COVID-19 placed new and unexpected demands on science writers. For famed journalist David Quammen, writing a book about it meant playing a constant game of catch-up, because, as Joshua Sokol writes, science “refused to sit still.” Today, those in the round also face increased distrust of the experience, making the job even more difficult. Deborah Birx’s book on the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic sheds light on the dangers of this attitude. He gives readers an idea of some of the misinformation that was coming from inside the White House, and the regret he felt for not challenging Donald Trump more assertively, citing a case in which the president “seemed to recommend the disinfectant consumption” on live television, as Richard J. Tofel writes. Tofel argues that accounts like Birx’s are important; By providing a record of government failure, the book can help us understand why we suffered such monumental losses in 2020.
Writing about certain corners of science, like medicine, can present other obstacles. Even when a disease has visible manifestations, it can be difficult to put into words what goes on behind the scenes. In her book, Rachel Aviv tackles the subject of psychiatry, exploring how it has intersected or defined the lives and experiences of her subjects and herself. As Jordan Kisner writes, psychiatry is “a limited and ever-changing discipline, profoundly influenced by the foibles and fads of the culture.” Something similar could be said about the challenges of describing viruses. HIV, a tiny virus with just nine genes, “has turned an entire social world upside down,” leaving unhealed “emotional scars,” writes Joseph Osmundson. Still, we “struggle to categorize” what this and all viruses really are; there is still debate as to whether they are living organisms or not.
Perhaps what makes this writing unique, and singularly difficult to get right, is what Osmundson points out: the impossibility of categorizing it. But Ed Yong argues that this is how should be. As he points out, covering COVID required not only an engagement with biology and virology, but also an understanding of racism, US history, social media, and the state of America’s prisons. In other words, writing about science is writing about everything, and that’s as hard as it sounds.
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what we are reading
Alexis Joy Hagestad by the atlantic
The Science Writer Every Science Nerd Wants You To Read
“Science writing as a larger trade is in a tricky place. It is needed, yes. Future viral outbreaks are assured, ecosystems are collapsing, and the climate crisis continues. But conspiratorial politics, the relentless chaos of social media, and a growing skepticism toward expertise make it harder than ever for anyone to establish themselves as a trusted source of information.”
Doug Mills / The New York Times /redux
The clearest account yet of how the Trump team screwed up the pandemic
“Birx’s refusal to publicly oppose Trump during his time in the White House continues to haunt his reputation. His subsequent interviews, like his book, have been revealing, but they have also often been criticized as too little and too late. This critique has some merit. Some cynics may believe that she has written her book to obscure the record. I am more inclined to believe that she is still motivated by her own sense of duty and she wants the rest of us to see what she saw.”
The diagnosis trap
“One of the pleasures of this book is its resistance to a clear and reassuring verdict, its desire to dwell in unknowing. At every turn, Aviv is nuanced and perceptive, investigating cultural differences and alert to ambiguity, always filling in the fine-grained details. Extracting a remarkable amount of information from archival material, as well as live interview subjects, he brings all these people to life, even the two he never met.”
The fine line between sickness and health
“Some scientists believe that viruses are not completely dead, because they can copy themselves, but also not completely alive, because they need a host cell to help them do it. In living organisms, cells divide into several rounds, from one to two to four to eight. Viruses can make thousands of copies in one round of replication. It is likely that these peculiar life forms have been around for as long or longer than life on this planet.”
Getty; the atlantic
What counts as scientific writing anymore?
“When this pandemic began, my experience as a science writer, and one who had specifically reported on pandemics, was certainly helpful, but to a limited degree: it gave me a half-mile head start, with a full marathon to run. Throughout the year, many of my colleagues criticized journalists from other sectors who wrote about the pandemic without a background of experience. But does anyone really have the expertise to cover an omnicrisis which, by extension, is also an omnistory?
About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Maya Chung. The book she is reading next is Kibogoby Scholastique Mukasonga.
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