Sheri Fink on blending science and narrative

"I feel like I bring that same investigative approach that I did to the lab to investigative journalism."

GUTKIND: You are two different people—a physician and, also, a writer. I’m wondering if you had a difficult time balancing those perspectives.

FINK: I think there can be advantages and disadvantages of having an expertise in a particular area. On the advantage side, it can be a head start; it can give you a sense of what might be most relevant, and it’s also a link to the people you’re speaking with, because they know that there are certain commonalities in your training or background and in the way that you might look at the world. On the other side, I think it’s very valuable to come from the outside of a field. You can bring a fresh perspective; you aren’t inculcated in a particular profession. (There’s a whole process of professionalization that occurs in training to become a physician or a lawyer or any other field. A journalist.) I think it’s just like the advantages of having a foreign correspondent be in a country for a very long time and develop that expertise and background, versus having some-body come in with new eyes every few years and really have a different perspective on things. I don’t think there’s one right way to go about this, and I certainly don’t think that having a medical background or a nursing background is a prerequisite to report on topics of health. Not at all. There are very many people who don’t have that background, who do a great job at it, and vice versa. There’s a role for both the specialist and the non-specialist, and you develop . . . As you well know, and as anybody who’s been in journalism knows, while you cover topics, you do develop quite an expertise. As reporters, we’re so fortunate to be able to go right to the leaders in a particular field and to get to speak with them. They might spend an entire career building up a particular type of knowledge—or a research scientist who works for years and years to find one small discovery—and we get to capture that whole background, compressed for us as we interview that person and learn about their work.

SAREWITZ: Do you have a different view of truth as a narrative writer versus in your identity as a scientist? Do you see “scientific truth” and “narrative truth” as different things?

FINK: That’s really interesting because I’ve actually always thought of them as very linked. The very fact that I went through a basic science training program gives me a sort of skepticism—a need to triangulate bits of evidence as well as distrust of a simple single truth—and I think I really learned all of that in the lab, so I see it as more similar than dissimilar. I feel like I bring that same investigative approach that I did to the lab to investigative journalism. I see them as very similar.

SAREWITZ: What about in terms of the outcome? I have the sense that there’s something different in the way objectivity and truth manifest in science versus in a narrative, where there seems to be a tension in how different characters in your story view the truth, but it sounds like you’re saying you don’t think there really is a difference.

FINK: No, because I think it’s true with science, too. You have to have replication, and we’re always changing our understanding, and there’s very little that we . . . Particularly with medical studies: let’s say that every few years, a new study is showing us something different and leading us in a slightly different way. I worked in molecular biology, partly, for my Ph.D. (as well as in more cell-based and larger system-based studies), and even in a carefully controlled experiment, you get lots of different results. You see that the truth is not easy to find and that science is an evolving process. It’s not like you state one truth in the science paper that you publish and that truth stands forever, and I feel like narrative is very similar in this way. Maybe that’s why I write the way I do: that I am (as you pointed out) loath to, in this particular story, state one point of view and say that’s the absolute truth from all perspectives. I think that comes from that background of knowing that truth is complicated and wanting to be skeptical of it.

SAREWITZ: One of the things that often frustrates me in my effort to work across this boundary between science and decision-making is how often we say we know lots of things, but they’re somehow not accessible to decision-makers. Is narrative a tool that ought to somehow be mobilized more effectively by the scientific community as a way of getting complex, important ideas out there so that they are more fully appreciated and absorbed in the public sphere? There’s no lack of communication of science to the public and policy makers, yet there does somehow seem to be an inability to get big insights that ought to be obvious to be taken seriously—like, New Orleans is go-ing to get hammered by a hurricane someday. So do you see narrative, in part, as something that the scientific community ought to find more ways to engage in as a better way of avoiding what happened in New Orleans?

FINK: I think one of our most important tasks is that we need to figure out how to tell the stories better. How do we tell these stories in a way that will engage the public and that editors will see as a good story? I think it’s very challenging; I’ve certainly tried to pitch a lot of risk stories (or preparedness stories), and how to tell a story about a risk of something that hasn’t yet happened is always challenging. So figuring out ways to do that better … I think that’s a challenge, and it’s a great challenge, and we should do more of that.

ABOUT Sheri Fink

Sheri Fink is the author of several books, including the New York Times best seller Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital. She is also an executive producer of the Netflix documentary television series Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak (2020), as well as a correspondent at the New York Times.

About the Author

Lee Gutkind & Dan Sarewitz

Lee Gutkind, the founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction, is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at CSPO and Professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, both at Arizona State University. Dan Sarewitz is Professor of Science and Society at Arizona State University, where he is co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes (CSPO), which he helped to found in 1999.

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