NY Times Science Journalist Looks to the Future

Natalie Angier, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer for the New York Times, gave a talk entitled “Science, Sex, and Society: A Conversation with Natalie Angier, New York Times Science Columnist” at Pomona College Feb. 19. She spent the day on campus visiting science classrooms and meeting with faculty; during that time, she sat down with TSL’s Andrew Hong PO ’13 to talk about the state of journalism in general, science journalism specifically, and issues such as science literacy and public engagement with science.

TSL: Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for college journalists—how to make that transition from college to professional journalism?

Natalie Angier: My advice is, and this applies specifically to science journalism, I can’t overemphasize the importance of getting a PhD in science … Maybe you’ll never be a practicing scientist in any way, but you will have the credibility, and you will be given the license to do anything that you might want to do as a science writer.

In a more general journalism sense, I do think that the more things you can get published on, or if you have a blog, that’s all very helpful. You really just have to have clips or the equivalent of them; you have to have as big of a portfolio as you can. And be very flexible with what you’re willing to do … [In] trying to figure out how to make money, to be a journalist who makes money—have multiple skill sets. Be good with video and technology of all sorts and have the traditional skills of writing and reporting. I think that’s essential for the next generation of journalists.

TSL: For people who want to end up at a major news publication like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, or others: Is that even a viable option at this point?

NA: [laughter] Maybe eventually. It’s hard to say, because they keep on laying off reporters at these places. But we know that when this all shakes out, there are going to be survivors, and those survivors are going to be more powerful than ever. … the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, a couple others—I think that when this is all passed, when they’ve figured out a viable model for actually having a steady revenue stream, I think then there will suddenly be a huge need again. But at this point there are lots of hiring contractions, which is why I say to be flexible. You might have to kind of work around that and get your money from many other places … Write freelance pieces … The more you do, the more connections you’ll have … Do more commercial work in addition to traditional journalism. And I think that’s the new model—to cobble things together and have a go at it.

TSL: What do you hope that your audience will gain from your writing?

NA: I try to inspire in readers this sense that they are part of the enterprise of science—that it is part of this grand journey that we are all taking together. One of the things that I think is important is for people to feel that they own science and can be part of it, and that it’s as much a part of our world as art or music or any of the other things that make life worth living. And so I like to think of people experiencing science in that way. It’s the ideas that come out of science that really excite me. So to the extent that I can interest people in the subject and get them to apply it to the questions in their own lives, that’s what I try to do.

TSL: Going back to the idea of people integrating science into their everyday lives: How do you personally frame science literacy?

NA: I think the most important thing about science literacy is to convince people that they’re capable of and entitled to it. You don’t have to be an expert to get the general idea. It’s more important that you feel comfortable and confident enough that you can ask and pursue a question. I think that one of the biggest mistakes that people make is to think that you have to be an expert before you can understand science.

TSL: Why do you think that people are more apt to admit to their ignorance of the sciences as opposed to something like politics?

NA: It has several roots. I think that one of the reasons is that, very early on, people in this country decide that they are either humanities people or more of nerds or what have you. And it’s tragic to me that kids stop taking math classes at a very young age and people feel that once they get off the math track, everything else goes along with it. And it doesn’t have to. For a lot of science, you don’t actually have to have tremendous math skills. So let’s say you didn’t take calculus in high school. You can still follow a lot of science. And I think that the feeling of incompetency in math is a result of this idea that you’re either a math person or you’re not.

They don’t do that in a lot of these high-performing countries. They don’t say that you have a “math gene.” They say that anyone can do this if you put your mind to it, and that you’re not going to be let off the hook. You just study harder, and work at it harder. You have to get over a hump, and we let too many of our kids not get over that hump.

TSL: So how do you propose we go about solving this problem?

NA: … I think that one of the most insidious trends in this country is the “gifted and talented” label. It should be the “hardworking and persistent.” This idea that you’re either “gifted and talented” or you’re not—I think this is really dragging down our educational system. And it may be that some kids may have a natural knack for things in certain fields. But with sufficient work at a young enough age, anything is possible.

TSL: But there is the problem of garnering individual interest in math and science. What are some ways to go about navigating this?

NA: More and more, I think that citizen scientist projects are really going to take off. The United States Geological Survey [USGS] is using tweets to track earthquakes globally … from people who are just located where the quakes are and describing their experience following a format to make it useful to the USGS … When people go out and do this kind of thing, they are converts to science. And this has been shown to be the case. Once you are involved in this, when you’re actually feeling like you are creating useful information and participating in research. And once you have done this, there is no looking the other way. I think that the key to success in public engagement with science is to find more ways to involve people in research.

TSL: But for those scientists who can’t involve the public in these ways, what is their responsibility to convey the knowledge of their findings to the public? How does that interact with what science writers are doing?

NA: Scientists should not be ashamed to get in touch with journalists. I think scientists should do more of contacting journalists whom they respect and tell them what they’re doing and why it’s important. …

I wish there were more programs of bringing scientists into the community and giving local talks and also to bring middle and high school teachers into labs to work with scientists, so there are those obligations. I also think that scientists have an obligation to have more involvement in government. There should be much more effort to be testifying and lobbying to Congress to be involved in science policy. Perhaps, and I would love to see this happen, more science-savvy people considering careers in politics. Because we need more people who are making the laws that affect us all to be more knowledgeable about science.

TSL: But aren’t scientists going to be more concerned with research in labs than being out in the public? How do you work around the sort of inherent nature of scientific research?

NA: I think that scientists have to be made to feel an ethical responsibility to be engaged with policy and laws because the people who are deciding how much money to spend on science are the ones who know the least about it, which is kind of a tragedy.

TSL: You said once that you wouldn’t be a good scientist. Could you elaborate a bit on that?

NA: One of the things that I love about scientists is that they’re very pragmatic. They get excited about their research, but they’re not apocalyptic. They look at a problem and do a sort of cost-benefit analysis rather than saying, “Oh my God, we’re all gonna die.” I tend to be much more of a melodramatic thinker, and I don’t think that I have the level-headedness that a lot of scientists do They don’t think the end of the world is coming, regardless of various endless problems. They’re comfortable in working with probability and cost-benefit analysis that gives them a sort of center and comfort with being on this earth that I find inspiring.

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