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COVID-19 made science writers do things they had never done before. Joshua Sokol says that when David Quammen tried to write a book about it, he had to keep playing catch-up because the science “refused to stay still.” People don’t trust experts as much as they used to, which makes the job even harder for those on the beat. In her book about how the Trump administration handled the pandemic, Deborah Birx shows how dangerous this attitude is. She tells readers about some of the false information coming from the White House and how she regrets not being more direct with Donald Trump. For example, she talks about a time when the president “seemed to advocate drinking disinfectant” on live TV, as Richard J. Tofel writes. Tofel makes the case that accounts like Birx’s are important. The book can help us understand why we lost so much in 2020 by keeping track of the government’s mistakes.
Some parts of science, like medicine, can be hard to write about for other reasons. Even when a disease has obvious symptoms, it can be hard to explain what’s happening behind the scenes. In her book, Rachel Aviv writes about psychiatry and how it has affected the lives and experiences of the people she writes about, as well as her own. Jordan Kisner says that psychiatry is “a limited and constantly changing field that is deeply affected by cultural quirks and trends.” You could say something similar about how hard it is to explain viruses. HIV, a tiny virus with only nine genes, “turned the social world on its head” and left “emotional scars” that haven’t healed yet, writes Joseph Osmundson. Still, we “struggle to classify” what it and all viruses really are. There are still arguments about whether or not they are living things.
Osmundson says that the fact that this writing can’t be put into a category might be what makes it different and hard to do well. But Ed Yong says that should be the case. As he says, writing about COVID required not only knowledge of biology and virology but also of racism, U.S. history, social media, and the prison system in the U.S. To put it another way, writing about science means writing about everything, which is just as hard as it sounds.
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“Science writing as a whole is in a hard place. Yes, we do need it. There will be more outbreaks of viruses, ecosystems are falling apart, and the climate crisis keeps getting worse. But politics based on conspiracies, the constant chaos of social media, and a growing lack of trust in experts make it harder than ever for anyone to establish themselves as a reliable source of information.
The clearest account yet of how Trump’s team botched the pandemic
“The fact that Birx didn’t speak out against Trump when she was in the White House continues to hurt her reputation. Like her book, her subsequent interviews have shed light on things, but they have also been criticised for coming too late. There is some truth to this criticism. Some people might think that she wrote her book to hide the truth. I’m more likely to think that her sense of duty keeps her going and that she wants everyone else to see what she saw.
The diagnosis trap
“One of the things I like about this book is that it doesn’t give a clear and comforting ending. It wants to stay in the unknown. At every turn, Aviv is subtle and smart, looking for cultural differences and being aware of ambiguity while always filling in the small details. She brings all of these people to life, even the two she has never met, by getting a lot of information from old records and interviews with living people.
The thin line between sickness and health
“Some scientists think that viruses are not fully dead because they can copy themselves, but they are also not fully alive because they need a host cell to help them do it. In living things, cells divide more than once, from one round to two rounds to four rounds to eight rounds. During one round of replication, a virus can make thousands of copies. Most likely, these strange life forms have been around as long as or longer than life on Earth.
What even counts as science writing anymore?
“When this pandemic started, my experience as a science writer who had written about pandemics was helpful, but only to a certain extent. It gave me a half-mile head start, but I still had to run a full marathon. Throughout the year, many of my colleagues made fun of reporters from other beats who wrote about the pandemic without having enough background knowledge. But does anyone really know how to report on an omnicrisis that is also an omnistory?”
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