Teaching Journalism Students to Report on Science

Once upon a time science writing was simple: A reporter would read published studies in the scientific literature and write about the latest wonder of research or miracle of medicine.  Things have gotten more complicated since those early days of science journalism. The spread of pollution, the Vietnam war, the Chernobyl meltdown, the Challenger explosion, the emergence of AIDS and antibiotic-resistant bacteria have all revealed a darker, more vulnerable side of science. This is not to say science has gone bad: Our lives have been extended through medical advances and improvements in diet and made more convenient with personal computers and inventions so ubiquitous we take them for granted. Science has become a complex story that can no longer be portrayed as an isolated or idealistic pursuit. What happens in science affects us all and is influenced—even shaped—by money, special interests, and politics. In short, we need to report science as part of the real world.
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On a Wave and a Prayer in Taghazout

I was paddling into position to catch my next wave when the call to prayer sounded from the village across the beach. It was a low, mesmerizing moan.

“Allah Akhbar!’’ (“God is great.’’) A reminder of our humility. On a barren hillside in the distance someone had arranged enormous white-painted rocks to spell in Arabic:

“God. Nation. King.’’

Dude, I thought, you are a long way from Cape Cod.

I had come to Morocco to visit my oldest son, who was spending a junior semester learning Arabic. But as I was planning the trip my surfing buddies in New England told me I would be crazy to pass up Morocco’s world-class waves. Like most Americans, I had never associated surfing and Morocco. 
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Spark of Truth: Can Science Bring Justice to Arson Trials?

On a rainy spring morning in eastern Kentucky, Greg Gorbett prepares to commit arson. His target is a tidy but cheerless one-bedroom apartment with the kind of mauve-colored carpet, couches, tables, and lamps you would find in a cheap motel. Gorbett is not the only one eager to see the place burn. A handful of other fire scientists and grad students from Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) are checking equipment in the test room as well. They have gathered at the EKU fire lab, a concrete structure in an open meadow as close to nowhere as possible, to document in exacting detail the life cycle of a blaze.
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The Myth of CSI

The Controversy about whether the state’s chief medical examiner falsified his credentials puts one more crack in our national myth about crime scene investigations. That myth, created by the CSI shows that have been a staple of TV for the past decade, portray crime labs as models of ultra-modern efficiency, where dedicated investigators use stateof-the-art (or even fictional) science to solve impossible cases in the course of an hour.

Over the past several years we’ve learned that the image is quite far from reality. The quality of American crime scene forensics is wildly inconsistent: many labs have poorly trained investigators, antiquated equipment, and cases backed up for weeks. In some labs, investigators have purposely altered test results in order to get findings that favor the prosecution. Here are a few recent examples:
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$1,000 for Your Genome?

Imagine if doctors could tell you what diseases you’re most susceptible to before you get sick—and if scientists could create medicines to fit your personal genetics. George Church sees that day dawning. When scientists sequenced the human genome in 2003, George Church let everyone else sing their praises. He was as thrilled as any other geneticist, but he rued the cost of completing the job—an estimated $3 billion. No individual, of course, was going to get his or her own genome sequenced at that price. And few could today, now that the estimated cost has dropped to $20 million. “I’m very frustrated by that,” Church says.
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When Surgeon Leave Medical Instruments in Patients

DR. ATUL GAWANDE IS conducting a simulated thyroid removal at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The operation is a bloody procedure.  It involves about 100 instruments and dozens of surgical sponges, small gauzelike pads used for sopping up blood. Each time Gawande asks for more sponges, the nurses count them aloud before handing them over—the standard way of keeping track of equipment to make sure nothing gets left inside the patient. Later, as he’s getting ready to close, an exchange takes place that no surgeon wants to hear.

“Do you have all the sponges?” says one of the nurses.

 “I count 27, so three must still be in there.”

“I don’t see any,” says the other.

“Um, keep checking.”

Gawande knows what usually comes next –a frustrating process of counting and recounting to make sure nothing gets left inside the patient. Or they might have to use an X-ray to detect one of the reflective strips on each sponge. Or do a scavenger hunt inside the open cavity, pushing the organs this way and that.
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The Cuban Biotech Revolution

The end of the cold war was cruel to Cuba. The country’s trading partners, denied Soviet largesse, dried up. Hard cash ran low. What food the country could grow languished in the fields; trucks didn’t have enough gasoline to bring the crops to market. And of course there was the US embargo.

What Cubans call “the Special Period” produced one notable success: pharmaceuticals. In the wake of the Soviet collapse, Cuba got so good at making knockoff drugs that a thriving industry took hold. Today the country is the largest medicine exporter in Latin America and has more than 50 nations on its client list. Cuban meds cost far less than their first-world counterparts, and Fidel Castro’s government has helped China, Malaysia, India, and Iran set up their own factories: “south-to-south technology transfer.”
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Senseless Crackdown on Cuba

While America was watching the images of abused Iraqi prisoners, I saw the same images from my hotel room in another country slated for regime change: Cuba. I’d gone there to do research on that nation’s biotech industry. During the week I spent there I learned more about my own country than I’d expected — much of it disappointing. I’d always been an agnostic on Castro and Cuba, but it’s hard to remain that way after seeing the collateral effects of our four-decade embargo. Whole sections of Havana seem to be decaying. Hospitals exist day to day on medicines, researchers improvise scientific equipment, and there are national shortages in just about everything. Even accounting for Cuban mismanagement, world health authorities have linked the embargo and its ripple effects to epidemics and food shortages.
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Intensive Care

Paul Levy, who led the successful cleanup of Boston Harbor, is now trying to cure the ailing Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Will his managerial magic work this time?
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Bad Blood

If you turned on your television in the immediate aftermath of September 11, you probably saw images of Americans—tens of thousands of them across the country—lining up to give blood. This patriotic offering brought tears to the eyes of many of us. Unfortunately, it created nothing but trouble for the nation’s blood banks. Faced with an unprecedented turnout, the American Red Cross and other organizations over collected so massively that they had to discard thousands of gallons of the perishable liquid. The donor crush caused a cascade of problems: Money was wasted; sub-par blood was collected; and other components, such as platelets, were neglected. Even worse was the general loss of faith in America’s blood-collection system that produced a slump in donations from which we’re still trying to recover.
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