Learning from Perlman and Maddox

Press salutes two pioneers of science journalism

Many of us in science journalism today know (or should know) that our careers are vastly different because of two men who helped to revolutionize the field: Sir John Maddox and David Perlman.

Mentors to many of the best working journalists today, their efforts to clearly and succinctly explain the latest scientific news also helped lay the foundation for broad public interest in science. Generations of reporters and editors have thus profited directly or indirectly from their pioneering work. Recently, both Maddox and Perlman have been the subject of several short but engaging profiles. As Charlie Petit (one of latter’s mentees) deftly put it: “Sir John’s news peg is that he died. Perlman’s is the other way around.”

Indeed, Perlman is a veritable institution at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he has worked since 1940. Currently the paper’s science editor, Perlman has been profiled a few times since the Chronicle threw him a 90th birthday party in December. The event elicited a good article in the American Journalism Review, which began by reminding readers that when Perlman “began his career in science writing, no one had ever heard of AIDS. Man had not landed on the moon, and no one was debating the ethics of stem cell research.” He’s covered it all now. In February, CJR contributing editor Cristine Russell had an excellent Q&A with Perlman in the quarterly newsletter of the National Association of Science Writers, in which he discussed changes and sustained trends in science journalism.

Unsurprisingly, the profile of Perlman in yesterday’s The New York Times addressed the fact the Chronicle is one of many newspapers in danger of dissolution. The paper has gone through a number of buyouts, but “Perlman refuses to take one,” according to the profile. Petit, at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, added that, “Rumor has it that San Francisco Chronicle’s management called [Perlman] into the front office to tell him he’d better NOT take the paper’s offer in its latest round of layoffs.” At any rate, Perlman told the Times, “I’ll keep working till I drop dead at my desk – unless the paper dies first.”

Even Sir John Maddox didn’t stick to his post that long. Maddox, the longtime Nature editor who died on April 12, retired from his position there in 1995. His passing has drawn a number of intimate eulogies over the past two weeks. “Everyone has a story about John,” wrote Independent science editor Steve Connor.

“In the course of transforming a parochial and withering publication called Nature into a globally influential scientific giant his instinct for publicity pushed science into British newspapers in a way that had not happened before,” The Economist noted. “He also popularised the subject as a broadcaster on the BBC. And, perhaps most importantly, he trained a generation of writers who were seekers of scientific rationalism, but who never lost a sense of whimsy—and of whom several have sat in the science and technology office of The Economist.” Some of Sir John’s most prominent “protégés” include Times of London science editor Nigel Hawkes, former New Scientist editor Alun Anderson, and Wired editor Chris Anderson.

Maddox transformed Nature by making “quick publishing a priority, introducing a streamlined refereeing process and publishing the date of submission on each paper,” the BBC explained. He also introduced news leaders for papers, expanded opinion writing, opened foreign bureaus, and introduced new editions such as Nature Biotechnology and Nature Genetics. Throughout his career, Maddox had a reputation for being an incisive skeptic who challenged pseudoscientific claims about hypotheses such as homeopathy and cold fusion. Other excellent obits chronicling his life and work can be found at the Times of London, the Telegraph, and The New York Times.

With so much uncertainty about the future of science journalism, there is something reassuring about reading the tales of Perlman and Maddox. Their persistence and fortitude should remind us all that the public still needs, and hopefully wants, engaging and illuminating stories about science.

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Katherine Bagley is a science, environment and health journalist based in New York City. She is currently working as a reporter for Audubon Magazine.