Words at the end of the world

Science journalism in an age of wonder and terror

This is an edited version of a talk I gave to students and faculty at Union College two weeks ago. They were a wonderful audience, and I’m glad to be able to share the talk again now. Watch for another subscriber post early next week—my examination of the pee scene in Pokémon Detective Pikachu and the weight of cuteness.

“The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.”

This line, from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, also begins the eponymous film. I rewatched it not long before I started writing this talk and was struck by how applicable this sentiment is to 2019.  Tolkien was a noted scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature, particularly known for his treatise on the epic poem Beowulf. That scholarshop shaped his fiction.

The Anglo-Saxons, like the peoples of Middle-Earth, thought that the world was in decline. “For every one of us, living the the world means waiting for our end,” lines 1386-1387 of the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf, is as true a sentiment today as it was when it was spoken by bards more than a thousand years ago.

Like the Anglo-Saxons, we too live in an elegiac time, a time of great loss. Unlike them, we have an unprecedented ability to track and measure that loss, both of biodiversity and of human life, using sensitive instruments. Thanks to 60 years of temperature data measured by meteorologists, oceanographers and climatologists, and processed by sophisticated computer algorithms, we can discern a clear climatic signal that shows human-caused global warming. Thanks to the labor of hundreds of scientists and technicians, not to mention a few astronauts, we know coral reef death is occurring on a scale that’s visible from space.

These same capacities mean we also live in a time of great wonders, from a photograph of a black hole more than 50 million light-years away to feats of genetic engineering that produce pigs who can be in a sty of infected animals and never catch the disease. These wonders are closer-to-home, too: just consider your smartphone.

Science journalism offers access both to these terrible losses and to these incredible wonders. It also offers us the opportunity to see this is not the time to give up on our human-sickened planet.

Thank you all for coming, and thank you to Dr. Rieffel for that kind introduction. This is “Words at the end of the world: Science journalism in an age of wonder and terror.” I also want to acknowledge that Union College stands on the traditional territory of the Mohawk nation and I think it’s time to support returning the land to them and/or compensating them.

I have no formal background in science. Most of what I know about the nitty-gritty workings of gene editing and addiction studies, to name two things I write about a lot, I learned on the job. Many of my colleagues are scientists by training, although definitely not all.

I thought I’d start by telling you about a big story I worked on fairly recently. So, let’s set the scene: it’s probably about 8:15 am, it’s November 26, Monday morning, I’m drinking coffee and writing pitches for the day for my editor at Popular Science. I work from home, so my husband was getting ready for his day in the background, and one of us had taken the dog out, I don’t remember who.

So on this Monday, when I check Twitter I see all these headlines and comments about a scientist in China who’s used CRISPR to edit the genes of twin babies when they were embryos. The two girls are named Lulu and Nana.  

I know that CRISPR has been used in humans before, but this is different for two reasons: first, because it was these babies’ embryonic stem cells that were edited, as they grew and their cells divided, the edits were in each cell, including all the cells involved in reproduction. So whatever the edit was–and I wasn’t totally clear on that part of the story initially–it could be inherited by any children of Lulu and Nana.  

This is the first time in history that scientists have used gene editing technology to make what are called germline gene edits, heritable edits, in a human being. Because we’re all genetically connected through reproduction, it matters to literally everybody in the world that this happened.

The second reason is that the way this story is unfolding seems totally unlike the normal ways I know science is done. Normally, if something like this was being tried, the whole scientific community would know about it years before, and there would be ethics committees, and pre-attempts in animal models like mice, and all kinds of other stuff. Basically, when it finally happened, the scientific community would be watching closely and nobody would be surprised.

The fact that the babies had already been born, and that the researcher involved–He Jiankui–was planning to unveil his research after the fact at a big genetics conference happening later in the week, seems super weird.

So I’m sitting there with my coffee, and It’s like any breaking news scenario, in that nobody seems to know much and there are a lot of opinions and speculation floating around. Clearly this is going to be the story of the day, and I email Rachel, my editor, and start chasing it. That means I read everything I can, I watch Twitter, I send a bunch of emails to people I know, and I start writing a bullet point list of what I know and what I need to find out.

Over the next couple of hours I figure out what we do know: a two news outlets, the Associated Press and MIT Technology Review, have gone public with news. They both say they’ve seen documentation about the procedures, which I can’t see and isn’t available anywhere. I start calling around and emailing people I know from other stories to see if I can get confirmation or any angle that nobody else has yet.

On that first day, what I write is this: “Scientists ‘went rogue’ and genetically engineered two human babies—or at least claimed to.” It’s a first story about what we know at this point, with commentary from two people: an American geneticist, Kiran Musunuru, and a particle physicist who lives and works in America but is from China and frequently writes on Chinese science politics. Her name is Yangyang Cheng, and her voice is the piece of the story that I managed to dig up that nobody else had. I’d spoken to her for another story before and knew she’d be a good source, and a quick one, and everybody was trying to get a story up quickly, because we didn’t know when the next development would be.

Dr. Cheng told me that she wasn’t shocked this had happened, although she was appalled. Her voice mattered to the piece because it helped me bring international context to the story for our American readers, that came from somebody who had lived and worked in China as a scientist.

Musunuru mattered to the story not only because he was a voice from the genetics community, but because he told me he had actually seen the paper giving the gene edit results results, which had been shown to him over the weekend. He wouldn’t share it with me, but at least I had some firsthand access to someone who’d seen the paper, which is as close to verification as I was going to get.

The next week, I published two followup stories with Popular Science: one was about the ethical issues of doing germline gene editing, and the other was about the basic science of what happened. In the months since, I’ve written about a panel on human gene editing convened by the World Health Organization in the wake of the scandal, and I’m still keeping an eye on the story.

Throughout all this, the tools I used to tell the story were the basic tools every journalist uses: verification skills to tell if the information is real; a network of good contacts both with the kind of people you need to interview and the kind of people who can help you make those connections; interviewing skills; writing skills. They’re fundamental things, things I learned doing other kinds of journalism.

And they’re really fun, honestly. My job is super fun and cool most of the time, although it’s also stressful and all those other things work is. It can also get really sad and make me feel hopeless about the world: much of what I report on is related to suffering and death, whether it’s of a species or of an individual. That takes its toll on my mental health and I know the same is true for my colleagues. But I think it’s important work, and work I’m committed to doing.

Being a freelancer is a little like being a hobbit, in that you eat a lot of meals. Merry and Pippin would both feel at home during my workday. My second breakfast is usually around 10 am and I get very grouchy indeed without it.

So why did I choose to go into science journalism? Well, I can tell you that in another historical moment, I’d probably be standing up here talking about the ins and outs of political reporting, which is where I cut my teeth.

After leaving grad school, I started writing about science. I did this for three reasons that I think illustrate some important tensions that play into a broader story about the place of science journalism.

The first and most personal of these reasons is that I was raised by a climate change denier. Data from 2015 suggest that about 47% of Americans don’t believe in human-caused climate change, although that number may have changed somewhat in the aftermath of the Trump election and with the publication of the sixth International Panel on Climate Change report last year.

I’m Canadian, for what it’s worth, and was raised there. But suffice it to say there are a lot of people everywhere, now, who, like my dad, are committed to disbelieving the science of anthropogenic climate change. It’s important to me that my work do something towards counteracting the anti-science bias that I was raised with.

That bias has blossomed into a massive and worrisome social force. At the same time, years of fruitless, wasteful debate have prevented the world from meaningfully acting to lessen climate change’s human and conservation impacts.

I get why you wouldn’t want to believe or think about climate change, because it is a terrifying existential threat to humanity and other species. But you, I have a personal stake in this: in 2030, I’ll only be 39. 2030 is also the year by which a new IPCC report says countries around the world have to have dramatically reduced their carbon emissions if we have any hope of stopping runaway climate change.

I do my job because I like it and I’m well-suited to it, but I also do it because I couldn’t look myself in the face if I wasn’t doing something, anything to work towards that future. I don’t think science journalism is perfect, far from it, but I do believe that showing up and reporting accurately and fairly on happenings related to science is a needed step in the right direction.

I really enjoy writing long, complicated, weird stories, but I actually try to write more uncomplicated, simple stories that break big things down into small things for people who don’t have time or patience or frankly interest in reading something that’s going to take 30 minutes or an hour to get through and require lots of mental energy. It’s like what I did with the CRISPR story I talked about above: I broke it down, into a series of considerations, and just did a little bit each story.

It’s important to make that science accessible because the bigger story of CRISPR and gene editing technology really matters to each and every one of us, in the sense that germline gene editing--what was done to the twin girls Lulu and Nana, without their consent and arguably without the informed consent of their parents--can be passed on to the next generation, and the one after that. But I think it’s also important because a public who critically engages with science policy is a public who can critically help to shape it.

Another beat I work on a lot, as you may have guessed is matters related to conservation and climate change. I’m sure you’ve probably heard a lot about these things, and it sounds really awful and bleak. To some degree that’s true: things are really bad, and many of the scientists I talk to are super bummed out about it. I’m super bummed out about it. I’m angry most of the time about climate change, and I’m scared a lot of the time about the future. People have started to ask me if my husband and I are thinking of having kids and all I want to say is, if you heard the fear and anger in the voices of the scientists I talk to who actually study this stuff, you would never want to bring a child into that possible future.

There is reason to be angry, and there’s reason to be scared. Every day, there are more and more humans and fewer members of other species. The ones that remain are the ones we eat and with whom we coexist. These species–like chickens, cows, dogs, cats, horses–are so transformed by their relationships with humans that they take on impossible deformities or balloon in population far beyond what nature would tolerate. From one angle, these animals are a symptom of our distorting presence, just like climate change. From another, they have the ultimate species survival strategy.  

The historian in me knows future humans will blame us for the actions we take or fail to take, because that’s the nature of the relationship between the future and the past. Every generation blames the one before it for the ills it inherits. I can’t help but feel, though, that we face a unique challenge and have a rare chance to meet it. There’s still time. It’s still possible we can slow and manage climate change, figure out how to live more equitably with the natural world and each other, preserve biodiversity and nurture it. We need to make this a fairer world for us and future generations, and we need to reduce emissions now. Those things are not impossible, and plenty of people are working towards those goals.

The second reason I stick with this job: I find covering science far more engaging and intellectually rewarding than anything else I’ve worked on. I’m continuously shocked by the creativity and just plain strangeness of what scientists come up with, whether it’s figuring out how densely they can pack disease-resistant mosquitoes into a syringe to ship them or testing the toe pads of museum bird specimens to study the DNA of long-extinct species.

I also get to work with a lot of amazing people. There’s not a lot of demographic data out there about what science journalists look like in 2019, but I can also tell you that the field reflects the broader trends and biases of both science and journalism: white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, upper-middle class voices have a lot of weight. But there are plenty of us who don’t fit that mold in one or more ways.

I mentioned that I started out reporting on politics. Political reporting can be really fun in a bloodthirsty kind of way, but I’d rather channel my bloodthirsty inquisitiveness to writing critically and deeply on scientific endeavors, because I believe that science, like politics, is for everybody. I know a lot of people don’t feel empowered to access science or to engage with it in critical, productive ways. But even if they think they have nothing to do with science, it’s in the foods they eat, the cars they drive, the medical care they receive, the clothes they wear. It’s a way of feeling and smelling the changes in the earth, water and air.

The third reason is a little more down-to-Earth: like many specialized fields, science journalism pays comparatively well. Journalism is a rough profession for money these days, and even though it’s not what it once was, reporting on science offers me opportunities and a degree of financial stability I’d have trouble getting elsewhere.

This admission leads me to a broader point about journalism, one that I think is well illustrated by a quote from Janet Malcolm’s 1991 book The Journalist and the Murderer.

Journalists, Malcolm writes, justify the profession of nosing into other people’s lives and endeavors for the purpose of exposing them to public scrutiny in one of three ways. “The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

These lines shocked me when I first read them, and I think about them often. For all we journalists talk about–and we do care deeply about–big things like accuracy and fairness and truth, journalism is a business. Science journalism is no different.

If we listen to Malcolm, it’s clear that I should want to fall into the third camp: after all, I don’t want to be pompous or untalented. And I do care very much about earning a living. But I don’t just care about earning a living, and I think you’ll find that’s true of most science journalists–or we’d be pursuing other, more lucrative professions. I also care about knowing things and explaining things, and being able to offer some account of what’s happening to our planet and the beings on it.

For me, science journalism is a lens, and even a pretty good lens, through which to understand historic, present, and future change. Because it honestly feels like the world is ending right now, and for many species and many individual humans, that is true. But what I’m writing when I report on the loss of a species or the death rates associated with opioid addiction is only partly an elegy. It’s also a record, or maybe a kind of hope. Because what’s the point of writing things if nobody reads them? People do read this stuff, and they do care, and even if they’re not acting on climate change fast enough or hard enough, I have to believe that knowing about it matters.

You may have noticed all the Lord of the Rings references, and I hope you’ll forgive me, because it’s a little twee. But I genuinely think the films contain some good nuggets of advice for how to live in the world when faced with an epic struggle, like we all are. I’d like to leave you with the best of them.

It happens when the Fellowship of the Ring, a group of travellers on a nearly-impossible quest, have stopped for the night. Frodo, the protagonist, is carrying the One Ring, a massive burden. He and Gandalf, who is the oldest and wisest member of the Fellowship, are sitting a little away from the group.

“I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened,” Frodo says.

“So do all who live to see such times,” says Gandalf. “But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”