By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 31/12/2015 6


Another year end, another “best of” list. For your reading pleasure, I’ve pulled together what I consider some of the best pieces of science journalism or science writing from this year.

The really big one
The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz

From the first word, this piece is captivating. Make a cuppa and settle in for a good read as Schulz describes what is known about the United States’ tectonic makeup – and what it might mean for the US West Coast.

The Crispr quandary
The New York Times, Jennifer Kahn

Crispr is the new black of gene editing – expect to hear much more about it in the coming year – and Kahn’s piece weaves a fascinating human and science story together about the research team who pioneered the method. That leads to the inevitable question of all genetic engineering tools: should we use it on ourselves?

Why do many reasonable people doubt science?
National Geographic, Joel Achenbach

I must have read this article three times now; it’s excellent. Achenbach thoroughly discusses why we believe what we believe and why sometimes it’s so difficult for people to let go of the biases and assumptions they hold dear. I think it ought to be mandatory for scientists and science writers alike: how can we take this onboard and use it to communicate to the public better?

The weak science behind the wrongly named moral molecule
The Atlantic, Ed Yong

This is one of those pieces that delves beneath the catchy headlines and investigates the science underneath. Yong sifts through research on oxytocin and finds a lack of replication, unpublished negative results and overall a pretty shifty basis upon which claims have been made.

The fragile framework
Nature, Richard Monastersky and Nick Sousanis

Many pixels were spilt, justifiably, over the Paris climate summit and the various machinations that guided participants to what could be the strongest climate agreement to date. In the lead-up, I found Nature‘s comic book version of the 25-year road to Paris an excellent summation of our climate change policy history.

The lost girls
Spectrum, Apoorva Mandavilli

What challenges do girls and women face when they are among the few of their gender to be inflicted with a condition considered predominantely male? Because diseases in the Autism Spectrum are more common in boys, we know very little about how they affect girls, as Mandavilli explains.

What’s a species, anyways?
The New Republic, Ben Crair

What begins as a conservation story many New Zealanders will find familiar – a rare species raised in captivity – turns swiftly into a detective story about evolution and how new species come to be. It’s a tale that resonates across conservation: how do we know what to protect when wild creatures snub their noses at the strict species boundaries we try to impose?

Insomnia that kills
The Atlantic, Aimee Swartz

A mother dies following a rapid descent at the hands of what is later determined to be a heritable prion disease: fatal familial insomnia. Swartz tells us about the woman’s daughter and son-in-law who change their careers in order to study the rare disease – caused by a gene carried by only 28 families in the world.

Landlocked Islanders
Hakai Magazine, Krista Langlois

Even in the year that heralded the Paris Agreement, climate change has remained a difficult story to tell. Its timeframes are long, its science complicated and still being unravelled, its bureacracy tangled. Langlois has narrowed its story to the lives of those on the Marshall Islands, and those who have already left.

How PTSD became a problem far beyond the battlefield
Vanity Fair, Sebastian Junger

Sure, Vanity Fair might not be your go-to magazine for science content, but this story – sparked by Junger’s experiences with post-traumatic stress after an assignment in Afghanistan – covers the history and recent progress in diagnosing and treating PTSD.

Science in New Zealand media

Back home, bit-by-bit we are seeing more science-specific media.

The Press’ weekly science page, Catalyst, has been running for well over a year now (disclaimer: I contributed to the page while I worked for The Press). As of mid-November it now appears in at least six papers, by my count: The Press, The Dominion Post, The Taranaki Daily News, The Waikato Times, The Manawatu Standard and The Southland Times.

This means it has potential to reach a much greater number of readers, across a pretty wide geographic base, on science-related topics. I think that’s something worth supporting.

The New Zealand Herald‘s science reporter Jamie Morton has continued to fill the paper with excellent stories. Morton was in Paris for the climate summit, in part funded by the Science Media Centre. Credit also goes to Radio New Zealand for sending political reporter Chris Bramwell to cover the summit: it was excellent to see some New Zealand media companies treating the Paris Agreement with the due respect it deserved.

Radio New Zealand has continued its long-running and beloved science and nature programme, Our Changing World. Also, Mediawatch has targeted several science topics this year and analysed how they have been treated in New Zealand media. My favourites were the supposed “mini ice age” coming in 15 years and the fallout over the World Health Organisation’s bizarre communication of its decision to move processed meats (including the beloved bacon) into the same cancer-causing category as tobacco and asbestos. (A refresher, if you don’t remember: that only indicates the strength of the evidence that the substance causes cancer and doesn’t say anything about the actual risk of getting cancer).

This kind of journalism, of topics that could easily be pushed aside as being “too complex” or too difficult to explain, should be celebrated. Colin Peacock regularly calls out other media for how they’ve handled stories and it’s excellent to see him giving science topics the same attention.

So, over to you: what have I missed? What have you read/seen/listened to in 2015 that stuck with you?

Featured image: Flickr CC, Tohoku, Japan, William Saito.


6 Responses to “Great science journalism from 2015”

  • “Why do many reasonable people doubt science?”

    “, naysayers, professional controversialists, and table thumpers. ”

    Do I trust someone who speaks like that, please, science lobby?

    Even a tinge of abuse makes me doubt. Am I the only one?

      • Dave Hansford, I am thinking of what Noam Chomsky once said:
        “Those statements and numerous others like them are in print, but they’re basically irrelevant because you have to understand that this is part of a Stalinist-style technique to silence critics of the holy state and therefore the truth is entirely irrelevant, you just tell as many lies as you can and hope that some of the mud will stick. It’s a standard technique used by the Stalinist parties, by the Nazis and by these guys.”
        Why would a scientist be describing another as a nasayer or table thumper? Because that is playing the man not the ball. The growing number of thinking people can see through it and know not to respect the source, but unfortunately a small but significant bandwagon are very happy with that approach from a losing team.

  • Dave Hansford, I hope you can see I am trying to deal with the form of argumentation, not which side is true. I am trying to say that using “play the man,” tactics is fundamentally weak when trying to fight climate change sceptics. (I am not a climate change sceptic if that makes any difference to some people’s ability to relate to what I am saying.)

    It is my belief that what goes across to many reasonable people from “play the man,” tactics is that this is just a slanging match and so we should be sceptical. And that may not be helpful in the confusion that some large corporates have admitted to feeding regards climate change. Those corporates have also been doing “great journalism”?