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The End of Science?

An interview with Science Journalist John Horgan

By Joel Rosenberg
ARTS EDITOR

In 1996, after years of interviews with the greatest minds in science as a staff writer for Scientific American, journalist John Horgan published his controversial bestseller, The End of Science, in which he gives an overview of the opinions of those great minds on that subject, along with his own observations. I sat down with him last fall, as part of freshman Orientation.

The Tech: What is the role of the science journalist?

Horgan: One of the problems with science journalism now is that it’s too much in the “gee whiz” mode. It’s celebrating science, it’s trying to educate people about science, and tell them how cool it is. But while journalists can act as educators, they’ve also got to be more critical, because there’s science that has troubling moral and political implications which should be pointed out. I’m worried that science journalists tend to be in the role of celebrators of science propagandists. I’d like to see some more of the sophistication you get in political journalism, or even in sports journalism. Even there you get more skepticism and critical thinking about what’s going on in that realm, and science is obviously a lot more important than sports.

The Tech: Do you think that it’s possible, or probable, for science to be the goal of humanity?

Horgan: I used to have this fantasy--before I got the idea that science was ending -- of a world in which through either genetic engineering or artificial intelligence we solved all our worldly problems. There was no more poverty, no more disease, no more warfare, ethnic conflict--all that was gone. We were all brilliant and healthy and happy, and we could do anything that we wanted to. And then the question is, what will we do with our time? The only think I can think of that would be a purpose for humanity was science, science for its own sake.

Now I really don’t know what I believe because I don’t think that’s possible. The interest of most people in science is very shallow. Science can’t provide a meaning of life for most people. They’d rather find it in religion or sports or family life. Maybe that’s as it should be, because the scientific world view is kind of cold and frightening, at least the way I look at it. So I don’t really know. This is one of the issues I hoped my book would get people to think about. What should be the purpose of humanity? Is it just going to be being happy? More consumer goods? Maybe we’ll have mind-expanding drugs or virtual reality, and just crate this Utopia.

The Tech: Is that Utopia?

Horgan: I don’t know. It’s frightening. The whole idea of Utopia has been discredited in this century, mainly because of what happened in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. But don’t we want a perfect world? Don’t we want to get rid of all these problems?

The Tech: Well yes, but it depends how you define problems.

Horgan: The thing is, any Utopia you can imagine sounds kind of frightening, or at least not satisfying, because you’re really talking about a kind of stasis. I guess the only Utopia that would work is a Utopia that constantly changes, where there are some challenges left. But that implies that there still might be suffering. So I don’t know. The whole idea of Utopia is a real paradox.

The Tech: What do you think the most promising branch of science today?

Horgan: I think the human mind is the one area of science that has shown the least progress so far, and so probably has the greatest potential in the future. Psychiatry is still very primitive, our understanding of how drugs work is still very vague, and we don’t even have good physiological markers to help us diagnose something like schizophrenia. We have no real understanding of how memories are stored in the brain, or how the brain processes all the information our senses constantly feed it. The mind is still a complete mystery at this point, so to me that’s going to be a growth industry.

The Tech: Give me a brief history of your education

Horgan: I didn’t go to college until I was 19. I went to University of Pennsylvania for a year, and then I didn’t go to school at all for about 5 or 6 years. I started going to a community college again out in Colorado, and just took writing courses and a bunch of different stuff. I decided I didn’t really want to be a painting contractor for the rest of my life, so I might as well go back to school.

I was interested in journalism, and I transferred to Columbia and thought about getting into science. But I decided I was too old to get a PhD, and that was the only way really to become a scientist. So instead I got a degree in English and then went to Columbia Journalism school. I took a lot of science courses: a year of physics and a year of calculus, astronomy, and a whole bunch of other different classes. Of course none of that really did me any good when I became a journalist. Everything I learned about science I really learned on the job first at IEEE Spectrum, which is really technology oriented, and then at Scientific American. It was a wonderful way to learn, because you’re not only reading books and articles, but you’re talking to the leading figures in the field and getting them to explain their work directly to you. In a way, it was like going to a school like MIT, except you didn’t have this weird student-teacher relationship.

The Tech: What was it like at Scientific American?

Horgan: It was great. I was there for 10 years. The staff was about equally divided between people who were really trained as scientists -- we had a whole bunch of PhDs in biology and physics and geology and things like that -- and people with backgrounds that were more like mine. It was very stimulating. A lot of the ideas for articles I got from talking to other people there. The only problem I had was there were some people at the magazine who really thought the role of the magazine should be to celebrate science, and not to be so critical. But overall it’s definitely one of the best jobs in journalism.

The Tech: How’d you get the job? Just applied?

Horgan: I had been at Spectrum for 3 years. Scientific American had never had a full time staff writer there, and their editor decided that he wanted to have somebody just write news stories and articles. The people who worked at Scientific American previously, and still most of them now, are editors. They take the articles written by scientists and make them readable, and that’s it. Jonathan Peale, thought that there was this gap in their coverage that could be filled by a staff writer, so he liked the stuff I was doing at Spectrum, and he hired me.

The Tech: What would you recommend if someone was interested in going into science journalism?

Horgan: I’d recommend first of all, do what I didn’t do, which is start writing as soon as you can for whatever publications will have you: The Tech or Tech Talk; Technology Review; Discover; Scientific American. A lot of these places use freelance stuff. There’s a tremendous need for people who can write well about science. And as I said, I do think there’s particularly a need for people who can provide constructive criticism of science too. I think anybody who’s persistent, especially anybody from MIT, will have no problem.

The Tech: What are your thoughts on genetic engineering?

Horgan: I don’t really have a problem with genetic engineering. I don’t see a tremendous downside, unless it’s opposed by the government. You don’t need genetic engineering to have a horrible eugenics program--the Nazis showed that.

One of the problems I have with the debate over ethics as is proceeding now is that it generally assumes that we’re going to have a lot of powers that we might not necessarily ever get. There’s absolutely no reason to think that any of this is going to happen based on what we’ve been able to do with this knowledge so far.

Going back to cloning, I don’t see what the big deal is. We can already take an embryo and split an unfertilized egg and split it into 8 fertilized eggs and have 8 identical human beings. The whole idea of producing genetically identical humans, which some people find so creepy when cloning happens, is already there. It has been there for a long time. Identical twins happen naturally anyway. I’m puzzled why people have such a hard time with it.

I think it’s unlikely that we’re gonna have a Brave New World. The scenario that most people find plausible now is that it’s gonna be more private industry, for individuals who can afford it might try gene therapies that seem promising.

As for who’s in control of anyone who gets cloned, that’s a political problem. There are laws against controlling other humans now. Even if you have identical twins, or triplets, or quadruplets, is their humanity less just because they have an identical twin? I think everybody recognizes that each one is individual. All the horror stories that people imagine we have rules against already. So I don’t see why that should be a problem.

The Tech: Finally, can you talk about your interviewing techniques, and how you deal with these scientists?

Horgan: If they’ve written books I try to read them. I’ll call their office and say I want to talk to them, and ask for suggestions for reading. Maybe they’ll send me papers, or refer me to papers or books. I also try to call people who have worked with them or in the same field or know them in some way and say, “What questions should I ask this guy to put him on the spot?” or, “Can you tell me a little bit about his background so I get a sense of where he or she is coming from before I meet them.” I try to act awestruck and very respectful and admiring to put them at their ease so they say things that they really regret later.