Wok on

I don’t want newspapers to die. I want present and future business models for monetizing the newspaper industry, whatever they might be, to succeed. If the New York Times went away tomorrow I would be inconsolable. When the pay wall eventually goes up, I will be among those who pony up without complaint. For now I savor being able to log on and read anything I want in the paper at any time. It is one of those things I both take for granted and am truly grateful for.

That said, when I read the Health section, I feel a disconnect (Grumpy Old Ingrate alert). Yes, I can learn about the latest in Alzheimer’s research and stem cell financing. But on the front page (12 September 2010) I see multiple references to stir-fry recipes and methods.  Indeed, three of the ten most-emailed health stories are “Recipes for Health.” Another is on tasty vegan cupcakes (a cause, I must say, to which I am not unsympathetic). Nevertheless, I am left with a sense that at some point, in the Grey Lady’s eyes, “Science” came mostly to mean “experiments,” while “Health” came mostly to mean “breezy news you can use.”

Lookit, I’m into personal genomics for chrissakes. I don’t have a problem with giving people information that is of personal, practical value to them.  I consume it myself and I have kids of my own: I would like to know, for example, if exposure to BPA has put them at risk.

But I wonder what we are losing when we, as writers and/or readers of health/medical/science journalism, insist on always cutting to the chase: the recipe, the diet, the drug, the surgical procedure, the exercise regimen, the insurance plan. “Just give us the answer,” we say…and in general the Times seems happy to oblige.

I have been thinking about this since reading Alice Bell’s thoughtful and provocative post on moving science journalism “upstream,” and some of the subsequent reaction to it. In school our teachers always asked us to “show our work.” Simply generating an answer was not sufficient. Nor should it be. I suspect, as I imagine Bell does, that the growing contempt for science stems in part from the opacity of the process and the disconnected dots that lead from hypothesis to state-of-the-art in health and wellness. (And it’s not only science and health: Do we want to understand our financial system at some rudimentary level or do we just want a hot stock tip?) It suggests that, more than ever, the time for a reboot is upon us.

Obviously utilitarian health coverage and nuts-and-bolts science/medicine stories are not mutually exclusive. God knows I love a good stir fry. But it seems to me that the menu has undergone a profound shift. And I fear that too much bok choy and noodles will ultimately poison us.

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