Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Cleary's requital

A brief essay on science journalism
By Joel N. Shurkin
Once there was a medical journalist named David Cleary, who worked for many years at the late and lamented Philadelphia Bulletin. Cleary was my competition but I rarely broke out in a sweat.
Cleary went through life sort of backwards and his life was instructive in many ways. He was, for instance, a pleasant drunk, cheerful, friendly and helpful. It was only when he was sober—fortunately, not often—that he was a mean, disrespectful bastard. But in one incident, he was enshrined in my memory forever. In those days, the cancer and heart societies held meetings for medical writers to announce their latest breakthroughs and advances in cures and treatments. By no coincidence, the meetings (held every year in posh resorts) coincided with their fund raising efforts. One day, at a press conference for the president of the American Cancer Society, Cleary stood up and announced he had a list in his hands of every breakthrough announced at the meeting five years earlier. He read them off and then asked whatever happened to those “breakthroughs?” The answer, of course, was nothing. They led nowhere or maybe moved knowledge perhaps a smidgeon. Science doesn’t work in leaps. Science journalism shouldn’t pretend it does.
But of course, we know journalism does. Want to keep your job? Keep writing those stories about how x cures y in mice, how mixing z with w will produce vast amounts of cheap energy, and why the sky is falling in—or not. But we know better, don’t we?
Cleary’s life was instructive in another way, but I'm not sure what the lesson is. After he lost his job at the Bulletin (before, I think, the paper folded under the massive assault of Gene Roberts and the Inquirer), he wound up driving a cab. He ended up getting murdered by one of his passengers. I presume he was sober.

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