The Science Wonk: An Interview with FiveThirtyEight’s Christie Aschwanden

Christie Aschwanden works as the lead science writer for FiveThirtyEight, where she writes on everything from climate change to the football industry. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Discover.

The Politic: Could you tell us about the path that led you to become Lead Science Writer at FiveThirtyEight?

Well, I went to college for science. I thought I was going to be a biologist. After I got my undergraduate degree, I was sort of biding my time and trying to figure out what I wanted to do my PhD on. I guess it was a couple of years; I worked several different jobs as a researcher, trying to explore different types of science. You get your PhD and have to really specialize, and I was having a lot of trouble with that. That’s how I learned I’m a generalist. I’m interested in lots of things. The idea of going to school and studying one little thing for a long time was kind of scary.

The Politic: What aspects of being a journalist did you least expect?

I didn’t really know what to expect going into it. I never knew that I could be a science journalist. It wasn’t something that I’d heard of. Once I realized that it was an opportunity, it was really exciting and felt like a great match. I had this research job before going to the UC Santa Cruz Writing Program. I discovered New Scientist Magazine and just sort of fell in love with it. I would go in our institution’s library and read all the issues there. I thought, “Wow, it would be so cool to be the one writing these stories and being able to learn all these different things.” I think that’s one thing that’s been really satisfying. Maybe it’s not surprising, but I didn’t realize the extent to which that was going to be important to me. It would be something that would make this career feel really sustainable because it prevents me from getting bored since I’m always learning new things.

The Politic: You’ve also written about the struggles women face in journalism. What are some of the steps that the journalism industry needs to take to get rid of discrimination?

I think one thing that could be done, and is being done in some places that I know, is to make a concerted effort. There are different types of discrimination. There’s the stuff that you usually think of where there’s some unwritten rule where “Well, we don’t hire women” or “We don’t want women here.” I think very overt discrimination is mostly gone, perhaps not entirely gone to the extent we’d like it to be. But I don’t think men in journalism are getting up every day and saying “Okay, how are we going to oppress women today?”

But there’s this other sort of implicit bias. It’s something I think is very human and affects all of us, where we tend to like and look for people that are similar to us. So if you have a bunch of men running a magazine, when they’re looking to hire they’re going to reach out to their own networks, probably people similar to them. So I think it’s really making a concerted effort to reach out and to find people that are dissimilar from you. And this goes beyond just gender; there are a lot of other aspects that this applies to. Race is another one, for instance. But really making an effort, looking around, and saying “If we have a whole bunch of people here that are all of similar backgrounds, gender, etc., maybe we need to reach out and include the people who don’t look just like us.” I think this is important for doing good journalism too, because you need different perspectives. You really cover issues from a single perspective at your own peril. You may not know what you’re missing.

The Politic: To talk more about biases, your article “Science Isn’t Broken” was about biases in scientific research. So how do you make an active effort in journalism to write objectively?

It’s hard. It’s something I definitely make a concerted effort on whenever I’m working on something. I ask questions of the researcher, but also at some point I’ve read the research paper. I’ve talked to researchers; I’ve talked to outside experts in the field. But I also start thinking, “So here’s where the evidence is pointing, what sort of evidence would change our minds about this? What would be the contradictory evidence that might be there and does it exist?” I think it’s a really helpful exercise to do, and the degree to which you’ve made up your mind on something guides how important it is to do this. The more sure you feel about something, the more important it is to say, “What kind of evidence might overturn what I’m thinking on this now?” And then think, “Is anyone working on this? Is it reasonable to think like that?” It’s a way of looking at science. There’s a lot of uncertainty embedded in science; that’s part of the process. It’s important to always keep a handle on it, taking care not to present it as more certain than it is and to gauge the level of how certain these findings are. You can present data as “This idea is becoming really solid now” or like “Wow, this study uncovered a really interesting hypothesis that needs more testing.”

The Politic: I loved the interactive graphic used in your article “Science Isn’t Broken.” With the rise of digital journalism and the advent of new technology, what future changes do you foresee in journalism?

I think in a lot of ways it’s a really exciting moment because we have the ability now to present stories, news, and ideas in totally different formats. One of the reasons I love working at FiveThirtyEight is that I have the opportunity to do really neat graphics. We do fun, interactive graphics like the p-hacking one that my colleague Ritchie King produced. I’m really proud of his work on that. It’s really great to be able to show great graphs and sometimes data in a picture format, in a chart, or in a graph. It’s just a better way of presenting information, so it’s nice to be able to have those tools. Instead of just saying, “this is the way we tell this story and so we’re going to tell it this way,” you can really say, “Okay, what is the best way, the most effective way, to present this information?” Sometimes when you’re dealing with numbers and data, the answer is a chart to show it visually. Of course you have to be careful because there are a lot of ways graphs can be deceptive. You want to be honest about it.

The Politic: You also wrote an article about how creative insights often emerge when a person isn’t locked on objective goals. How does that relate to your personal process of writing articles?

I had sort of settled on this process before I wrote that article and before I met the researcher who was doing this artificial intelligence research that came up with this idea, which, by the way, is really sort of mirroring concepts developed in the field of psychology. So it was really interesting and fun to see these two different lines of evidence playing towards the same answer, which is that objectives are not necessarily so great for creativity. This thing that we think of as serendipity is really sort of about being open to the process and not trying to force things too much. But I would just say that in my own process a lot of what I do is follow interesting things. You have to trust that if you’re interested in something your audience will be too, and that’s not always the case. Sometimes I have sort of obscure interests. The story you were talking about earlier, “Science Isn’t Broken,” that was one where it wasn’t clear. It was pretty wonky, technical in the leads about science. But I found it so fascinating and became so obsessed with this subject that at some point I just had to hope and trust that the audience would too.

The other thing is just following the things that are interesting and having faith that something will come of it. At some point you have to produce something, and that’s the most difficult part of the whole process. But in order to get to that point, you have to spend a lot of time and give yourself space without pressure, where you’re just taking it all in and you don’t know what’s going to become important because you’re gathering these pieces. The concept that this guy Kenneth Stanley found within robots and artificial intelligence work was that you have stepping stones. At the time, you may not be able to recognize them. But after you produce the thing, whatever it is, you can look back and see that “well, when I found this, it was essential to getting where I ended up.” But at the time you don’t necessarily know which thing is a stepping stone and which thing is taking you off on a dead end. Because every creative process has dead ends too, so it’s not that every interesting thing that you’re following will lead you somewhere great. It’s that you have to follow a lot of those to find the one that will take you somewhere interesting.

The Politic: How do you think undergraduates should be preparing for a career in journalism?

To prepare for a career in journalism, I think there are lots of skills that are useful and necessary but you may or may not learn in journalism school. I never went to journalism school. I did go to a program at UC Santa Cruz that specializes in turning scientists into writers, but it was a nine-month graduate program, so I didn’t go to straight journalism school. And I’m not sure that you need to. What I would advise people interested in journalism is to study something that you’re really interested in, whether that’s science, economics, whatever that is. Then take some writing classes. One thing you can do is take courses that will teach you some of the basics: how to write a story, things like that. It’s really good to learn some of the ethical issues. But I don’t think you necessarily have to get a degree in journalism.

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