A science writer’s lament about reader mail

Science journalist Christie Ashwanden posted a summary of her recent talk to the National Association of Science Writers meeting on “The Last Word on Nothing” blog.

Her talk was, “You’ve got mail, you idiot: what reader mail has taught me about science writing.”

This one is going to resonate with anyone who writes about science/medicine/health/healthcare.

Her summary:

“Tell readers that they’re wrong about something they know in their heart to be true, and they will send you hate mail.

…people believe what they want to believe. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing about. People don’t want to know that they could do everything right and still die of cancer. I don’t want to know that I might not be as brilliant as I think I am. So we reject the facts and fall back on our worlds of truthiness.

And personal anecdote. Don’t even bother trying to overturn those with facts. No study will ever convince the people who are certain that the vitamin helped them. I’m not sure it’s possible to convince people with data that contradict their personal experience.

But I know this: if you’re going to have any hope whatsoever, you have to speak to their story. Because that’s what you’re competing against.

Here are two letters I received about the very same article. I know which one I believe.”


Almost all of my similar experiences revolve around what I’ve written about screening tests. She cites an example of her own with a mammography story, in response to which she got this note:


Read Christie’s full piece. And, by the way, I think she does terrific work!

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November 2, 2011 at 8:45 am

Scientific evidence? If anything in that statement might be referring to “STUDIES” it’s no wonder nobody believes any of it. Wait a day or so and you’ll get another opinion from results.