Writing when you have a strong opinion

By Paul McDivitt

When science journalist Gary Taubes speaks publicly about nutrition and weight loss, he’s wary of mentioning carbohydrates too early in the presentation, especially when he knows there are physicians in the audience. He doesn’t want to be dismissed as “one of those Atkins people.”

This is a problem many science writers face. How do you clearly communicate where the evidence lies without coming off as biased, turning off many readers?

Maia Szalavitz, Christie Aschwanden, Julie Rehmeyer, Gary Taubes, Pamela Weintraub

Left to right: Maia Szalavitz, Christie Aschwanden, Julie Rehmeyer, Gary Taubes, and Pamela Weintraub.

That was the topic of a ScienceWriters2016 panel on writing when you have a strong opinion, which Taubes was a part of. Taubes, the author of several books on nutrition and weight loss, clearly has a strong opinion on these issues. He’s spent countless hours scouring journal articles and interviewing scientists, and gets frustrated by the popular narrative that obesity is a personal choice and not a disease.

Similarly, Christie Aschwanden, a science writer at FiveThirtyEight who also participated in the panel, developed a strong opinion on a scientific issue through investigative journalism. She was surprised to learn that the risks associated with getting a mammogram to screen for breast cancer weren't being properly accounted for or communicated to patients.

The other three panelists, freelancers Maia Szalavitz and Julie Rehmeyer, and Pamela Weintraub, the neuroscience and medical editor at Aeon, developed their strong opinions through personal experience. Szalavitz’s struggles with drug addiction led her to challenge the conventional wisdom on addiction treatment. Rehmeyer, who moderated the panel, was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and has been fighting the stigma that CFS is a psychological disorder and not a physical disease. Weintraub’s son contracted Lyme disease, and found long-sought-after relief from what she called the “Wild West” of Lyme disease doctors, those outside of the mainstream medical establishment.

All three turned their personal experience into journalism. While personal experience can often be a conflict of interest, it can also be a powerful motivator. These journalists desperately wanted to get to the truth.

The panelists agreed that it can be difficult to keep an open mind as journalists when their past reporting and personal experience come into play. But they all recognize that it’s their job, and have found ways to manage their biases.

Aschwanden recommends being especially open to the side that seems wrong at first. Give them the opportunity to make their case, and be sure to pay attention to their strongest arguments and not just focus on their weakest, easiest to refute arguments.

Taubes quotes famed physicist Richard Feynman in suggesting that you should bend over backwards to explain why you’re wrong, because you’re the easiest person to fool. Our brains are hardwired to see what we want to see, so we have to be especially careful, and critical, when we begin to develop a strong opinion on a topic. According to Taubes, this is the mark of a good journalist, and a good scientist. He often asks scientists he’s interviewing, “how could you be wrong?” in order to see if they can interrogate their own hypothesis.

But he also recognizes that our biases never go away. It’s impossible not to fool yourself to a certain degree.

And that’s why editors exist.