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Election Day, Beyond Politics

By Carl ZimmerNovember 6, 2008 3:38 AM


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This morning as I was about to board a plane, my phone rang. A reporter with Scientific American wanted to ask me about my father's campaign for the US Senate. She wanted to talk to me, a science writer, about my father's experience with science as a Congressman from New Jersey and as a Senate candidate.

As a journalist, I've never written about my dad. For the most part, I think it's a bad idea for science writers to dispense political opinions anywhere except over a beer. We're entitled to our views like anyone else, but we should not blur the line between our views and the science we write about. If I am writing about DNA, I do not have to know the party of the geneticist I'm interviewing. Science is not Democratic or Republican. If science writers split their time between political commentary and straight science, readers may come to doubt their accuracy. That's not to say that science writers shouldn't demolish non-science disinformation when they see it, even if it comes from a politician. I don't mind if people think I'm biased in favor of continental drift. But I do mind if they think I report things only because they fit my personal ideology.

I've tried to be particularly scrupulous when it comes to my father's work as a politician. So when the reporter today asked to talk, I said I didn't think it would be appropriate. Here's what came of that exchange. It's one of the stranger news hooks I've ever come across, but I was glad that the story revisits some of my father's experiences with science. Yet I have to say that when I read my no-comment at the end, I seemed like a bit of a prude.

So, let me just note here that my father, the erstwhile chemistry student, helped me become fascinated by science. My father, the AP stringer, made me a better writer by showing me how any writing can always be made better. My father the candidate continues to show me how to conduct oneself with dignity and wit, to be fearless when there is reason to fear. That is my comment.

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