The Alfred and Julia Hill Lecture
University of Tennessee
March 17, 1997
©1997 by Jon Franklin
I wanted to be a science writer for the same reason that many of you probably wanted to be scientists. For my generation, at least in our youth, truth and beauty were as one. I dabbled in poetry and paleontology, astronomy and architecture. I finally chose writing because it gave me art and science as well. I'd never heard the phrase "science writer" but science was always my subject.
When I went into daily newspapering I told my editor I wanted to be a science writer. He grunted and said the paper didn't need one of those. But history was against him, and the young kid he'd hired had a talent for finding science in any story he was assigned. Early on I turned a story about the city's rat eradication program into a piece that could have blended seamlessly with Zinsser's Rats, Lice and History. In my hands a zoning story metamorphosed into a piece on urban demographics. A school bond issue assignment came back to my editor in the form of an un-rejectable profile of a chemistry teacher. The editors grumbled but the readers loved it – and soon everyone outside the paper referred to me as a "science writer." I will never forget the great victory it was, the first time my boss called me that.
Or at least it seemed a victory at the time. Now it makes me incomparably sad. I was so young. We all were. And so, then, was our world.
World War II was the turning point of our age. After that science ceased to be an obscure practice of erratic geniuses with bubbling test tubes and Van de Graaff generators. Science won the war and produced the industrial momentum that carried us into a time of great progress.
But high technology had a split personality. Its very conception was shrouded in secret, so that it both existed and didn't exist. I don't know about Oak Ridge but if you look at a vintage map of central New Mexico, circa 1945, Los Alamos just wasn't there. You could see its lights from Santa Fe, but it wasn't there. Military necessity notwithstanding, I think the secret kept so well in part because it struck a Freudian harmony. We were afraid. We were ashamed. Maybe those are not the correct words, but whatever was happening was at least in one respect like sex, in that it could not bear public witness.
Afterward science remained separate from what we thought of as "normal life." Some of us kids were interested in science, but others thought us odd. At one point I argued with one of my teachers that human beings would soon travel in space. The teacher called my mother, and my mother was so concerned she took me to a psychiatrist. He gave me a tongue-lashing about terrorizing grownups, and reassured my mother I was just going through a phase.
The strangeness of science to the average American was a measure of their denial. I have just spent several years reading from the Fifties, everything from comic books to Look magazine, and science was oozing into contemporary life through every open pore, changing and redefining it at every level. Portable radios, automatic transmissions, antibiotics became commonplace. Television flickered alive. In the wake of agricultural change the great migration from the farm to the city was completed. Society got more complex and interwoven. This was all accompanied by a bright, Mary Poppins optimism that even sounded a bit tinny at the time.
I mean, it was bizarre. The optimism was a thin veneer over what I can only call stark terror. The world, we were told, could vanish in two hours. Guided missiles would later cut that to fifteen minutes. We were taught to crawl under our desks when the sirens went, and I think the grownups had convinced themselves that might really help. But we knew better. I'm talking grade school, now.
Nuclear terror pervaded all of life, subsuming deeper terrors that were ultimately more important. Progress was wonderful but there was the feeling we were outdriving our cultural lights. Men whose fathers had plowed fields with mules now earned their livelihoods sitting at desks, moving bits of paper. Women prepared canned food, watched television . . . my God, they even wore pants! The children were unemployed and out of control, and the phrase "juvenile delinquency" was introduced into the common language. There was poison into the water – fluoride, it was. Joe McCarthy waved a handful of documents that he said proved the state department was full of communists . . . and the nation believed him.
My point, lest we squirm by it, is that the very fabric of the postwar era was a tapestry of science and technology, and if its woof was optimism and innocence its warp was the deepest kind of horror and the most degrading kind of corruption.
FROM THE BEGINNING a few journalists had written about things scientific, of course, but they were few. It wasn't until the Sixties that journalism could no longer ignore science. Editors had to do something. "Doing something," to an editor, means assigning someone to it. Ah, the fates, they are fickle. Something pops into an editor's head, he scans the newsroom, and his eyes come to rest on you. Take him. He's not doing anything important at the moment. Just like that, your life changes. Walter Sullivan, a name you may recognize, was a music writer.
Science meanwhile was expanding far ahead of the average literacy curve.
When Sputnik went up in 1957 my science teacher, who was also the coach, gathered us all around to reassure us that it was all a Big Red Lie. There was no Sputnik. He knew that because it violated one of the basic laws of physics, to wit: What goes up must come down. There were, as I say, two Americas.
Physics was already an industry, having followed a growth curve that would later be duplicated by other sciences. There were thousands of physicists at work, discovering things, but I'd like to focus here on an observation made by a fellow called C.P. Snow.
Snow was a British physicist who had helped build the bomb and then later joined the cold war weapons bureaucracy. But he was also a novelist (and a rather good one), and as a novelist he was required to attend numerous academic cocktail parties. Because he wrote about the administration of science these gatherings attracted faculty members from both the sciences and the humanities.
THOSE OF YOU whose existence predates the popularity of Perrier will remember the cocktail party as the high water mark of civilized boredom. Snow, in the grip of this boredom, amused himself by observing his fellow party-goers. And he noticed something rather odd: Scientists and humanists had a marked tendency to drift apart. It wasn't that the two groups hated each other, but they had little in the way of common language or interests. They tended to think differently. It was awkward for a physicist and a rhetorician to discuss child-rearing. They were polite, ate the olives out of their martinis, and drifted on in search of more suitable companions. The humanists and scientists aggregated in separate groups, birds of a feather.
What Snow observed was a cleavage that would grow for the remainder of the century. Our culture was separating into two parts, scientists and everyone else. Most people were technologically ignorant. Those in the know composed an increasingly elite aristocracy that held power by its command of counterintuitive knowledge.
This was not new. Since the beginning of the Enlightenment people had tended to be either very literate in science or not literate at all. This ground was famously fought over in the Eighteenth Century by the rationalist Voltaire and the romanticist Rousseau. Voltaire had his way in the end, but Rousseaueans have often formed a separate class of technological naysayers. After World War II the schism was exacerbated by the pace of technological events. By 1960 it was palpable even at an academic reception.
The rift was definitely there, and it was definitely increasing, and while we may argue about the social seismology involved there is one thing that any science writer can tell you for certain. And that is that the laboratory was on one side of the fault line, and the newsroom the other.
THE RIVER OF LANGUAGE is deep. Most journalists who occupy beats are called "reporters," as in "court reporter", "city hall reporter" or "Washington reporter" – at least until they became columnists or pundits. So it's remarkable that anyone who got the science beat instantly became a "science writer." But the universal experience on the science beat was that the reporting was a piece of cake. There was news everywhere, and people were eager to give it to you. The difficult part was figuring out what they were talking about and reducing it to the vernacular.
Everything changed when you crossed the cultural barricades. The language underwent dramatic conversions, as did perceptions of relevance. Scientists saw the world as theory and fact, observation and prediction, statistical significance and probability. The rest of the world titrated experience in terms of motive and morality, right and justice, miracles and fate.
In some respects Walter Sullivan, who covered the physical sciences in a day when scientists were still revered, had it easy. If the reader misunderstood black holes or the space-time continuum, little harm was done. But when the second generation of science writers came along the action was in biology and medicine. There is a law of psychology that says our perspective on any given subject is degraded by its proximity to our selves—which is probably why we know more about astronomy than we do about human nature. In any event biology was closer, the reader was full of prejudices, and what you don't know about medicine can indeed hurt you. A lot of people are killed by their ignorance of their own bodies.
The first of my cohort came along about the time electron microscopes produced the first images of viruses. Suddenly everyone was talking about viruses. Viruses were indeed important, scientifically, because they contained all the essential elements of genetic programming. If you understood biology you knew that very quickly now somebody was going to figure out how the genetic code was packed in there. And people tried to write that story.
But what caught the interest of editors and the public? Not some esoterica about replication. No, no, no! Everyone wanted to know whether or not the virus was alive. The lay culture was about a hundred years behind the molecular biologists, and was thinking in terms of vital principle. Viruses could vacillate between being a crystal and being a piece of life, and people were stunned by the mechanistic implications. In the mid Fifties the popular press printed endless discussions of whether or not viruses were alive. The reporters went to all the right scientists and asked all the wrong questions.
They knew they were the wrong questions, they had to know. Certainly the scientists knew. But what was important wasn't what got into print. A few years later the discovery the genetic code in DNA came as a total shock to the public psyche.
This is the way it was. Biochemistry was deconstructing life and people wanted to know if fluoride was really a poison. They still do, many of them. Science writers mentioned life in the universe and the public thought UFO. We wanted to talk about cancer science. What they wanted was hope and miracle cures.
Scientists are forever complaining that they are misunderstood and misrepresented, and I agree. But imagine what it's like to be the guy in the middle, to be caught up in the distortion process, to find yourself bargaining passionately for a tad more accuracy in a story, say, about UFOs or cold fusion.
So we weren't science reporters, we were science writers, and our job was interpretation. We science writers learned how sausage was made, and worked within the system to communicate more clearly and more accurately, not to say more truthfully. But the distortion began as soon as the copy left our hands.
No, let me be brutally honest. Distortion began the very moment we conceived the story, as we angled our perspective to please our editors. As soon as we picked up the phone we started censoring ourselves, second-guessing the story, trying somehow make something useful out of whatever we had. A lot of my colleagues will deny this, but I think the result speaks for itself.
Science, whatever its complaints about journalism, almost always came out on the glorious end of the story. That's why it could stay above the fray. Our tendency, with certain exceptions, was to idolize science. The public bought this. Science was Teflon, science spoke for Truth. In my era we didn't do investigative reporting on science, except maybe around the edges. Newsrooms are intensely political places and muckraking is a weapon wielded by kill reporters against political hard targets. We never, ever, went after science. Science was sacrosanct.
Scientists thought of themselves as apolitical. That they had that luxury was a measure of the privilege they enjoyed. In our political system nothing is apolitical. As soon as science started being financed by public dollars it was political. Science was the darling of both parties. Liberals had backed science from the very beginning of the Enlightenment, and conservatives had come aboard because of the Cold War. Scientists, innocents that they were, confused being in political favor with being apolitical.
It is useful to think of science as the faith of the Enlightenment. Scientists hate this. They don't want the responsibilities of priesthood. But the role is embedded in the most fundamental first dogma of Enlightenment philosophers and scientists. In the Medieval we thought the world was an illusion, created by Satan, and it was faith, the wisdom of the heart, that was pure. Now we think the world is reality and faith is an illusion. I have a whole lecture I give about how we cast scientists as priests, in their white cloaks, with their stethoscopes or whatever. Oh, sure, beginning with Newton science gave religion lip service, but with every "amen" they moved God yet another step away from daily life, until they had Him tucked back somewhere behind the big bang. Science can deny its religious role as much as it likes, but when it's done denying we'll all genuflect. This sacred atmosphere was the air a science writer breathed.
The human mind was a duality, theme and counter-theme. History was made of that. In the Medieval, rationality was a counter-theme; in the Enlightenment, Medieval thinking became a counter-theme to science. Such thinking favors emotional truth over empirical truth. I referred earlier to Voltaire and Rousseau. Voltaire championed science, reason and progress; Rousseau's themes were echoed in a series of uprisings in which peasants wrecked the mechanical looms that were putting cottage weavers out of business. A number of insurgents were caught and hanged. Legend says that Ned Ludd, their dimwitted leader, was among them. He was the Forrest Gump of his time. Many remember him today as a martyr.
By the Seventies, when I went to work in Baltimore, Snow's cultural gap had become a chasm. Earlier science writers had found ignorance a problem; now there was hostility as well. You had to be an oyster not to notice it. Many journalists turned against science, were articulate about it. Animal rights activists called you at 3 a.m. and told you what dress your daughter had worn to class that day.
I am aware that a most Americans still tell pollsters they believe in science. But talk to those people; the so-called "science" they believe in includes astrology, yoga and ESP. They don't know what science IS. In one study of American science literacy, half did not understand that the earth travels around the sun. Only 6 percent of adults could be considered scientifically literate. More than half the students at Hollins College believed in ghosts and mental telepathy.
If you believe in the power of the press the most frightening poll was taken at the Columbia graduate school of journalism, one of my profession's most elite institutions. 57% of the student journalists believed in ESP, 57% believed in dousing, 47% in aura reading, and 25% in the lost continent of Atlantis. Another poll showed that two thirds of newspaper managing editors thought humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, and that there was a "dark" side of the moon, upon which light never fell.
IN THE LATE 1970s I was forced to rethink my journalistic strategy. I had been reporting and explaining discoveries, but my stories were not being widely read.
I generally used the word "science" early in the story, thinking it would attract readers. The word generally ended up in the headline. But I now realized that the effect was to tell general readers what to avoid. They might trust science in theory, but in practice it had bad personal associations. It confused them, made them feel negative about themselves. Science pages ghettoized science news, gave people a whole section they could throw away unread.
There was something more sinister afoot, as well. As attitudes changed, editors started wanting a certain negative spin on science stories. If you didn't comply you got played inside, or your existence was otherwise made uncomfortable. Some science writers, especially those who identified with the ecology movement, saw hostility to science as a path to success. Many reporters, outspokenly neutral on other topics, found it easy to align themselves with the anti-science faction. This was often couched in terms favoring plurality, and an openness toward "other ways of knowing."
The turning point for me was when Three Mile Island blew.
I am aware that TMI did not "blow," but I'm talking journalism here, not science—and in the newsroom, the story went off like Eniwetok. My editors didn't send me, though. They saw me as biased toward science, and so they assigned a environmental advocate who also happened to be outspokenly against nuclear power. The resulting headlines implied that Baltimore was in imminent danger. Years later, when Chernoble went, one of the wire services moved a story that said 200,000 people were killed in the first few minutes. That sounded reasonable to wire editors.
This isn't an argument for nuclear power. I'm just relating experiences that you can appreciate. If this was a more biological audience I'd tell you different horror stories. I actually have more of those, because most of my work was in medicine, biochemistry, neuropsychology, and the like.
These stories always have a personal side. I happened to be a gardener, and mine was the kind of newsroom where people brought in their produce and piled it on a table for others to take home. But at the end of the day my tomatoes, my cukes, my cantaloupes . . . they were still sitting on the table. This happened several times and I was really hurt, so I asked one of my friends. He hemmed and hawed and said, well, Franklin, you're a scientist and so they don't know WHAT you may have done to those vegetables, or what you put on them, or anything.
I wasn't a scientist. I only associated with scientists. But that was enough. They were afraid of me.
IT WAS SAID, then, that there more scientists working than had existed in all the years since Newton. Many were training graduate students and postdocs, so that there were ten scientists to take the place of each one who retired. This had been going on for decades, and there was an expectation of continued expansion.
They were wonderful years for me, too. Once I started down the road of leaving the word "science" out of my stories, I wrote about science as though it were a normal human activity. That sold surprisingly well. Pretty soon I was concentrating on essays and narrated stories, and getting a nice slice of readership. I won some prizes, which makes newsroom life easier, and I started thinking about books.
Truly I loved that life. It gave me access to all these great minds on the cutting edge of knowledge. Once I asked a Nobel prizewinner for some advice. He was having a meeting at the time with several senior scientists. He shooed them out and spent the next three hours explaining restriction enzymes to me. Isn't that an amazing story? Yet it's true. It happened all the time.
Anyway, I was happy and science was good and the money was flowing. Richard Nixon, echoing John Kennedy's promise to land men on the moon by 1970, vowed to cure cancer in ten years. I didn't know a single cancer scientist who thought that likely, but nobody would say so on the record. They winked at me. They wanted a piece of the action.
I am aware that there are exceptions to this bright picture, and they're significant. The post-Sputnik boom in physics had by the Seventies produced a glutted market, and we were running stories about people with PhDs in physics who were unable to get jobs – who were driving taxi cabs. Will you be surprised, or shocked, if I tell you I have sat there on the city desk and watched editors and reporters read those stories and throw back their heads and laugh?
OVER AMONG the technologically unwashed, science had lost its halo, and a tension was building. It was already manifest in the arts. Very early in this period there was a remake of Frankenstein, originally written by Mary Shelly at about the time of the Luddite uprisings. Dr. Frankenstein, mad with power, usurped the prerogatives of the gods and accidentally unleashed forces of evil too powerful to contain. One result was his own death. That last part – about his own death – is an eternal element of good drama. It is a rule on TV that the bad guy has to get it in the neck before the final curtain falls.
Well, at about the time that journalists were laughing at out-of-work physicists a Pennsylvania research group was studying the growth of antiscience attitudes. One study showed that people who watched a lot of television tended to be biased against science. A follow-up focused on the mortality rates of the various professional groups portrayed on television. It turned out that TV scientists had the highest fatality rate of any occupational group on the airwaves, with fully 10 percent of them dead before the closing credits. Even lawyers fared better. The message is clear: Science, like crime, doesn't pay. Or shouldn't.
It's no different in the movies. Look, for instance, at ET. What did the scientists want to do to this friendly little feller from another world? Why . . . they wanted to cut him up, of course. Vivisection, that was what was on their minds. They were little better than butchers. The evil father, in Star Wars – what had happened to him? He had been touched by science. Or take Jurassic Park. Who was the villain there? These are all remakes of the Frankenstein theme, and they play well in Peoria.
Journalism, meanwhile, was changing. It became difficult and then impossible to get the time and space that good science writing required. I had enough clout to continue my own narrative work, at least for the moment, but the pressure was for "harder" coverage—investigative stories about science. Science writers who were pugnacious toward science had an edge in assignments and promotions. The gotcha story, so conspicuously absent from science coverage, now arrived. Reports surfaced about scientific malfeasance, misappropriation and dishonesty. The dam-breaker was the story about the misuse of scientific overhead at Stanford. Later, the Chicago Tribune did a major take-out on the contradicting claims for the discovery of the AIDS virus. Very, very dirty laundry.
Science was a sitting duck for this. Scientists were accustomed to solicitous, if perhaps inaccurate, treatment by the press. They had dealt with science writers. Now there were science reporters on their trail, and that was another thing entirely. It had never occurred to many scientists that their grant requests, their reports, their memos . . . this stuff is all public record. Science is a muckrakers' paradise, like shooting fish in a barrel, and I predict that you are going to see a whole lot more of it in the future.
ALL THIS PROVIDED COVER for those who would use the budget cutting mood as an excuse to take the knife to science. Science budgets had once risen geometrically, but in recent years they hadn't kept up with inflation – especially if you figured in the rapidly-rising costs of regulation and administration. Many antiscience advocates, among them animal rights and anti-nuclear groups, have long advocated the use of regulation to suffocate science. Each regulation seems harmless enough, and is difficult to oppose, but together they can be deadly. This had an impact, and a lot of sciences were hurting already. Then came Congressman John Dingell and friends.
Science, as a community, might be able to withstand the pressure. But science has never been a community. When NASA was in trouble, bench scientists lined up to take swipes at it. Climatologists despise particle physicists. Biologists – well, I actually lost one good source, a research physician, by objecting to his intemperate criticism of both NASA and the supercollider. He got frosty and stayed that way. On the other hand, it's extremely easy to find a physicist who'll serve on the board of a creationist group. Scientists are all in this together, whether they like it or not, but they don't know that yet, and I'm not sure they're going to find out in time.
What all this means is that science's political childhood is over, and what is true of science is doubly true for the science writer.
NOT THAT SCIENCE NEWS IS on the wane. Broadly defined, it takes up an increasing percentage of the news columns. A few days ago I read through my local paper as a reality check, and it was full of science news. Social science, space science, a story on salmon ecology, another on medicine. Science is pervasive in our civic life . . . in our lives, generally. But a smaller and smaller percentage of this science journalism is being written by science writers, or even science reporters. Much of it, as a result, is grossly inaccurate if not in fact then in tone, play, and context.
My scientist friends bitch a lot about this. I used to tell them not to judge the whole profession by how it covered science. Political coverage is much more in the journalistic tradition. Journalism grew up with democratic politics, has even been called the fourth estate of government. Many reporters have degrees in political science. So they do a better job of politics, or at least they used to. Today, with so much of politics tangled up in science, I'm not sure that is true anymore.
As for me, I saw the handwriting on the wall but thought I could be of some value educating the next generation of science writers. In 1989 I took a job as head of the science journalism department at Oregon State University. OSU is Oregon's premier science campus, and its journalism department was the only undergraduate science journalism department in the country. There are several graduate institutions that teach science journalism, but most journalists do not have advanced degrees.
In any event, shortly after I arrived the voters of Oregon approved a tax-cutting measure that fell heavily on higher education. OSU decided science journalism was expendable. I knew the news industry wasn't going to support the program, but I thought science might. The critical player was OSU's dean of sciences. I went to him, hat in hand. I'll never forget his response.
"That's your problem," he said. "We don't need you."
I left the university, of course. Shortly thereafter they closed down science journalism. It looked for a while like they might also close the ballroom dance program. But they found money to keep that. Also, that year, the university undertook a multimillion dollar renovation of its football stadium.
THERE COMES A TIME in every professional life when circumstances bring you to a pause, and a reassessment. So I thought long and hard about what that science dean said. I finally decided that there was no anger there, and no arrogance. Just indifference. He was stating what, to him, was a fact.
My own writing in the meanwhile was doing quite well. I wasn't exactly getting rich, but I was writing well and people liked what I was doing, and my own future was being clarified. I no longer called myself a science writer very often, because it seemed to put people off . More and more of my thinking was about people, not science – about human problems, and the courage or cowardice or determination or whatever human beings summon in response. So I pushed the science into the background. Pretty soon I had de-emphasized science so much that it almost wasn't there.
No, no. That's not right. It was very much there. It was the fabric of the life in my stories, the scenery that seeped into everything. In my work, as in our lives, science had simply become a condition of existence.
By this time I was on the internet, and beginning to realize its potential as a literary medium. I considered moderating a listserver for science writers, but started one for writers, instead. Several of us started assembling what I think will be the foundations for a literary marketplace. This is all wildly exciting, and relevant here mainly because it adds perspective to some of the other things I've just said. My laments are not personal.
Meanwhile, though, I did the professional autopsy. It seemed necessary. I had invested many years and a lot of creative energy in science writing. I'd thought I'd done good work for a good cause, translating science. I thought I was helping the two societies exist together in the modern world. But, you know, when you cut a corpse open and look at it piece by piece, there on the stainless steel, it's difficult to be romantic.
I'll tell you why I was a science writer, and there wasn't a drop of altruism in it. I like science. I like the game. I like the idea that knowledge is a frontier, that inquisitiveness is a force. I was enthralled by the revolution in neuroscience, and I followed it like some people follow baseball. I got to dabble in everything. Once I was at Kitt Peak, and got to bend over the lens container and stare down into that beautiful, bottomless piece of perfectly-ground glass that was the same color of the night sky. I remember seeing my first autopsy, my first brain operation. And hey! Any of you guys ever seen a manned flight lift off, down at the cape? The sound is what you remember. It doesn't come through the television speakers, it's too deep. You have to be there! It makes your bones vibrate for hours afterwards. Did you know, I had a shot at the short list to ride that thing! And I'll tell you something else: It was some of the best material a writer could possibly ask for. It was like covering a major war and the United Nations and the White House and a mass murder, all at once, and with almost no competition.
So much for altruism. I didn't do it for science, and I didn't do it for mankind. I did it for me, and it was worth it.
SAYING THAT gives me space to say the other thing, which the moment requires. Because there was a lot of power there, for a little while, being a science writer—and if I wasn't serving any great altruistic purpose then what purpose was I serving? Journalistic power only comes when you somehow engage history. So what had I connected with? Once I asked the question the answer came to me in a fairly straightforward fashion, and I'll share it with you in a moment.
Meanwhile I also had the space to notice some other things. Whatever I may have misunderstood or glossed over in my science writing years, I had at least gotten the C.P. Snow thing right. There were two societies, as separate as oil and water. And the larger one, the one that included most of my family and friends and most Americans, was in real trouble. The culture was torn by factional strife. Millions were unemployed or employed doing work that was neither challenging or respected, and those who had decent jobs lived in moment to moment terror of losing them. In frustration, they were lashing out at everything intellectual. School budgets were being cut, the core of our universities were being dismantled . . . it was as if the nonscientific culture had decided that it did not need science, or mathematics, and of course from that perspective learning is all the same, and so the animosity extended to history, literature, and the institutions of learning that harbored them.
THIS WAS OLD news, but as I rethought it I noticed for the first time that something was missing. Where was the clear, reasonable, intelligent voices of the best educated and most intelligent people I knew? Where were the scientists? On these great, visceral, life-and-death issues of the day, from the crisis in education to the crisis in health care, the voice of the scientific community was conspicuous in its absence. Sure, a scientist might do Saturday in a soup kitchen, or support the local library, or whatever. But these were offhand and largely risk-free acts of individuals. When it came to taking important stands, and articulating basic principles, the scientific culture had pretty much taken a walk.
This realization was stunning. In our civic musings we had worried endlessly about how a democracy could function if the larger populace didn't care, or know enough to vote, or whatever. That was one of the justifications for journalistic privilege. But I had never heard anyone ask what would happen if the best and the brightest of us climbed up on an ivory tower and put their heads in a cloud and told themselves they were above it all. Well, that is apparently what happened. Our leaders, or at least the people I think should lead, turned out to be a bunch of political eunuchs.
Okay. I admit it is more complicated than that, yes. But I have only an hour. Think about it.
I would like to say, also, that to the extent that I describe reality, we have only ourselves to blame. There is a deep anti-intellectualism in the American culture, and our political system tends to reward it. In science, there has always been a certain otherworldliness, a sense of self containment and aloofness, and abandonment to a sterile island might exquisitely suit the crime.
But those are asides. I came here to talk about science writing, and in the bill of particulars I have presented to you we are there with the rest. We were on duty, right at the epicenter, witnesses to the whole affair. We should have seen its implications, but it was not in our interest to do so. We allowed ourselves to be dazzled by the power of science, and we forgot the power of art. We yammered on about bridging the chasm between the cultures, and about translation.
We called ourselves writers, but we failed in our artistic responsibility to look directly at the world and articulate what we saw. We allowed someone else's definition to be imposed on us and our art.
"Science writer!" It had such a ring.
Like many others I didn't just acquiesce. I sought it, achieved it, internalized it, wore it with pride. Meanwhile we all witlessly connived in putting a pretty face on the ugly thing that was transpiring all around us.
LET ME SUGGEST to you that science writing, as it appeared in the late Fifties and in the Sixties and is only now waning, was not at all what it claimed to be, that it was, rather, a part of a much broader, almost Freudian psychosocial urge to keep science comfortably compartmentalized, out of the mainstream of life. The science writer had a very unique, separate, ad hoc beat. By its very existence it defined science as a weird appendage that had attached itself to our culture . . . all these physicists and chemists and psychoanatomists and the like . . . you know, we can't live with 'em and we can't live without 'em. Gotta have a specialist to just report on them.
The science writer was supposed to be a translator, and it was often phrased exactly that way. Well, one of the things translators do is make it unnecessary for us to learn the other fellow's language. There is another danger, as well, as those of you who have ever done any international negotiating will know. The translator is always in great danger of becoming the de facto negotiator. That is, he is apt to start putting a spin on what Joe says, so as to prevent Sam from getting mad, and then making similar corrections when Sam answers back. First thing you know, all the differences have been absorbed by the translator. The problem doesn't show up until it comes time to actually do the deal, which falls apart because each party agreed to different things.
I think we science writers did that. We softened science's priestly image, concealed that aspect of its character that I call intelligent focus but others label arrogance. We helped carry science's political water, and in the process of all this we became acolytes and enablers for a society with a bad case of split personality. We helped it avoid confronting the problem.
The two cultures, and I mean both them, wanted to have its cake and eat it too. The humanistic culture wanted to embrace romanticism and do it on the internet, while living thirty percent longer and being eighty percent richer. The scientific culture wanted to continue telling itself it was above the fray and apolitical, and that it was doing what it was doing for love of knowledge – that it was a priesthood, in short, but without priestly duties or responsibilities.
Well, I quit. We can't have it both ways. Either we are going to live in the Enlightenment or we are not. We can be Voltaire or we can be Rousseau but we cannot be both. At least we cannot be both, and survive, without constructing some very rational psychosocial firewalls.
I speak to you now not as a science writer but as a writer. It is my artistic observation that my civilization is on the brink of a great decision about itself, and that it is high time to dispense with translators. It is time for scientists to come to terms with the fact that they're eating at the political trough and that they'd damned well better make their political case, and make it in a way that real people can understand it. It is also time for people to come to terms with the fact that the world as we know it, as a haven for couch potatoes and new agers and critical humanists, exists only because of science and technology, and was created at great cost not only in money but in individual effort, labor and, yes, faith. For empirically science is not a substitute for faith, it is a faith, it is a church, no less real for its austerity, and that is the other thing we have to deal with. Rather, you do. I don't.
An artist's place, a writer's place, is different. My generation has been very sterile, artistically, and I have touched on some of the causes, but it bears mention here that some of the best writing of our day focuses on the subject of science. I might mention, sort of offhand, Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff and any number of pieces by John McPhee. But we don't call them science writers, do we? No, we don't, any more than we would call Hemingway a war writer, or Steinbeck a poverty writer, or Mark Twain a children's writer.
Writers by their nature deal with the central turmoil of the human condition – that is to say, the human enigma. This enigma is something like the influenza virus, in that as soon as you think you've identified it, it changes its shape. It becomes something that has never before been seen in its present form but which, once you figure it out, is heavily foreshadowed by history. To switch metaphors, this is the stuff of Greek tragedy. We are all Oedipus. Each of us stands before the sphinx, and is given a new riddle.
If I mistook myself for a science writer, which is to say a specialty writer, well – that was a measure of my own innocence and self doubt, which was no less than anyone else's. It was an easy enough mistake to make, for any of us to make. Being a science writer, like being a scientist, seemed like a nice, pleasant, well-defined niche. But it was no such thing. For we were born into a moment in which the chief problem besetting our kind was the conflict between the two cultures – between ourselves and ourselves, between what we felt we knew and what we thought we felt.
If science was ever a thing apart, a special way of living and of seeing things, that time is past. Today, science is the vital principle of our civilization. To do science is critical, to defend it the kernel of political realism. To define it in words is to be, quite simply, a writer, working the historical mainstream of literature.
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