New York launches social science vertical

"Like a Jehovah's witness, if you show up at their door and say, 'Can I interest you in some behavioral economics,' they'll say no"

When news broke this January that New York magazine was expanding its trademark brand of psychology-backed cultural analysis—played out in features about dating, parenting and popularity—into a vertical covering social science, the news was a hiccup in the splashier announcement that the mag was reducing its print edition.

The vertical, ‘Science of Us,’ launched quietly earlier this week, with an array of pieces tying psychology and behavioral economics to the way we live. Louis C.K.’s exploration of dating while a fat woman was explored in a newsy piece on why overweight men find it easier to attract partners than their overweight female counterparts and an explanatory piece, perfectly designed for Facebook swapping, gave scientifically-informed tips on winning political arguments. (In the first four hours it was posted, it was shared 61 times.) There’s also the usual quick coverage of takeaways from psychology studies and a more substantial piece by Lisa Miller, exploring whether anxious people make more moral decisions.

‘Science of Us’ aspires to explain human experience through social science—a task which, at its best, is fascinating and illuminating and at its worst is incredibly problematic and fear-mongering. CJR caught up with editor Jesse Singal a few weeks before launch, to talk about how New York is championing social science, and how the magazine’s breezy tone can translate into rigorous coverage.

Why did New York decide to dedicate a space to social science?

I think that their thought was that you can get people in by asking universal questions about anything. And they’ve had some very successful magazine features in that space. Like Jennifer Senior’s high school parenting piece [“The Collateral Damage of a Teenager.] Her stuff in general, I think it did well. The pieces, which on the one hand dealt with universal themes and, on the other hand, when you read them—she actually gets pretty wonky. Like, in this very lively New York Magazine friendly kind of way. There’s a lot of good social science in there and people want to read this stuff. And once they’re in the door you can sort of bring them a lot of social science if you do it in the right way. This is sort of my line, not New York magazine’s line, but I think everyone is interested in social science—they just don’t know it. Like a Jehovah’s witness, if you show up at their door and say, “Can I interest you in some behavioral economics,” they’ll say no.

So how does this kind of story change when you’re shifting from print to digital?

In some ways, it’s the same. Like, we want to occasionally run those bigger feature stories that hopefully generate a lot of discussion and controversy. But we also need to figure out a way to tackle the news on a daily basis. So one of the big questions we’re struggling with is: When is it time to jump on a news story?

It’s a perennial question when covering science, but I assume especially for you guys: How much of your content should be tied to discoveries from within research institutions and how much is tied to, “How do we interpret this news event through a psychological or sociological paradigm?”

That’s a great question. I suspect once we launch we’ll get feedback, and whatever plans we make will end up being out the window. So I can’t give you a breakdown other than there can be certain studies that so tie into a psychological thing. Like, if the Trayvon Martin story happened tomorrow, how could we not write about the psychology of race? It’s tough because so much good research comes out in the form of single studies and we’re struggling with how to deal with that. Because single studies open up a huge opportunity on the one hand, sometimes, to enlighten. But also sometimes to lead you down the wrong path. It’s tough because research coming out of research institutions comes in that form and it comes into our inbox every day—from Eurekalert and other places—and it’s just we have to figure out how to do that in a smart but skeptical way.

Do you have any answers?

Context is a big part of it. A study that suddenly shows that people who wear blue pants are 25 percent more likely to be serial killers—that shows up out of nowhere—doesn’t have any previous research on the subject and has a sample size of five. If we report on that, it’s going to be to point out that this was nuts. If a cool new study does fit into established respected science—and I know the word respected is dangerous here—we’d be more likely to run that straight.

There’s kind of been this resurgence of interest in writing about social science: Things like the rebirth of Pacific Standard and digital startups like Vox and FiveThirtyEight. What do you think is behind it?

I really think it has to do with packaging. People are getting better at how to appeal to readers. It’s like when you poll people on the same question: The answers are different based on what question you ask. I’m still not sure if I asked some random person on the street, that they would know exactly what social science is. But, at least, [publications] are getting better at showing how it will affect your life. And I think people are fascinated by other people. We’re a social species. It’s an obvious point, but social science is tied to how we deal with other people—how we make war and peace and love and sex and all of these other things get swept under this very broad umbrella.

Can you give us some idea of what kind of stories are in the pipeline?

Maia Szalavitz—she does all this great neuroscience innovation reporting—is doing a story for us on the idea of a pill that could sever your emotional attachement to someone. There’s side effects for drugs like Prozac that have been reported to have that effect. Now she’s taking it a step further and saying: Once we’ve fully identified the biochemistry of love, or elements like oxytocin or other big buzzwords, what would it mean if you could take a pill to sever your emotional attachment? There’s all these fascinating ethical questions that shoot out of this notion. There’s another one that one of our staff writers is working on about the question of stress in pregnancy and its effects on things like autism. Stress in pregnancy has been tied to everything, so what she’s trying to do is separate actual stress in pregnancy—what happens if you’re a low-income woman, or in a developing country without resources—versus Park Slope stress, like, “Oh I’m freaking out about what preschool our child’s older sister is going to get into.” She’s trying to deliver a little bit of clarity in our very Park Slope-ized version of it.

The last few years you’ve covered psychology and social science pretty exclusively. How did this become your interest area?

I’d always been somewhat interested in psychology; I took a couple courses in college. And I think like a lot of, frankly, white dudes in their late teens and early twenties, I became convinced that my opinion on things like George W. Bush as a president were very important. So my college columns were like that: Issuing opinions on things I knew nothing about. At some point something clicked, and I got less interested in arguing with myself, which I still do sometimes, and more interested in answering the question of why people believe what they do. And once you peel back this veneer of self righteousness, like—“How could anyone disagree with me?”—the question of why people believe what they do is completely fascinating and leads you down these unexpected alleyways.

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: , , ,