The pandemic was unexpected for everyone, science writers included. But how did journalists prepare themselves to cover the unpredictable course of the virus? For Ed Yong, a science journalist for The Atlantic, it was all about the bigger picture. Similar to many science writers in the industry, Yong had to shift gears when COVID-19 hit. He went from writing about animal behavior and the origins of life to suddenly covering stories related to the pandemic. Throughout his coverage of the virus, which would win him the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting, he continued to grapple with the idea that science writing and reporting was about so much more than just spitting out mere facts on the latest research.
The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2021 stands as an example of the different ways in which science writing can be about more than just science. The 26 different stories in the anthology, compiled by Yong and series editor, Jaime Green, reflect a new era of science writing that combines cultural, sociopolitical and personal spheres. The collection features a variety of topics from the outbreak and effects of COVID-19 to pressing global issues such as climate change and pollution.
Yes, pandemic coverage can be extensive and exhausting. But it can also provide a holistic view of the intersection of science, humanity and culture. The collection of stories in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2021 is a testament to how science can be integrated into every aspect of society.
Discover spoke to Yong to learn more about what it means to write about science and nature today.
Q: As a science writer, can you tell us how science and nature writing was impacted during the pandemic?
A: I think that the pandemic has been easily the most important story of the last couple of years and I think it is very easy to go into that thinking of it as a science and health and nature story. Obviously, it is partly that — it is about a virus — to understand it, you need to understand the immune system and principles of epidemiology, but it is also much more than that. The pandemic touches on every aspect of our society. It affects the education system; it’s about our psychology and America’s longstanding neglect of public health. It’s nursing homes and prisons and attitudes towards individualism. To see it as only a science story is to miss out on the true complexity of the pandemic and what it means for all of us.
The types of writing that I’ve tried to do over the last two years have been to look at the pandemic through as wide of a lens as possible by not talking to just biomedical scientists, but also sociologists and anthropologists. Now, this is hardly a new perspective. I think this is the way that a lot of science writers have been gravitating for many years now because many pressing issues of the modern age, whether it is climate change or the rise of new infectious diseases or the loss of biodiversity, are all everything stories of which science is a crucial part, but merely a part.
Q: Can you tell me how about how you prepared yourself to cover and write about COVID-19?
A: Often with science writing what we end up doing is to focus on the individual paper as the atomic unit of coverage. And I think that has a role in the pandemic. But it's also a little limited in its ability to provide clarity for our readers because there are so many papers, and their views change so often, even contradicting each other. So just to cover them in an isolated and fragmented bit-by-bit way creates this oscillating picture that doesn’t actually help people in understanding what’s happening. So, by necessity, the pieces that I wrote were much larger in scope, that tried to answer bigger questions rather than just what a new study says. I tried to expand the scope of each piece in both space and time. By space, I mean trying to cover disciplines that aren’t just health and science and by time, I mean by thinking and looking at our history as well as our future of what is to come. Much of what we’ve seen unfold in the pandemic is strongly influenced by the last century. It has shaped how we view diseases and how medicine and public health have faced up against each other and I think without that context it is hard to fully grapple with what is happening to us in the present moment.
Q: Tell me a little bit about compiling the 26 different stories in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2021. What was that process like?
A: A huge amount of credit goes out to the series editor, Jaime Green, who did a phenomenal job in curating a large number of the pieces. She sent me a list of around 100 pieces to which I added a bunch of science stories that I had also come across in the last year. It was then narrowed down to a final set of 26 that stood out for a number of reasons — in the elegance of their prose, the clarity of their writing, and just the complexity with which they looked at the world. Some of these stories were about the pandemic. I think about one-third of them are and a lot of them are not. Some of them are also about big problems of our time like climate change, the loss of species and pollution. Others include a cultural history of color or even what families of children with Down syndrome go through. They are very wide-ranging in their scope and that was important to me. The pandemic was a huge story, but it’s not the only story out there and a lot of science writers devoted their year to telling other important tales that really needed to be told.
I think what unites a lot of the pieces that I chose were that they echoed the themes of what I mentioned earlier, of science writing being more than just a narrow focus of science. All of these pieces are absolutely about science, but they are also about more than that. They are about our humanity, the way in which we interact with science and the way in which science is braided into the nature of society. Just to take some examples, even if you look at the pandemic pieces, we have stories like Roxanne Khamsi's piece on the airborne nature of the coronavirus. It’s probably one of the more hardcore science pieces in this anthology, but also talks about how the understanding of aerosol transmission was shaped by decades of understanding and misunderstanding about infectious diseases. It’s a piece just as much about the sociology of science as it is about science itself.
The same goes for Susan Dominus's piece about COVID drug wars that pitted doctor vs. doctor. That could have been a very staid piece about which medicines work and don’t, but instead it is a beautifully rich examination about how people who want the best for their patients cope with insufficient evidence and a pressing need in the middle of a crisis.
All of the pieces, I think, take a similar form. Some of them are by folks who would probably never categorize themselves as science and nature writers, while some of them are going to be quite difficult to categorize as science and nature writing if what you are traditionally used to are summaries of new papers. I think for the same reasons that the pandemic was more than just a science story, science writing in 2021 should be hard to categorize because it should reflect how thoroughly science and nature are enmeshed with who we are and how our societies work.
Q: Would you say your definition of what it means to be a science writer has shifted and changed throughout the pandemic?
A: Maybe in a gradual way. I think it reflects things I’ve been thinking about for a long time and certainly things that other writers have been grappling with, too. The fact that there were 26 amazing pieces in this anthology, and many more that made it into the honorable mentions, clearly shows that this expansive model of what science writing is is already out there and being practiced by people who aren’t just me. I think it is clear to me that science writing should be about everything and that everything is a kind of science writing. The pandemic intensifies and confirms that model.
Q: If you had to give a piece of advice to current or future science writers, what would it be?
A: I would say to read broadly and omnivorously. So much of what I’ve learned this year that I think has enriched the pieces that I’ve written have come from talking to people that aren’t regularly being consulted by most people in the science writing field. It comes from taking time to read about the history of the fields that I’m covering. If you look at this anthology, you will see a wide range of topics and a wide range of different experiences. You will read Heather Hogan's piece about grappling with disability and experiencing long COVID or Latria Graham's story on being a Black person in the American outdoors. I think getting all those perspectives from a diverse segment of society greatly enriches the kind of work we can do and opens up new possibilities in the types of writing we can pull off. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.