Tuesday, June 21, 2005

On Writing: Flabby Coverage

The second (and sadly final) installment of my Popular Science column "Mediascope" just hit the press (in the July 2005 issue). This time, I go into the truly embarrassing way the media covered the recent CDC obesity studies. Unfortunately, as the July issue hit the news stand, Popular Science decided to nix the entire column section of the magazine (with columns by me and two other writers), to make room for new features they wouldn't have space for otherwise. And just when I was starting to have fun with it ...

But the good news is, I've been talking to an editor at a different (yet-to-be-named) magazine, who will hopefully pick up where Popular Science left off. So for all you folks out there who've been emailing me saying how much you appreciate the column, stay tuned: I'll post an update as soon as I know where it will be published from here on.

As for the book: The deadline clock is ticking (very loud -- if I could find a way to turn it down, I would. It has a tendency to wake me up at night). But all is going very well. I have written more in the last few months than I thought was humanly possible. Who knew a person's arms and legs could get so sore from just sitting in one place without moving for so (SO) long ... at least I have a beautiful view (and air conditioning).

So, without further delay, here's my latest column. Obesity is a very sensitive and complicated issue -- especially in this country -- so this column is one I imagine I'll hear from a lot of readers about. (I've already gotten responses asking all kinds of questions; I'll post my replies here as soon as I'm able to write them.) Until then, here's the column:

A few weeks ago, I was eating in a restaurant in West Virginia (the second fattest state in the country), staring blankly at a television and thinking, I really should join a gym; this sitting-on-my-butt-all-day-occupation is showing. Suddenly the newscaster said, "Before you start that next diet, you won't want to miss this one! A new study suggests that those few extra pounds may actually help you live longer." To say there was a collective sigh of relief in the restaurant -- in the entire country -- would be an understatement. I found myself surrounded by strangers gaping at each other as if the newscaster had just announced the end of a military occupation: Did you hear that? We're free! They joked about ordering more pie, and I half expected them to start toasting each other with French fries.

The headlines read like a dream: "Gov't Overstated Danger of Obesity," "Fat May Be Good." Two New York Times columnists said that the fight against obesity had "lost the scientific high ground." They taunted "people who work out, eat responsibly," those "salad-munching health nuts" who, they gloated, would die young because, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, overweight people actually live longer than normal-weight people."

But wait: Only a month earlier, the Washington Post had reported a high-profile University of Illinois study showing that skyrocketing obesity rates are shortening life spans "[more] than the impact of car accidents, homicides and suicides combined." And major news outlets said studies revealed that "obesity triples the risk of dementia" and causes breathing problems. So what's the deal?

... click here for the rest of the column.

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Thursday, June 02, 2005

On Writing: Mediascope

Today (actually, yesterday) marks the first day of my new column for Popular Science magazine. It's called Mediascope, and my goal with it is to let readers know when big science stories are a lot of hype, and to get into the real science behind the headlines (as much as I can in less than 1000 words). My first column, Hype That Breaks Your Heart, digs into the recent media blitz over so-called "Broken Heart Syndrome," but it also tells a bit about why I decided to write this column in the first place:

"When mosquitoes brought West Nile virus to New York, all the papers said it was going to be the next big deadly epidemic (which, of course, it wasn’t). The day the news came out, I was in my garden in Pittsburgh, and a mosquito landed on my arm. I smacked it, then immediately thought, “Oh my god! West Nile virus!” So I ran inside and did something I hadn’t done since grade-school summer camp: I doused myself with insect repellant. Then I got a whiff of the fumes and remembered I just read an article saying insecticides cause Parkinson’s disease!
I’m only slightly ashamed to say I screamed, ran like a girl, and jumped in the shower. Then I came to my senses. I was a trained scientist who knew better than to fall for every this-is-going-to-kill-you headline; if those articles flipped me out, what were they doing to the general public?

"I decided to write an article about the science behind health-media freak-outs. Every epidemiologist I talked to—even those whose research depended on West Nile being a threat—said the coverage was hype. The same was true for most of the stories I investigated: The Impending Mad Cow Disease Epidemic, Hanta Virus Wiping Out the West, The Return of Bubonic Plague—none were completely true to the science. And nothing has changed."

When I turned this column in to my editor, he called me back and said, Come on, don't exaggerage, you didn't really get in the shower after that bug spray thing, did you? I did, I told him, which will come as NO surprise to those of you who know me. I admit it, I'm a bit of a hypochondriac, and honestly, this column should probably be called something like "Hypochondriac's Journal" instead of Mediascope, because more than anything, it's a way for me to investigate the truth behind scary-sounding stories, to decide whether I (and my readers) sould be freaked out by them. Fortunately, the answer so far is no:

You can read the first column about Broken Heart Syndrome here: "Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the news hit that a breakup or a surprise party could kill us. Well, not quite."

And tune in next for next month's column (which will hit news stands in a couple weeks) for my take on the recent embarrasment that was the media coverage of the most recent CDC study on obesity.

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