Q&A with Michael Specter, Journalist at The New Yorker

Michael Specter has been a staff writer at The New Yorker covering science and public health topics since 1998. Before that he worked at the New York Times and the Washington Post. His 2009 book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives details several cases where the “inflexible certainty of ideological commitment” has overtaken the “rigorous, open-minded skepticism of science” in the public sphere.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity 

Q: In your book, you quote Drew Endy as saying, “if we wait until we accumulate all the knowledge, we will accomplish nothing.” I have the same problem when it comes to writing about controversial scientific topics. It seems that there’s always more to learn. How do you know when you’ve gone deep enough into a subject to write publicly on it?

A: There is no magic formula. It depends on many things; I work at a magazine that lets me spend a lot of time and travel around the world to report on the issues I write about. I used to work at the Washington Post and then the New York Times. Both fantastic places, but neither could give somebody months per story. So you do as much as you think you can do in the time allotted and you learn to get the sense of when your story still has holes in it.

Q: As a science journalist, what’s your process when you take on a new area of inquiry? How do you identify experts in the field? How do you identify high quality studies?

A: Most of the things I write about these days I have written about for a while; but it isn’t that hard to identify experts in a field. One day’s worth of Googling on a subject like endogenous retroviruses or traumatic memory and you will start to see some of the same people quoted and referred to. Start with them. Studies are high quality if they are published in good journals, peer reviewed, and you can also usually see if they have been cited often by other reputable researchers. If a controversial study has never or rarely been cited by other scientists that tells you all you need to know. If something is published in a journal that requires you to pay to print it, well that is not going to have the credibility of Science or Nature – magazines that take great care to find experts who can analyze and evaluate studies.

Q: How can science and environmental journalists, as well as members of the public, best communicate scientific topics to individuals who hold strong opinions on the topic?

A: The only thing I know to do is write about them fairly, honestly and to rely on evidence and not whim.

Q: Do you think using terms such as “denier” and “skeptic” can be counterproductive to building trust, or even a constructive dialogue, between the public and the scientific community? 

A: That depends who you are trying to reach. If you are talking to a parent who won’t vaccinate her kid because she is afraid, then calling her a denier won’t do much good. There is nothing wrong with the word skeptic; it just means you are willing to carefully assess a situation before jumping on a bandwagon. I don’t think we can make problems go away, though, by pretending they don’t exist.

Q: Lastly, a more general question: Why science? What makes science and the scientific method more credible than other forms of argument?

A: The scientific method means scientists try things out. When they think their data is adequate they then provide anyone else who wants it with the information and see if they can repeat the experiment. If nobody else can follow the same recipe, then something went wrong. It has been an excellent fail safe mechanism. Also, the scientific method is never final. It means we use the best available information – and if better information comes along then we move on to that. I don’t know of a better system.

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