When Science Meets a Great Writer: Silberman Speaks

Steve Silberman

If you care about how science writers collide with science to produce science writing — and if you’re reading anything at Wired Science, you do care, whether you realize it or not — then you’ll probably love this interview with Steve Silberman at the Open Notebook, where Steve relates how he wrote “The Placebo Problem,” a superb Wired feature that went on to win multiple prizes, including the coveted AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award.

I should disclose that Silberman is a friend of mine, dearer all the time, in fact — but I consider this not just a disclosure but a recommendation, for Steve became a friend,  and has grown dear to me, because of the same combination of intelligence, humor, and enormous humanity that he brings to his writing. All of that shows in the Placebo Problem and, in a  different way, in this “the making of” interview as well. The interview is full of good stories, insight into craft, and the sort of ferocious, stubborn determination to get the story right — to do the long, deeply (overly) researched stories that I also love to do.

A couple pearls. First, something Steve left on the cutting-room floor. He’s describing here some of the researchers he met and the sorts of things he learned from them:

One person I met [in Boston] was Ted Kaptchuk. One thing Kaptchuk did which was so important was that he gave me a copy of Henry Beecher’s original 1955 paper from the Journal of the American Medical Association, “The Powerful Placebo.” This paper, which established the template for the process by which all new drugs are tested for the pharmaceutical industry and is one of the most influential scientific papers of all time, was not online—but Kaptchuk gave me a Xerox of his Xerox. The paper had such a lasting influence on medicine and the pharmaceutical industry, I really wish some open-access journal, or JAMA itself, would make it available for free online. Kaptchuk also told me a story that haunted me. He’d been working in a chronic pain clinic in Boston, and kept hearing from the older patients that they always felt better after talking to one of the people in the clinic. However, that person was not a doctor; he was just someone responsible for referring people to doctors for care. So Kaptchuk eventually went up to the guy, whose name was Victor, and asked, “What the hell are you doing with these patients?” Victor explained that he was a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he had worked in the infirmary. The Nazis would give him a single aspirin to treat 500 people, and he would dissolve the aspirin in a bucket of water and then give everyone a sip of the water. Then he told Kaptchuk, “That’s how I learned to help people.”

Many would consider it a shame that Steve had to leave that out for space. And in a way it is. yet it’s also a sign of the kind of deep-and-wide research required to write a story of such quality. If you’re doing it right, you’re throwing out perhaps 80% to 90% of the stuff you have, and — with enormous pain — some 25% to 70% of the really good stuff. This is not to diss people who don’t have time to do that much. It’s to stress how to get it done — and to remind or tell readers of the sort of work that goes into the very best science (or other reported) writing you read.

Or, what Steve says:

Part of the success of this article is that it very much represents a model of media that is profoundly endangered these days. It was a very deeply reported story. The story was allowed to incubate over a long period of time. It was not a knee-jerk reaction to some current media obsession. I was given the time by Wired to immerse myself in the very deep scientific background of this profoundly complex subject, and come up with smart ideas about it. But the smart ideas bubble up through a pool of stupid ideas. The length of time that it required is not just for coming up with great ideas, but also getting rid of my stupid preconceptions.

So go read this lovely, too-brief interview, and the article as well.

For yet more Silberman, see his website, his superb blog, NeuroTribes, or  his tweets. The man’s been doing it a while, but really, he’s just getting started.

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