Fall 2002

Scientific Conversations

After interviewing political leaders, a journalist uncovers the real revolution by talking with scientists.

By Claudia Dreifus

In nearly 30 years as a magazine and newspaper journalist, New York Times writer Claudia Dreifus honed her skills as a political interviewer as a witness to revolutions and civil wars and domestic political crises. In 1998, she joined the team at Science Times as a contributing writer at the invitation of its editor, Cornelia Dean, who wanted to add an interview feature to the weekly section. In an edited excerpt from the introduction she wrote to her recent book, “Scientific Conversations: Interviews on Science from The New York Times,” Dreifus describes how she transferred her skills from the coverage of politics to science.

It turned out that my outsider status to the culture of science was a plus; it gave me the chance to be a kind of medium for the reader with hard-to-grasp concepts. I didn’t come into interviews with a lot of baggage. And in science, as in politics, there exists the counterpart of ideology.

As a newcomer to the field, sources didn’t have any particular notions about who I was and what I thought, and so they distorted themselves less to please me than they might have with a science insider. Moreover, the procedural reality that every time I faced a new topic I needed to teach it to myself meant that I was an excellent translator for difficult ideas. In order to “get it” myself, I had to break things down to their simplest level.

And then there was another bonus. Scientists, unlike politicians and film stars, had not, for the most part, been over-interviewed. More often than not, they came to an interview without a posse of professional handlers, but with great unheard stories to tell. In an era when Jennifer Lopez’s outfits are the stuff of headlines, the media had mostly ignored this crowd. My science sources were not spoiled.

One of the cardinal rules of interviewing is to try to pick subjects who actually want to talk. With a science beat, I now had a whole field full of virgin subject matter to explore. All this freed me to be far more creative, I believe, than I’ve had the chance to be before.

Interviewing, to me, is an art form—but it is one where both sides of the process must be willing to perform. I am more of a developmental than a confrontational interviewer; I prefer to like the people I write about and through a process of exploration and empathy, extract their stories from them. On the science beat, I’d hit interviewer’s heaven.

Covering A Real Revolution

By leaving the world of politics, I was astonished to discover that I was getting a chance to witness a real revolution. Over the years, I’d reported on the upheavals of my time. I was in Northern Ireland in 1969 when a civil rights campaign exploded into the vicious civil conflict still known to the world as “The Troubles.” I went to Nicaragua in the 1980’s and to Chile in the winter of 1990, when an election pushed a dictator out of the presidential palace and opened the door to the redemocratization of that wounded nation. But on the fourth floor of The New York Times building, the place where the science section of the paper is produced, I’ve witnessed an extraordinary amount of real social and, ultimately, political change.

Think of this: In the time I’ve been working in science, Dolly the Sheep was cloned, the Genome Project’s completion was announced, signs of water on Mars were photographed, new planets were discovered, the Internet became ubiquitous, and many of the mysteries of Alzheimer’s were untangled. And within science itself, there has been an internal revolution to observe: the changing face of who gets to do the research. In 1970, when I was just out of university, the number of women in science was at 13.6 percent; 20 years later, it was 33.5 percent, and growing.

One of the things I came to abhor on my old political beat was how packaged most politicians had become. In the 1960’s, when I first began writing, public life was full of vivid characters. In the U.S. Senate alone, there were giants like J. William Fulbright, Barry Goldwater, Robert F. Kennedy, and that constitutional curmudgeon, Sam Ervin. In this era of sound bite wariness, most officeholders are so cautious that there’s rarely a point to a question-and-answer-style interview. The openness to make a Q. and A. successful is, mostly, absent.

But scientists-as-subjects were certainly not overinterviewed and they were certainly not prepackaged. The entire field—from astronomy to zoology—was chock-full of quirky individuals who had no problem with being themselves. Artificial intelligence guru Marvin Minsky met me at the door of his Boston home wearing a shirt festooned with masking tape. Primatolo-gist Emily Sue Savage-Rumbaugh lived with her family of bonobo apes at their facilities within her Georgia State University Research Station. The great mathematician Sir Roger Penrose had Lego toys strewn about his office at Oxford University. This gentle genius liked playing with them.

Interviewing Techniques

In my 1997 book, “Interview,” I wrote extensively about the Zen of interviewing. Except for the subject matter, interviewing techniques are similar in politics, culture and science. Some of my methods may sound obvious. But in journalism, as in cooking, the simple can be sublime. One of the great journalists of the 20th century was a Timesman named Homer Bigart who, in the field, asked questions with the ingenuity of a child.

My basic rules for any type of print interview: Pick an interesting interviewee who wants to talk, learn your subject matter as well as you can, prepare a line of questioning in advance, but don’t necessarily stick to it. The vital thing is to stand back and let the interviewee do the talking.

The most important decision interviewers make is in picking a subject. Because in a Q. and A. the words that are elicited are what ultimately make up the body of the article, finding an articulate source is key. This might seem terribly obvious. But in Q. and A.’s, a journalist does not have the saving option of filling out a disastrous interview with interesting reporting. If the discussion on tape is sparse, the interviewer will go home empty-handed—a situation highly displeasing to editors. This fact of life can lead to some heavy-handed triage in the choosing of subjects. But I’d say: In most cases, if a source has a reputation for being a poor storyteller, if they are known to be reticent, or to talk prepackaged sound bites, it’s best to pass on them.

I try to prepare for an interview the way a Ph.D. candidate might for their orals. I read everything about the subject that I can get my hands on. I look at competing works for ideas about alternate theories or practices or both. Though it’s gauche, I’ll phone up a would-be source and see how they fare in a dry run over the telephone. Moreover, I may ask the subject to give me the names of close friends or colleagues so that I can do a preinterview with them. Often I ask them, “Tell me something about Dr. So and So that no one knows about her.” Then, I’ll fashion a question from this tidbit of intelligence.

The first question I ask in the actual interview session is critical. It sets the tone for everything that will happen subsequently. It shows that I’m serious, that I’ve done my preparation, and thought a lot about the subject and his or her work. I often spend a huge hunk of my preparation time on fashioning a lead question that I hope will create some good ignition.

The Interview

About what happens in the interview session itself: Some of it is magic. Don’t ask me to quantify it. What can be said is that successful interviews are about being a good listener—about the spark of conversation and ideas, about the chemistry of personalities. I’ll have my bag of questions, but I’m always willing to stray from them.

Very often, I’ll ask to do the interview in a setting that the source is comfortable with, but one where they will not be posturing—for example, their office or their laboratory. I best like to interview people in their homes. They’ll be relaxed there, and I’ll also find clues around—artwork on the wall, books in the library, photographs on the mantle—that can lead to revelatory insights. Sometimes—and this usually works well—an interview will take place in the field. I interviewed ornithologist Luis F. Baptista in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park while he described the soap opera life of his local friends, the sparrows, to me.

When I return to my desk, I’ll transcribe the tapes myself. Though this is tedious and no doubt an invitation to carpal tunnel troubles, it does give me a sense of the subject’s language rhythms, intonations and what they actually mean by a specific phrase. It’s important to leave real language in; one wants to hear distinct voices. Later, I’ll rout through the finished transcript, eliminate dull or repetitive sections, find the spine of the piece, and pull it all together.

When it comes to the writing stage of the interview, I like to think of myself as something like a playwright. In effect, I am creating a two-person play—where the journalist is the minor character. I try to use my questions to move the interview along, not to show the readers how clever I am.

The tendency for interviewers to use their stories to show themselves off is one of the lamentable results of undisciplined interviewing. Not every journalist is an interviewer. It’s a skill that requires training, tact and, most certainly, restraint. The reporter who can’t stand back shouldn’t do it.

At the same time—and this is not contradictory—interviewing is a part of journalism that requires that the reporter use more of his or her personality than other types of work. When I walk into an interview, I am bringing everything I am—my personality, my education, my ideas, my temperament, and my life experiences. I am looking for a kind of intimate connection with my subject—something like transference—and I’m looking to establish it quickly.

Back to science interviewing: At the end of the day, what makes science interviewing such a blast is how marvelous the people are and how many of the important changes for our lives and societies in the 21st century will, very likely, come from them—revolutionaries, indeed.

Indeed, in these times, a good political journalist must, absolutely, know her science. As I write these words, just about every major policy issue that the administration of President George W. Bush is confronting has a science component to it—global warming, homeland defense, fetal tissue research, stem cell therapies, the proposed anti-missile defense system, the possible resumption of nuclear arms testing, oil drilling in the Alaskan arctic. By moving onto a new beat, I’ve recovered my old one, and it is a privilege to have gained the knowledge that permits me to be a part of the debate.

Claudia Dreifus is a contributing writer to the Science Times section of The New York Times. Text reprinted by permission © 2001, The New York Times. From “Scientific Conversations: Interviews on Science from The New York Times,” Times Books/Henry Holt.


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