What Even Counts as Science Writing Anymore?

The pandemic made it clear that science touches everything, and everything touches science.

A beaker with a feather pen in it.
Getty; The Atlantic

I entered 2020 thinking of myself as a science writer. I ended the year less sure.

While the first sparks of the COVID-19 pandemic ignited at the end of 2019, I was traipsing through a hillside in search of radio-tagged rattlesnakes, allowing myself to get electrocuted by an electric catfish, and cradling loggerhead-turtle hatchlings in the palm of my hand. As 2020 began and the new coronavirus commenced its ruinous sweep of the world, I was marveling at migratory moths and getting punched in the pinky by a very small and yet surprisingly powerful mantis shrimp. We share a reality with these creatures, but we experience it in profoundly different ways. The rattlesnake can sense—perhaps see—the body heat of its mammalian prey. The catfish can detect the electric fields that other animals involuntarily produce. The moths and the turtles can both sense the magnetic field of the planet and use it to guide their long navigations. The mantis shrimp sees forms of light that we cannot, and it processes colors in a way that no one fully understands. Each species has its own unique coterie of senses. Each is privy to its own narrow slice of the total sights, smells, sounds, and other stimuli that pervade the planet.

Cover of 'The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2021'
This article was excerpted from The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2021.

My plan was to write a book about those sensory experiences—a travelogue that would take people through the mind of a bat, a bird, or a spider. Such a journey, “not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes,” as Marcel Proust once said, is “the only true voyage.”

It quickly became the only voyage I could make. As the pandemic spread, the possibility of international travel disappeared. Commuting turned from daily reality to fading memory. Restaurants, bars, and public spaces closed. Social gatherings became smaller, infrequent, and subject to barriers of cloth and distance. My world contracted to the radius of a few blocks, but the sensory worlds of other animals stayed open, magical and Narnia-like, accessible through the act of writing.

When I had to pause my book leave to report full-time on the pandemic, those worlds closed too.

In theory, 2020 should have been a banner year for science writers. A virus upended the world and gripped its attention. Arcana of epidemiology and immunology—super-spreading, herd immunity, cytokine storms, mRNA vaccines—became dinner-table fodder. Public-health experts (and pseudo-experts) gained massive followings on social media. Anthony Fauci became a household name. The biggest story of the year—perhaps of the decade—was a science story, and science writers seemed ideally placed to tell it.

When done properly, covering science trains a writer to bring clarity to complexity, to embrace nuance, to understand that everything new is built upon old foundations, and to probe the unknown while delimiting the bounds of their own ignorance. The best science writers learn that science is not a procession of facts and breakthroughs, but an erratic stumble toward gradually diminished uncertainty; that peer-reviewed publications are not gospel and even prestigious journals are polluted by nonsense; and that the scientific endeavor is plagued by all-too-human failings such as hubris. All of these qualities should have been invaluable in the midst of a global calamity, where clear explanations were needed, misinformation was rife, and answers were in high demand but short supply.

But the pandemic hasn’t just been a science story. It is an omnicrisis that has warped and upended every aspect of our lives. While the virus assaulted our cells, it also besieged our societies, seeping into every crack and exploiting every weakness it could find. It found many. To understand why the United States has fared so badly against COVID-19, despite its enormous wealth and biomedical savvy, one must understand not just matters of virology but also the nation’s history of racism and genocide, its carceral state, its nursing homes, its historical attitudes toward medicine and health, its national idiosyncrasies, the algorithms that govern social media, and the grossly deficient character of its 45th president. I barely covered any of these issues in an 8,000-word piece I wrote for The Atlantic in 2018 about whether the United States was ready for the next pandemic. 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?

The all-encompassing nature of epidemics was clear to the German physician Rudolf Virchow, who investigated a typhus outbreak in 1848. Virchow knew nothing about the pathogen responsible for typhus, but he correctly realized that the outbreak was possible only because of poverty, malnutrition, poor sanitation, dangerous working conditions, and inequities perpetuated by incompetent politicians and negligent aristocrats. “Medicine is a social science and politics is nothing but medicine in larger scale,” Virchow wrote.

This viewpoint was championed by many of his contemporaries, but it waned as germ theory waxed. In a bid to be objective and politically neutral, scientists focused their attention on pathogens that cause disease and ignored the societal factors that make disease possible. The social and biomedical sciences were cleaved apart, separated into different disciplines, departments, and scholars. Medicine and public health treated diseases as battles between individuals and germs, while sociologists and anthropologists dealt with the wider context that Virchow had identified. This rift began to narrow in the 1980s, but it still remains wide. COVID-19 landed in the middle of it. Throughout much of 2020, the United States (and the White House, specifically) looked to drugs and vaccines for salvation while furiously debating about masks and social distancing. The latter were the only measures that controlled the pandemic for much of the year; billed as “non-pharmaceutical interventions,” they were characterized in opposition to the more highly prized biomedical panaceas. Meanwhile, social interventions such as paid sick leave and universal health care, which could have helped essential workers protect their livelihoods without risking their health, were barely considered.

To the extent that the pandemic has been a science story, it’s also been a story about the limitations of what science has become. Perverse academic incentives that reward researchers primarily for publishing papers in high-impact journals have long pushed entire fields toward sloppy, irreproducible work; during the pandemic, scientists have flooded the literature with similarly half-baked and misleading research. Pundits have urged people to “listen to the science,” as if “the science” is a tome of facts and not an amorphous, dynamic entity, born from the collective minds of thousands of individual people who argue and disagree about data that can be interpreted in a range of ways. The long-standing disregard for chronic illnesses such as dysautonomia and myalgic encephalomyelitis meant that when thousands of COVID-19 “long-haulers” kept experiencing symptoms for months, science had almost nothing to offer them. The naive desire for science to remain above politics meant that many researchers were unprepared to cope with a global crisis that was both scientific and political to its core. “There’s an ongoing conversation about whether we should do advocacy work or ‘stick to the science,’” Whitney Robinson, a social epidemiologist, told me. “We always talk about how these magic people will take our findings and implement them. We send those findings out, and knowledge has increased! But with COVID, that’s a lie!”

Virchow’s experiences with epidemics radicalized him, pushing the man who would become known as the “father of pathology” to advocate for social and political reforms. COVID-19 has done the same for many scientists. Many of the issues it brought up were miserably familiar to climate scientists, who drolly welcomed newly traumatized epidemiologists into their ranks. In the light of the pandemic, old debates about whether science (and science writing) is political now seem small and antiquated. Science is undoubtedly political, whether scientists want it to be or not, because it is an inextricably human enterprise. It belongs to society. It is interleaved with society. It is of society.

This is true even of areas of science that seem to be sheltered within some protected corner of intellectual space. My first book was about the microbiome, a bustling area of research that went unnoticed for centuries because it had the misfortune to arise amid the ascent of Darwinism and germ theory. With nature red in tooth and claw, and germs as the root of disease, the idea of animals benefiting from cooperative microbes was anathema. My next book will show that our understanding of animal senses has been influenced by the sociology of science—whether scientists believe one another, whether they successfully communicate their ideas, whether they publish in a prestigious English journal or an obscure foreign-language one. That understanding has also been repeatedly swayed by the trappings of our own senses. Science is often caricatured as a purely empirical and objective pursuit. But in reality, a scientist’s interpretation of the world is influenced by the data she collects, which are influenced by the experiments she designs, which are influenced by the questions she thinks to ask, which are influenced by her identity, her values, her predecessors, and her imagination.

When I began to cover COVID-19 in 2020, it became clear that the usual mode of science writing would be grossly insufficient. Much of journalism is fragmentary: Big stories are broken down into small components that can be quickly turned into content. For science writing, that means treating individual papers as a sacrosanct atomic unit and writing about them one at a time. But for an omnicrisis, this approach leads only to a messy, confusing, and ever-shifting mound of jigsaw pieces. What I tried to do instead was unite those pieces. I wrote a series of long features about big issues, attempting to synthesize vast amounts of information and give readers a steady rock upon which they could observe the torrent of information rushing past them without drowning in it. I treated the pandemic as more than a science story, interviewing sociologists, anthropologists, historians, linguists, patients, and more. And I found that the writing I gravitated toward did the same. The pandemic clarified that science is inseparable from the rest of society, and that connection works both ways. Science touches on everything; everything touches on science. The walls between beats seemed to crumble. What, I found myself asking, even counts as science writing?

There has long been a view of science writing that imagines it’s about opening up the ivory tower and making its obscure contents accessible to the masses. But this is a strange model, laden with troubling corollaries. It implicitly assumes that science is beleaguered and unappreciated, and that unwilling audiences must be convinced of its importance and value. It equates science with journals, universities, and other grand institutions that are indeed opaque and cloistered. And treating science as a special entity that normies are finally being invited to take part in is also somewhat patronizing.

Such invitations are not anyone’s to extend. Science is so much more than a library of publications, or the opinions of doctorate holders and professors. Science writing should be equally expansive. Ultimately, What even counts as science writing? is a question we shouldn’t be able to answer. A woman’s account of her own illness. A cultural history of a color. An investigation into sunken toxic barrels. A portrait of a town with a rocket company for a neighbor. To me, these pieces and others that I selected for the 2021 edition of the Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology show that science is intricately woven into the fabric of our lives—so intricately that science writing should be difficult to categorize.

There is an obvious risk here. Of the typical journalistic beats, science is perhaps the only one that draws us out of our human trappings. Culture, politics, business, sport, food: These are all about one species. Science covers the other billions, and the entirety of the universe besides. I feel its expansive nature keenly. I have devoted most of my career to writing about microbes and lichens, hagfish and giraffes, duck penises and hippo poop. But I do so now with a renewed understanding that even as we step away from ourselves, we cannot fully escape. Our understanding of nature has been profoundly shaped by our culture, our social norms, and our collective decisions about who gets to be a scientist at all. And our relationship with nature—whether we succumb to it, whether we learn from it, whether we can save it—depends on our collective decisions too.

This article was excerpted from Ed Yong’s introduction in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2021.

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