“How Full of Sh*t Are They?” and Other Questions Writers Ask

Q: Is that a real skull?  

A: Yes

Q: Just how full of shit are they — like, completely?

A: Completely.

What kinds of questions do writers ask? Particularly when writing a book about science? The writer Charles Quoi asked that question of me and several other writers the other day for an article at The Open Notebook, the splendid site about the craft of writing about science. The article, drawing on insight from Deborah Blum, Matthew Hutson, Maggie Koerth-Baker, Maryn McKenna, and Carl Zimmer, is full of good fun useful stuff. My own answer is below:


The questions I ask when writing a book are of two kinds:

First, I ask all the kinds of questions I’d ask writing an article on the same subject – very much the sorts of questions you’ve outlined in your article at Scientific American [CQC: which you can read here].

Second, over months and months I ask another huge string — a pile, a truckload, a Nile of questions – that are hard to characterize outside the context of a particular project. Why? Because these additional questions usually follow from the answers to the first line of questions. Their entire point is to get past that first layer to other, deeper, hidden layers — to many, many., many details about the science (90% of which I won’t use), as well as details and background and motivations of the people in the book (ditto).

I tend to write about science that is pushing the edge of evidence — it involves tensions that I feel are at the heart of science and reveal a lot about why both humankind and individual people get into science. When I wrote about such arguments taking place in the 19th century, I could know how the argument turned out, and getting the science right was relatively easy. It’s a lot harder when writing about cutting-edge science being done today. I’m not here to adjudicate who’s right; that’s not my call — it’s history’s. But I need to understand the science — science that confuses and confounds and divides researchers — well enough to get a sense of how far the more aggressive people are leaning out over the evidence. That’s the tension I’m after, and to know it I need to see all the strands. This is hard, if you’re doing it right, and of course the science is advancing as I study it. It’s a bit crazy.

Anyway, that same difficulty produces tension in the scientists’ lives, and to get that I need to ask them a lot of questions. I ask them questions about the science and about themselves to the point of them getting sick of me, in some cases beyond. I ask questions that seem to have nothing to do with anything – this seems to bother scientists particularly — and I ask questions that I’ve asked before. I do that partly because I may get more information and partly because their thinking might change. (Just last week, someone told me, “Actually I have changed my thinking a bit on that.”) And I want to know them as people, and that takes a lot of questions, both direct and indirect, about where and how they grew up and how they got started and other questions that are better to keep to myself for now.

Take all that together and you can see why it’s hard to name particular questions I’d ask in a book that I wouldn’t for an article: it’s like predicting what you’d be talking about 20 days into a 400-day conversation. It gets detailed. It gets personal. It gets repetitive and also, sometimes because it’s repetitive, it goes places you don’t expect. The questions can seem weird taken out of context.

But they’re also fun. So here are a few questions that I’ve asked various people just over the last month, for instance, as I work on my book about the genetics of temperament. These come from different parts of different interviews; no two shown consecutively here were asked in any given interview.

Q: Is that a real skull?  

A: Yes

Q: Just how full of shit are they — like, completely?

A: Completely.

Q: How many monkeys we talking about?

A: Forty-nine.

Q: Is that thing poisonous?

A: Not anymore.

Q: These guys jump out of airplanes at night at 10,000 feet into combat, and they’re scared to swim?

A: Some of them.

Q: In what sense is the science getting too far in front of itself?

A: It’s complicated.

Q: Would a really big canoe impress you?

A: Definitely! I’d get in that thing.

Q: So in three months he went from being a disorganized jerk to a focused machine. What changed?

A: He grew up.

Q: What do you mean when you say you still feel a “cautiously optimistic vaguely skeptical pessimism?”

A: Just what it sounds like.

Q: How did she do it?

A: [Too distressing to relate.]

Q: So is gene expression a downstream trait — or is it the stream?

A: Both.

Q: I want to make sure I have this: the frogs with the longest legs migrated farthest and fastest, to make a migratory wave-front; mated with other long-legged frogs at the front; and so over generations the frogs at the front became even more longer-legged. Right?

A: Right.

Q: Five minutes ago you said geneticists don’t like to talk about ‘why’ — but you just did. Why?

A: I didn’t.

Q: Wait: The truck actually took you all the way from Ohio to Miami, then broke down at the end of the exit ramp? Like, the very end?

A: Pretty much. The truck broke down on the exit ramp and rolled into Bayfront Park. There was this apartment house right next to that — a flophouse. I lived there a while where drunks died in the hallway at night. Started doing labor. Worked in a silkscreen shop for two dollars an hour. There was no battle plan.

These are the kinds of questions I get to ask. This is one of many reasons I love my job — and why it’s often hard, especially when writing a book, to stop asking questions and write the damned book. You know there’s more gold out there — and all you have to do to get it is ask the right question.


More fun of that sort over at The Open Notebook, which is chock full of useful fascinations.



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