`Scientific Conversations': After Interviewing Political Leaders, a Journalist Uncovers the Real Revolution by Talking with Scientists. (Science Journalism)

By Dreifus, Claudia | Nieman Reports, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

`Scientific Conversations': After Interviewing Political Leaders, a Journalist Uncovers the Real Revolution by Talking with Scientists. (Science Journalism)


Dreifus, Claudia, Nieman Reports


In nearly 30 years as a magazine and newspaper journalist, New York Times writer Claudia Dreifus honed her skills as apolitical interviewer as a witness to revolutions and civil wars and domestic political crises. In 1998, she joined the team at Science Times as a contributing writer at the invitation of its editor, Cornelia Dean, who wanted to add an interview feature to the weekly section. In an edited excerpt from the introduction she wrote to her recent book, "Scientific Conversations: Interviews on Science from The New York Times, "Dreifus describes how she transferred her skills from the coverage of politics to science.

It turned out that my outsider status to the culture of science was a plus; it gave me the chance to be a kind of medium for the reader with hard-to-grasp concepts. I didn't come into interviews with a lot of baggage. And in science, as in politics, there exists the counterpart of ideology.

As a newcomer to the field, sources didn't have any particular notions about who I was and what I thought, and so they distorted themselves less to please me than they might have with a science insider. Moreover, the procedural reality that every time I faced a new topic I needed to teach it to myself meant that I was an excellent translator for difficult ideas. In order to "get it" myself, I had to break things down to their simplest level.

And then there was another bonus. Scientists, unlike politicians and film stars, had not, for the most part, been over-interviewed. More often than not, they came to an interview without a posse of professional handlers, but with great unheard stories to tell. In an era when Jennifer Lopez's outfits are the stuff of headlines, the media had mostly ignored this crowd. My science sources were not spoiled.

One of the cardinal rules of interviewing is to try to pick subjects who actually want to talk. With a science beat, I now had a whole field full of virgin subject matter to explore. All this freed me to be far more creative, I believe, than I've had the chance to be before.

Interviewing, to me, is an art form--but it is one where both sides of the process must be willing to perform. I am more of a developmental than a confrontational interviewer; I prefer to like the people I write about and through a process of exploration and empathy, extract their stories from them. On the science beat, I'd hit interviewer's heaven.

Covering A Real Revolution

By leaving the world of politics, I was astonished to discover that I was getting a chance to witness a real revolution. Over the years, I'd reported on the upheavals of my time. I was in Northern Ireland in 1969 when a civil rights campaign exploded into the vicious civil conflict still known to the world as "The Troubles." I went to Nicaragua in the 1980's and to Chile in the winter of 1990, when an election pushed a dictator out of the presidential palace and opened the door to the redemocratization of that wounded nation. But on the fourth floor of The New York Times building, the place where the science section of the paper is produced, I've witnessed an extraordinary amount of real social and, ultimately, political change.

Think of this: In the time I've been working in science, Dolly the Sheep was cloned, the Genome Project's completion was announced, signs of water on Mars were photographed, new planets were discovered, the Internet became ubiquitous, and many of the mysteries of Alzheimer's were untangled. And within science itself, there has been an internal revolution to observe: the changing lace of who gets to do the research. In 1970, when I was just out of university, the number of women in science was at 13.6 percent; 20 years later, it was 33.5 percent, and growing.

One of the things I came to abhor on my old political beat was how packaged most politicians had become. In the 1960's, when I first began writing, public life was full of vivid characters. …

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