On Winning a 2010 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award

The Placebo Problem

Photo for Wired by Nick Veasey

I’m delighted and humbled to learn that my story, The Placebo Problem, published in the September 2009 issue of Wired, is the winner of this year’s Kavli Science Journalism award for a magazine feature. I’m grateful to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) — the biggest professional society for scientists in the world and publishers of the esteemed journal Science — for this distinguished honor. I also want to offer high-fives to my fellow winners in other categories. Good work!

Among the stories that took home an SJA this year are Charles Duhigg’s epic series on U.S. water quality and environmental law for the New York Times, Toxic Waters; Richard Harris’ and Alison Richards’ exposé for National Public Radio of the true quantity of oil and gas that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater blowout, Follow the Science; and Hillary Rosner’s beautifully written piece for a small-town newspaper about a species of fish that may only be able to survive with ongoing human intervention, One Tough Sucker.

My story is about the surprising power of the placebo effect — what happens in the brain and body when you think you’re taking medicine or receiving treatment — and the problems in the pharmaceutical industry caused by the increasing number of experimental drugs that are failing in clinical trials to outperform dummy pills used as controls.

It’s always gratifying to see a story you’ve worked hard on be embraced by readers, linked to by other journalists, and recognized by a venerable institution like the AAAS. Even Stephen Colbert ended up riffing on the seemingly absurd notion that sugar pills could perform better in a trial than an expensive experimental drug (at 4:00 in this video).

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Cheating Death – Snus & Placebo Effect<a>
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election March to Keep Fear Alive

I’m also happy to say that the piece has been reprinted in two anthologies: The Best American Science Writing of 2010, edited by one of my personal heroes, Dr. Jerome Groopman, and The Best Technology Writing of 2010, edited by another role model, Julian Dibbell, who helped set the tone of journalism in the digital age.

I think one reason that The Placebo Problem appealed to so many readers is that, in an era of health care when the answer for every quirk and malady is taking another pill, the behind-the-scenes travails of the pharmaceutical industry reveal that our bodies take a very active role in restoring and maintaining our health. This innate healing process can be jump-started by a wide range of stimuli — from the sight of a doctor proffering an injection, to undertaking a regular exercise program, to hearing the brand name of a drug we trust, to sitting down for a session of psychotherapy or meditation. What matters most is the expectation of getting better.

While the notion that sugar pills are becoming increasingly potent is as ridiculous as Colbert suggested, the real lesson of the placebo effect is that our own brains and bodies are much more powerful than we believe, and sometimes even more effective at relieving our ills — within a particular range of disorders, including chronic pain and mild depression — than some of the best drugs Big Pharma can come up with. That’s a hopeful and empowering lesson. By reporting on a statistical curiosity in clinical trials, I found myself peering into the very heart of medicine.

The kind of deep-dive journalism recognized and celebrated by the AAAS today is becoming increasingly more important to our own health and the future of our planet. The most crucial decisions we will face in our lifetimes — about medical treatment, climate and public policy, protection of human rights, and the world we’re leaving to our children — will depend upon the ability of skilled journalists to take concepts from such highly technical domains as epigenetics, oceanography, and bioinformatics, and translate them into terms that make sense to lay readers.

The integrity of the scientific method, and the character and conduct of scientists themselves, are also increasingly under attack in an overheated, easily distractable, hyper-partisan environment. The daily decisions made by editors, reporters, and bloggers have a decisive effect on the ability of their readers to recognize the forces at work in their lives, many of which would prefer to remain hidden. When the august Wall Street Journal runs 94 news stories and editorials about “ClimateGate” — the ginned-up controversy over emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit — we shouldn’t be surprised by polls indicating that a significant proportion of the population is confused about what most scientists really think about global warming.

In a media environment saturated with such blatant disinformation, it’s not only our job to report on the progress of science, it is our job to report on those who are working furiously — and with vast resources  — to demean and diminish the role of science in our society by framing scientists as merely another special-interest group with an agenda.

Happily, one of the most effective and efficient ways to get that information across is to tell accurate, engaging human stories. The richly deserved acclaim this year for Rebecca Skloot’s marvelous The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a dramatic demonstration of the power of a well-crafted narrative. This power is not dependent on any particular literary form or delivery system, as the range of 2010 SJA winners in print, online, and broadcast media attests.

Heck, it’s not even dependent on having an easily summarizable plot. My buddies at Radiolab — Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, and their oddball network of audio/visual prodigies — are Jedi of storytelling with, without, or beyond words.

Ongoing multimedia experiments like Radiolab — and bloggers like Jonah Lehrer, Alexis Madrigal, Ed Yong, and my colleagues here at PLoS — regularly remind me that science is not only important, it’s thrilling and awe-inspiring. I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, a time of great cultural enthusiasm about science. (The sound of a countdown in the voice of NASA Mission Control still sends a shiver of anticipation up my spine.) To inspire and nurture the next generation of scientists — who will have to tackle some very hard problems indeed — we need to communicate the excitement of 21st century science with a sense of wonder and vitality, as these writers do. We also have reporting and storytelling tools at our disposal — and ways of engaging the minds of a global readership — that journalists in the days of Apollo wouldn’t have dared to dream of.

At the same time, it’s time to show our readers who scientists really are.

One of the ironies of the Fox-style trashing of scientists and journalists as “arrogant elites” is that both vocations are bound by a particularly keen brand of humility. Both groups know that the universe is more complex than any idea we try to impose upon it, and is waiting all around us to be discovered anew. Neither vocation is easy (as poet Susan Mitchell put it, “The world is wily and doesn’t want to be caught”), but trying to do justice to that complexity is the boldest human endeavor.

I’m grateful to the AAAS for supporting that endeavor, and to the other SJA winners for showing me how it’s done.

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