On the Fine (and Difficult) Art of Science Writing
Randi Hutter Epstein: When Even Science Isn't An Exact Science
Albert Einstein once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
That’s the essence of a good science writer: make it simple for readers to understand but not too simple that you’re misconstruing the facts. When I started out, some 30-plus years ago, I had just graduated from medical school and thought that all I needed to do was translate medical jargon. “Myocardial infarction” became “heart attack.” “Edema” became “fluid retention” or just plain bloating.
But I quickly learned that the job was more than serving as an interpreter. Medicine is an uncertain science.
Stuart Firestein, the chair of biological sciences at Columbia University, has often said that there’s a great divide between how science is perceived (a well-ordered machine that acquires facts) and how science is pursued (fits and starts and with a lot of wrong turns). He teaches a class called “Ignorance” and has written a book with the same title followed by a sequel called Failure. His mission: to excite people about science by letting them see that it’s more about sleuthing than memorizing pages of facts.
The intrigue, the mystery, is what drives those who are in the labs. It’s also what drives those of us who write about those on the frontlines.
When I started working on my book about hormones, I wanted to describe the marvels of these potent yet tiny chemicals that control so much in our bodies without over-simplifying or embellishing. I wasn’t writing a Hormone Diet book (that’s been done) or How to Optimize Your Hormones All-Naturally or Not-All-Naturally (both of those versions have been done, too). But I worried that all of my ifs and buts and not-exactlies would clog my narrative and turn it into a slog of a read.
How do I convey discovery without sensationalizing? How do I convey the murkiness of the scientific process without killing my story? It’s something a lot of us science writers grapple with.
Each chapter—each hormone story from its discovery to current insights—had its own unique challenges. It was tempting, at times, to fall into the trap of tying one hormone with one behavior. This is why you’re feeling depressed! This is why your mind is racing! That provides fodder for sidebars and bullet points of advice.Nothing in science is 100 percent certain. Scientists talk in probabilities. That’s why doctors never say “guarantee.”
But hormones don’t work that way. That’s not to say that hormones do not impact moods. They do. But it’s a complicated chemical stew of one hormone triggering another and then another and then some combination of them switching on brain signals that, in a kind of boomerang sort of way, prompt the release of more hormones. And that’s only part of the story. The way one person responds may be very different from the next person, depending on their own unique brain chemistry, their own hormone levels, their cells’ receptors (how sensitive? how many surface proteins?) and all the other stuff going on in their lives that impacts mood. Not very listicle-esque. But that wasn’t my aim.
What’s more, nothing in science is 100 percent certain. Scientists talk in probabilities. That’s why doctors never say “guarantee.” They say things like “chances are.”
My aim is that by illustrating how discoveries are made and showing how doctors came to the advice that they give, readers will appreciate the uncertainty of it all; that we are all grappling with predictions, all trying to do the best with the information we have, information that’s likely to change as we acquire more clues. Still, I worried. I yearned to delete all the hedging kind of words that bogged down the sentences.
I worried that recounting stories of shady hormone peddlers would make my readers skeptical of all science. I worried the stories of research insights boosted the credibility of the charlatans.
My chapter about the hormone oxytocin brought all my concerns—my writing struggles—to the forefront.
Here’s how I describe oxytocin in my book:
Oxytocin—not to be confused with Oxycodon, the narcotic—is a brain hormone. During labor, oxytocin prompts the womb to contract, pushing a baby through the birth canal. Afterwards, it triggers the breast ducts to squeeze the milk out. The synthetic form of oxytocin, Pitocin, kick-starts labor, providing an extra oomph to get the womb pumping. But it’s the recent research that has rebranded this heady substance into something more hip than all of its prior matronly connotations. Oxytocin has been said to foster bonds between mothers and newborns and between lovers; to bring on erections and orgasm and ejaculation and enhance mindreading. It’s unclear whether that all happens at the same time or in what particular order. And there’s more. Oxytocin has also been linked to trust and empathy. One small study showed it boosted compassion between Israelis and Palestinians. But here’s the rub: Among the flood of studies (upwards of 3,500 oxytocin-behavior studies in the past decade) oxytocin has been tied to trust but also distrust; love but also envy; empathy but also racism. That ought to flummox a potential oxytocin customer.
I wanted someone peddling all the false stuff—to show what’s out there, to show how over-simplifying science is sometimes dangerous, always expensive. I wanted to know how they did what they did, and if they seemed like true believers.They found that oxytocin doesn’t create mother-baby bonding or trust or love but augments the feelings that are stirring within. Is that for sure? Not really.
I found my doctor (my anecdote) on Wilshire Boulevard, in Los Angeles—an obstetrician-gynecologist who stopped delivering babies to prescribe her own line of “Body Software” to both men and women. She shared her oxytocin candy with me and her publicist and they both stared into my eyes and said they could feel us bonding. We did a group hug. I didn’t feel anything. I’m not even sure if what I ate was oxytocin. I think it was a sugar cube. The visit left me both gleeful and infuriated; happy because she made the writing process so easy—I just wrote exactly what happened, transcribing my afternoon—and angry because I knew she was duping too many consumers.
After hooking my readers with the huckster story, I needed real science but a fun story, all the same. Fortunately, my conversations led me to a pioneering, energetic octogenarian oxytocin researcher. He did some of the first experiments showing the spike of oxytocin at birth prompts mammals to bond with their offspring. When he was studying pregnant goats at Yale in the 1950s, he got so tired of sleeping in the barn with them (he had to measure hormones at the moment of delivery), he moved the goats into the house he had sublet from a professor. Unbeknownst to him, the home-owner-professor decided to return weeks earlier than planned and was aghast to see his living room turned into a farmyard.
That gave me the tale to enliven the neuroscience. But it didn’t solve the original dilemma, how to explain uncertainty. In some ways, my stories glossed over the issue.
Here’s what I wanted to convey: 1. Statistics provide an overall picture of what’s happening, not individual advice. 2. Animal studies suggest but do not always foretell what’s going on in the human brain.
That’s what I was considering when I visited the lab of Dr. Robert Froemke, a New York University neuroscientist. He works with mice brains. He found that when he blocked oxytocin receptors on the rodents’ left auditory centers, they no longer responded to crying pups the way unblocked mice do. These kinds of brain-tinkering studies that mess with mothers’ brains are, fortunately, not going to be done in humans. We’ve got to extrapolate what we can and also recognize the limitations.
Hints from Froemke’s lab and findings from his colleagues in other labs suggest that oxytocin enhances incoming information. That is, it doesn’t create mother-baby bonding or trust or love but augments the feelings that are stirring within.
Is that for sure? Not really. But it’s a theory based on kernels of what we now consider the truth. Further studies may confirm or contradict Froemke’s findings. And if someone else can’t replicate his results, does that mean he failed? Not necessarily. It’s the way science works. It’s amassing knowledge that may provide a more accurate guide, better directions, for future studies.
I wanted to write it in a way that showed that I wasn’t so much enamored with the finding but the journey. These studies may (yup, may) explain why we feel the way we do, why we respond the way we do, all the kinds of squishy, subjective sorts of emotions not yet tied to one chemical or a collection of them—and that is kind of cool. It’s exciting, though not definite. It is human. That’s why I try to find the people behind the studies. Why did they ask the questions they did? What propelled or hindered their work? By humanizing the process, perhaps readers will appreciate the mysteries, the unknowns.
In the science writing chapter in William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (required reading in my undergraduate class), he instructs writers to “imagine science as an upside pyramid.” Start with one fact (the base) and broaden the idea until you’re at the top, “moving beyond fact into significance and speculation—how a new discovery alters what was known, what avenues of research it may open.”
His key word is “speculation.” It’s the job of the science writer to ensure that our readers will find out about new findings and treatments. It’s our job to explain the probabilities. To allow folks to understand that every health decision boils down to a pros versus cons list, based not just on the numbers but also on your own willingness to take risks. And it’s also our mission to express the sheer joy of scientific speculation.
Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything by Randi Hutter Epstein is out now via W. W. Norton.
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