Pulitzer-winning science writer Ed Yong talks empathy in journalism, science
Ty Harrington | Monday, September 18, 2023
On Friday afternoon Notre Dame hosted Ed Yong, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist and bestselling author. Yong’s lecture titled “Can stories of science create a more empathetic world?” was the second event in the MVP Fridays lecture series hosted by the Center for Social Concerns.
A science journalist since 2006, Yong has covered a broad range of topics from the COVID-19 pandemic to the origin of life. He said that throughout his career his thinking about three topics — what science journalism is for, what science journalism can achieve and what it strives to do — has changed.
Yong said his latest book, “An Immense World,” is about how animals sense the world around them and how that differs from human sensation. The book “is fundamentally an exercise in taking the perspective of other species,” he said.
His latest piece for The Atlantic took on long COVID-19 and the experience of fatigue for those suffering from the disease. The story explained how the fatigue brought on by long COVID-19 is completely unlike what healthy people experience, Yong said.
His book and COVID-19 story both attempt “to get readers to take the perspectives of others who are very different to them, whose experiences lie well outside their own lived realities,” Yong said.
He said both works are fundamentally about empathy and, more broadly, that science and science journalism is all about empathy.
Yong also reflected on his reporting about the COVID-19 pandemic, the sum of which won him a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.
He discussed the onset of the omicron variant when many individuals observed that it had a “lower risk of bad outcome” and downplayed its significance. Others, especially healthcare workers, noticed that it “spread so much faster” than the previous variants, Yong said. He added that the variant did indeed inundate healthcare systems.
The reaction to the variant differed based on “whether [individuals] believed in collectivism over individualism or whether they center the vulnerable instead of pushing them to the periphery,” Yong said.
He also said he believes the interpretation of scientific data is influenced by values and culture, making diversity and equity incredibly important.
Science, Yong said, is not the tome of facts and statements that it is often caricatured to be. The common conception that science is perfectly objective is a lie, he said. Science is instead a human pursuit.
“It is subject to all the foibles of humanity: ego, power, brands, bias and all the rest,” Yong said.
Yong said science arises from culture.
“Our values are what tell us how to convert science into policy and action,” Yong said.
Often, Yong said, the work of a scientist reflects their individuality.
Sensory biology “is full of people who are neurally atypical, people whose own perceptions of the world are different from what is the norm,” Yong said. “I think that draws them to understanding how other animals understand the world.”
The absence of those who are marginalized “leaves holes” in scientific understanding, according to Yong.
“The people who get to be part of science influence the kind of science that gets done,” he said.
As such, Yong said he strives to include marginalized voices in his reporting.
Yong analyzed his work and found that he quoted women only 25% of the time, while quoting men 75%, a consistent proportion across the field. Yong said passive concern is never enough, so he started reaching out to more women and more people of color for pieces.
“Equality matters in science. Empathy matters in science. Science is human pursuit. We can not understand it without understanding that,” Yong said. “Science is not divorced from its humanity, from its empathy. It is lesser without them. It is greater for them. So is journalism. So am I and so, I hope, are you.”
In response to a criticism about not reflecting the status quo of science, Yong said journalists can do better than be society’s mirror. He said that by reflecting the status quo in his journalism, he actively maintains it.
“I create the world that I report on and it is part of my moral stance to do that with intention and care,” Yong said.