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?