Figure One

Science. Communication. Community.

Pushing Past Discovery

Now that toxic pollution is common knowledge, is it possible to write a modern Silent Spring? What could be equally momentous for an environmental writer help us discover? Oddly enough, it may be our past. 

Photo courtesy of Lars Christopher Nøttaasen (via Flickr)

Photo courtesy of Lars Christopher Nøttaasen (via Flickr)

By Rebecca Widiss

In my first science writing class, I was thrilled when our professor offered us a simple formula for reporting on new research. (1) Write one-sentence answers to the following questions:

                  • What do we know?
                  • What don’t we know?
                  • What did they do?
                  • What did they find?
                  • Why do we care?

(2) Use each sentence as the basis for a paragraph in your story. (3) Craft a catchy lede. (4) And snag an outside expert’s opinion.  With these elements, you’re basically set. (The thrilling bit, btw, was discovering that this straightforward structure left plenty of room for creative writing.)

If you convert these questions into past tense, they work pretty well as a framework for Tom’s River, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for general nonfiction. In Tom’s River, Dan Fagin traces the discovery of environmental carcinogens, using the story of Tom’s River – a New Jersey community blessed and cursed to host a major chemical dye factory and its toxic waste – as a through line.

But the passages I can’t resist quoting to coworkers aren’t about scientific discovery.  On the contrary, they’re about naive news coverage…

News article in [the plant’s] early days included comments from company officials disparaging the quality of the natural river water. One even claimed that the corrosive acids in Ciba’s wastewater would make the river water taste better to fish and humans alike because in its natural state the Toms was too alkaline.

disturbingly dutiful factory workers…

Any secretary sent on an errand to one of the production buildings, where the air was thick with solvent and acid vapors, would run the risk that her nylons would melt on her legs.

 and (some years later) strangely frank company officials…

The company’s lawyers deflected the state’s demand  [to cease accepting outside waste] by arguing, without any apparent irony, that none of the outside waste was a toxic as what Ciba-Geigy was sending to its own treatment plant and that mixing in the outside waste was actually helpful because it neutralized the company’s own highly acidic dye and resin wastes.

Through such passages, Fagin’s book provides an unexpected answer to the question, “What don’t we know?”  What we – the audience – don’t know is what it’s like not to have an inkling that chemicals can kill us slowly.  We don’t know what it’s like not to have protective environmental laws.  And we don’t know what’s it’s like not to have officials determined to enforce them. In an era when trashing the Clean Water Act can help you win a Senate primary, it may be this story of ignorance (not the one of scientific discovery) that most needs telling.






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This entry was posted on June 15, 2014 by in Health, Nature, Policy, Science Journalism, Uncategorized.
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