Science Writing: Long May It Wave!

Science Writing: Long May It Wave!




Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, in “Unpopular Science” [Aug. 17/24], point to the Boston Globe as a news organization that sharply reduced its commitment to coverage of science and medicine this year. We have done nothing of the sort.

The writers claim that the Globe “reduced staff significantly on its science desk” after it eliminated a separate Health/Science section early this year and placed coverage in other sections. There was no significant staff reduction. One part-time position dedicated to both science and medicine was eliminated. Our Health/Science desk still has five reporters: three covering various aspects of medicine and health, one covering the environment and one covering science. Our Business section also has a biotechnology reporter. By any measure, this shows substantial commitment to serving a community that is, as the article properly noted, “a center of science that leads the biotech industry.”

The authors assert that our decision on staffing and section placement “wasn’t about the relevance of science to readership; it was about underlying economics.” Not true. While economics has a bearing on our newsroom resources, of course, we have always taken this area of coverage very seriously. That is why space and staff dedicated to science, medicine and health coverage remain roughly the same after elimination of a separate Health/Science section. That is also why we thoroughly researched our readers’ reactions to possible changes, and have had precious few complaints. A final disappointment: neither author spoke to anyone at the Globe to check facts. We’re only a phone call away.

Boston Globe

San Francisco

Chris Mooney is one of the world’s outstanding young science journalists, so it’s reassuring to know that his kind is succeeding aging, ink-stained veterans like myself and my far more distinguished fellow San Francisco Chronicle alumnus, the great Sabin Russell. It’s no big deal for the Chron to lose a character like me. But it’s a crime for Hearst, the Chron‘s greedy and inept corporate owner, to let journalists like Sabin go–journalists whose expertise could make a big difference in this ominous moment when pandemic is real, the drug companies have corrupted Congress and the fate of healthcare is uncertain.

On one point I must respectfully dissent from Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s valuable article. They charge that science reporters have tended to cover the global warming story as a “he said, she said” controversy, “bowing to pressure from special interests and their pet scientists.”

I was a science writer for almost three decades, and whenever I wrote about a “surprising” development in global warming–say, evidence that part of Antarctica might not be melting quite as fast as expected–I knew I’d hear from the screamers. It’s ridiculous to blame science journalists for this nation’s criminal sluggishness in coming to grips with global warming, just as it was ridiculous in the 1950s to blame teenage crime on comic books.


Sterling Heights, Mich.

For many years I subscribed to Scientific American and Science, attended meetings of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and was a member of a science book club. People like Carl Sagan were popularizing science, and it was a big part of the culture. But in the 1980s science writing began to be politicized; objectivity and critical thinking began to disappear. Who wants to read about AIDS and climate change, with ham-fisted rhetoric being bashed out by all sides? The science ends up shoddy, serving ends other than truth.

People want to be inspired by science, thrilled by discovery. When science writing becomes a mouthpiece, it subverts what matters most to readers: learning something new about nature and the universe, something that will enliven their curiosity and stir up that childhood sense of wonder. Aspiring science writers: write something that makes me want to go out and buy a telescope.


Mooney and Kirshenbaum Reply

Cambridge, Mass.; Durham, N.C.

We appreciate Martin Baron’s concerns; however, the Globe did “significantly” reduce its science desk. We were well aware not only of the departure of Carey Goldberg, a part-time science reporter whose post was eliminated, but also that Chris Chinlund, deputy health/science editor, had been promoted and not replaced.

As we have confirmed with the Globe, this means that a staff of six reporters and two editors became a staff of five reporters and one editor. (We have recently learned that an editor from the Living desk will edit health content, which is all to the good.)

We regret having characterized a “decision” by the Globe as if we were able to peer into the heads of its editors. But when Goldberg was laid off along with many other part-time employees, it’s hardly a stretch to assert that the reason was economic.

Although most of what we wrote can be gleaned from public sources, in retrospect we do wish we had called the Globe for comment. We want the paper to succeed and to have good science coverage; and we sympathize with what it, and many papers, have gone through in the past year.



In Christopher Hayes’s “The Secret Government” [Sept. 14], Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded eighty-three times in one month, not 183 times. (It was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed who was waterboarded 183 times.) We regret the error, and the torture.


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