, and offer me a better alternative.

DS: The first sentence that caught my eye was this one:

"Watching this video again makes Kagan fairly vibrate with the thrill of rediscovery: here on camera is the young girl who, as an infant, first embodied for him what it meant to be wired to worry."

That phrase, "wired to worry," strongly suggests to me a preset design, the same as a car might be built for speed or a shoe designed for comfort. Perhaps you meant it to suggest that the wiring was an ongoing process and therefore very distinct from the cliche of "hard-wiring." But I'm pretty sure that most readers are going to read it the same way I did. My suggested rephrasing would be something like this:

"Watching this video again makes Kagan fairly vibrate with the thrill of rediscovery: here on camera is the young girl who, as an infant, first demonstrated how astonishingly early the first essential pieces of temperament could develop in a human being. Her core temperament was taking shape before she could walk, talk, or even fully focus her eyes on the world around her."

It's not as catchy, I know, but part of the trick of educating people about the developmental process is, I think, not falling into a familiar shorthand that allows them to quickly roll past a phrase. We don't want the language to be clunky, of course. But we do want them to slow down and think about what we're saying.

I don't know Kagan's work anything like you do, but it also seems to me that this approach puts the focus more properly where it belongs. It sounds to me like the revelation to Kagan was that this core aspect of temperament comes in quite early and can be amazingly stable over time.

RMH: There you have it, I think -- to make all the subtle distinctions that you wanted me to make, you replaced my three words, "wired to worry," with 41. You have to remember that this paragraph is in the early set-up section of the piece, which is already going on for a pretty long time for a set-up, with descriptions of Baby 19 and a little bit of a description of Kagan's research. I agree with you that it's important sometimes for the reader to slow down and think, but I disagree that this is the place in the article to do it. At this section, sort of the "nut graf" of the article, I felt like I needed three words, not 41.

This reminds me of an argument I occasionally have with my husband, who is a professor of political science. In his own writing, he often wants to underscore the tentativeness of some of his findings by using three or four synonyms instead of one good word. It ends up sounding like legalese, throwing out a bunch of caveats and qualifiers just in case. The problem with your suggested phrasing isn't that it's "not as catchy" as mine -- well, maybe it sort of is, given where in the article it would appear. The real problem is that all those extra words don't really edify. I want readers to be so captivated by my intro that they will keep reading and THEN will get all the information they need to put Kagan's findings in perspective. In the case you've cited, I feel like "wired to worry" is a phrase I needed up front to captivate my reader and to sell the rest of the story.

DS: Yes, yes, yes: keeping people reading is 99 percent of the game. I agree. That's why my books take me a ridiculously long 3 years instead of 8 months. And even with all that time, I'm sure, come March, you'll have some excellent suggestions for how some of my sentences could have been sharper (and I'll be happy to post your critique). But we're skirting the real problem here, because I think you've already essentially agreed that "wired to worry," even by your own definition, is simply not correct. You've implied that that phrase is supposed to mean "these traits are present from birth." But haven't we both agreed that Kagan isn't really saying that?

Back to the sentence. I completely respect your need to come up with a short, captivating sentence. Here's an edit that comes in at six words shorter than your original:

"Watching this video again makes Kagan fairly vibrate with the thrill of rediscovery: here on camera is the young girl who, as an infant, first revealed that worry comes early."

RMH: "Worry comes early" is a better phrase, but guess what -- that's not really accurate, either. Kagan is not saying that these high-reactive infants are worrying. What he's saying is that a temperament that predisposes a person to worrying (and also to behavioral inhibition, shyness, a tendency to be inner-directed, and a higher risk of clinical anxiety disorder) relates to a hyper-reactive amygdala, which in an infant creates the specific motor activity he measured -- kicking, arching the back, fussing, crying when exposed to novel stimuli. Later in life, this hyper-reactive amygdala leads to different outward signs: social withdrawal and a kind of freezing behavior in early childhood, interior fretfulness and sometimes clinical anxiety disorders in adolescence and adulthood. These babies aren't worrying early. They are predisposed early to worrying.

I'm not at home at the moment, and the New York Times fact-checker still hasn't returned most of my Kagan books anyway, but I'm pretty sure he would not object to the statement that these traits ARE present from birth. They just look different at different ages. Even at one or two days of age you can see a high-reactive temperament, which in the neonatal period is exhibited by the rate at which the infant sucks on a nipple. There was an experiment that involved feeding newborns sugar water with different concentrations of sweetness. Since I don't have the book at hand, I'm afraid I can't cite the specifics, but I do remember that some babies, when the concentration changed, reacted with a much greater increase in their speed of sucking. I'm pretty sure (I need to get home next week to check this out) that the two-day-old infants who sucked fastest in response to novelty -- the neonatal correlate of high reactivity -- were more likely to grow up to look like the behaviorally inhibited and anxiety-prone children in Kagan's study. I see this as evidence that temperament probably IS present at birth, at least to some degree.

A good place to pause. In Part II, Robin and I will continue to hash out the science of what's present at and before birth, and how best to write about the development of traits.

(Part II is also available.)