February 18, 1999
4:00 - 6:00 p.m.
MIT Media Lab
20 Ames Street
aims to explore the ways in which academic ideas have been disseminated
to the public in recent years and how (or whether) this has
changed the professional priorities and research of scholars.
Speakers may explore some of the following questions:
is the role of the "public intellectual"?
factors have led to the professionalization of academic discourse
through time? Has there been a change in the interactions
between the public and the academy?
- How does
the journalistic work of scholars and researchers compare
with that of professional journalists? Are there discernible
differences in depth or basic content between the two?
- Is the
academy moving away from specialization? Is this trend, if
it exists, having an effect on the dissemination of knowledge
to the public?
- Is there
a difference in attitude and perception in the academy itself
toward the popularization of natural science versus social
science or humanities?
- How is
the emphasis on interdisciplinary thought likely to shape
the writing pursuits of scientists?
popular publications count in judging candidates for tenure?
- Has the
power of the popular media in disseminating information and
providing financial rewards affected research? Is the lure
of celebrity a danger for academics?
is a theoretical neurophysiologist at the University
of Washington in Seattle and the author of both popular
and learned books, including The Cerebral Code,
How Brains Think, and, with the neurosurgeon
George A. Ojemann, Conversations with Neil's Brain.
is John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities in the
Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT.
His publications include two novels, Einstein's
Dreams and Good Benito, collections of essays
and stories, and such books on science as Ancient
Light: Our Changing View of the Universe and (with
R. Brawer) Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern
is Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Professor of Management
and Economics in the Sloan School of Management at
MIT. His books include The Zero Sum Society,
Head to Head: The Coming Economic Battle Among
Japan, Europe and America and The Future of
[The text below is an edited summary,
not a complete transcript. Stephen Jay Gould has requested that
no summary or transcript be made of his contributions to this
Forum. The draft manuscript of a book-in-progress titled
Beyond the Ivory Tower with contributions from William
Calvin and Alan Lightman is also available online.]
David Thorburn: As a graduate student of English literature
at Stanford, I studied under Irving Howe, one of the great public
intellectuals of post World War II America. He was the editor
of Dissent and the author of many books. Howe believed
that democratic societies could not thrive without a public
discourse carried on in general magazines and newspapers that
was intellectually rigorous yet accessible to ordinary citizens.
That still seems to me one of the great ideals to which trained
intellectuals should aspire. Our speakers today have honored
such principles in their writing.
The idea for this project, which inspired this event, came to
me soon after the death of Carl Sagan. As I read eulogies of
this great public intellectual, who was both revered and reviled,
I felt that there was a need to have an organized discussion
on this theme. I would like to thank David Thorburn for hosting
this event. He has done a tremendous service to the academy
Lightman: I want to draw some remarks from a famous intellectual
of the past, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a famous intellectual
of the present, Edward W. Said. I hope that these remarks will
help to set the stage for our panelists and raise some questions
that we can talk about.
Over 150 years ago,
Emerson considered the meaning and function of the intellectual
in his great essay, "The American Scholar," which he delivered
not far from where we are sitting right now. Emerson put forth
the idea of the "one man," by which he meant the complete person
who embodies all the human dimensions of both potential and
actual -- the farmer, the professor, the engineer, the priest,
the scholar, the statesman, the soldier, the artist. The intellectual
is this whole person while thinking. The intellectual, although
enriched by the past, should not be bound by books. His most
important activity, according to Emerson, is action. Inaction
is cowardice. The intellectual preserves the great ideas of
the past, communicates them, and creates new ones. He is the
world's eye, and he communicates his ideas to the world, rather
than just the fellow intellectuals. Finally, Emerson's intellectual
does all these things, not out of obligation to society, but
out of obligation to himself. Public action is part of being
the one man, the whole person.
A more political tone
for the concept of the public intellectual was suggested a few
years ago by Edward Said of Columbia University in a series
of lectures entitled "Representations of the Intellectual."
According to Said, an intellectual's mission in life is to advance
human freedom and knowledge. This mission often means standing
outside of society and its institutions, then actively disturbing
the status quo. At the same time, Said's intellectual is a part
of society and should address his concerns to as wide a public
as possible. The intellectual is constantly balancing public
and private. His or her private personal commitment to an ideal
provides the necessary force, but the ideal must have relevance
We have several juxtapositions
and tensions here. How does the intellectual stand both outside
and inside society? How does the intellectual find common ground
between what is a deeply personal and private interest, and
also what is a public interest? How does the intellectual engage
himself or herself to the changing issues of society, while,
at the same time remaining true to unchanging principles? Finally,
a more delicate concern, is the intellectual entitled or even
obligated to speak out on issues beyond his or her specialty?
Both Emerson and Said agree on two things. That the intellectual
can not fall to sleep in his books, he must be active, and that
the intellectual's proper audience to a large extent is not
fellow intellectuals, but the entire public. I think that sets
the stage for our panelists today, who are public intellectuals
that have written for both their scholarly areas and the public.
When you are thinking about what you want to do with your life,
one of the things you have to ask yourself is "what is going
to be fun to do?" I think people write for a general audience
if they think it is fun to be a communicator, and they like
to write. I certainly like writing, and I also like to talk.
I will tell you why. When I was a boy, my father was a Methodist
clergyman, and if you were the son of a minister with multiple
churches, you were expected to show up for every church service.
So I would hear my fathers sermons five or six times a day.
The question was, after I heard it the first time, what was
I going to do? I had to sit there and look like I was interested,
so I used to play a game. "If I were my father, how would I
give this sermon better than he's giving his sermon?" I think
that, having set through all those church services, although
I wasn't born with religion in my genes, I think I have a little
bit of a preacher in me.
If I look at my academic
articles, I take some pride in writing them clearly, but there
is just a limited amount of imagination you can put in to those
kinds of things. It doesn't make much difference if you think
it is going to be a famous article, and it often doesn't matter
that much if it is well written. The fact is that some of the
most famous things that have ever been written are barely understandable.
For example, there is a German translation of Kant's Critique
of Pure Reason, even though it is written in German! It's
such dense German that even Germans can't even figure it out.
Some academics don't even try to communicate with a general
audience because they only want to communicate to the inner
group of their specialty. They like to think, "what I am doing
is so complicated and so difficult, you have got to have a Ph.D.
to understand it." Of course, they are also thinking, " if you
need to have a Ph.D. to understand what I am doing, then that
means I must be pretty smart." If a high school graduate could
understand it, then it must not be that complicated, right?
I firmly belive that there is nothing important that anybody
does that can't be communicated to reasonable people around
The great thing about
writing books about economics is that it gives you the chance
to communicate things that aren't in a black and white format.
A peculiar thing about economics is that the press thinks that
everything has to be framed as a debate. During television interviews,
the reporter will say, "is it the end of the world, economically
speaking, is global melt down here?" All they want is a yes
or no. Whatever you say, they will go to some other economist
who will give them the opposite answer. The media think that
is an economic discussion.
think a lot of academics don't write for general audiences because
they aren't willing to face public criticism. If you write something
that isn't for a technical group, there are going to be some
third order subtleties and fourth order nuances that you deliberately
leave out, because it gets too complicated if you try to put
them in. Then some of your colleagues will say "he didn't know
that nuance or third order effect." It is frustrating, because
you know you deliberately left it out. Academics must also accept
that only their first book will get universally good reviews.
No matter how well you write, after your first popular book,
the editors are going to find your worst enemy to review it.
This is particularly true in economics, because they want to
frame everything as debate. I've gotten more hostile reviews
in The Wall Street Journal than you can imagine. But
the important thing is to be reviewed, so you have to take somebody
saying "this guy is an idiot" in a very pubic place with millions
of readers. You have to smile and then come back and continue
to write. You also have to face that sometimes you are going
to say things that look dumb ten years later. You will predict
something isn't going to happen, or you are going to leave something
out. I will tell you the dumbest thing I ever did in writing
a public book. Head to Head came out in 1991 after the
Japanese economy melted down in 1990. I didn't mention it, because
I assumed it was going to be like the American savings and loan
crisis in the 1980s. I expected them to clean it up so that
no long term damage would be done. Of course, I couldn't have
been more wrong. In the 10 years since the 1990 meltdown, what
was essentially the best performing economy in the world has
become the worst performing economy in the world.
One of the reasons
that people like to write publicly is that it is more fun than
consulting, and sometimes it even pays better. They also like
to succeed, which requires good timing. Daniel Yergin wrote
a famous book about the history of the oil industry called The
Prize. You might think that doesn't sound like a fascinating
book, but it came out during the Gulf War, and instantly became
a best seller. People asked him how he got his timing "so good",
and he said "I delivered the manuscript four years late." I
also had good timing. The two New York Times best sellers
that I have had were both published during recessions. If you
write a book about economics during good times, when people
feel rich, they are not going to be anxious to read it, but
when people's money is melting away, they are interested. The
first book that I wrote for a general audience was Zero Sum
Society. It came out as hard cover in 1979, then paperback
in 1980. I wrote it for a very simple reason. I was on President
Carter's economic advisory group before he was elected. That
was reasonable, because I might have gotten a job in Washington,
but I didn't for a variety of reasons. Then I decided to write
a book to tell the world what I would have told Carter if I
had been working for him. When Zero Sum Society came
out in hardback, it wasn't a tremendous success. Then the paper
back happened to come out at the time that Ronald Reagan was
elected, and it became an enormous best seller, because people
wanted to know about the alternatives to what Reagan was going
to do, and the Zero Sum Society essentially became the
option. I would like to tell you that I planned that, but like
Daniel Yergin's book, it just basically happened.
Of course, there is
never guaranteed success. Head to Head was on the New
York Times best seller list for around 28 weeks, but it
only got to number two. It would have been nice to be able to
say I had a number one best seller in America, right? I didn't
have it because of Princess Di. Somebody wrote a book about
her, and with books like that, people either want to read it
or they don't. If they want to read it, they buy it and read
it in the first three weeks. So, for the three weeks when I
would have a chance to be the number one best seller, the book
about Princess Di was there. I've always said, you can't compete
with a beautiful princess. It doesn't work if you are an economist.
The bottom line is
that if you want to do public writing about science or economics
or anything else, you have to want to be a communicator and
think it is a lot of fun. During one of my sabbaticals, I actually
worked on the New York Times as a journalist and a member
of the editorial board. To me, that year was just good fun,
and I think that has to be the game.
text of Calvin's article is available.]
success in popularizing science needs to be studied for lessons
that can be used by anyone hoping to contribute to the effort.
I will frame my conclusions from such an exercise with the aid
of an evolutionary concept called the empty niche. A niche in
ecology is all that a species needs to function. It can include
things like the right food and climate. An empty niche is more
or less a proven niche that is going unused. I will specifically
discuss migration routes, protection from predators, nesting
sites and so forth.
Migration Routes. Where
do readers come from? Bleed over from popular psychology to
cognitive neuroscience is easily a major source of readers,
and I think most of you in other fields could also identify
the bleed over route. In cognitive neuroscience we also have
some important secondary sources. For example people may come
from an admiring mechanistic route in which people from Physics
and Computer Science come to look at our neat mechanisms. That
gets us to the problem of serious readers. Readers in adjacent
fields are an extremely important audience for the progress
of science. Pharmocologist are likely to get much of their information
about cerebral localization of function from the popular media,
rather than by going out and reading a review article on the
subject. Certainly, I got my beginning education in evolutionary
biology by reading Steven Gould's columns twenty years ago.
So, this business of talking to the public is also the business
of talking to other scientists.
Protection from Predators.
The scientist writing for a wider audience will often assume
that others in his own field will be critical, worry about justifying
simplifications or omissions, and fear that it will appear that
he or she is trying to seek fame and fortune by passing the
hard long grind of academic publication. While such comment
surely happens on occasion, I think the writer is much more
likely to be almost invisible in their own field. The reason
for this is fairly simple. Scientist are also general readers.
They only have so much time to read, and they mostly read outside
their own field. A neuroscientist will read popular books on
Cosmology or Evolutionary Biology, but they won't bother to
read the books on brains.
writing about adjacent fields, rather than their own, have advantages
and disadvantages. I am a neurophysiologist, but last year I
ventured outside my own field to write a cover story for the
Atlantic Monthly on abrupt climate change. The editor
had to twist my arm for a few weeks to get me to do it, because
I fully expected that people within geophysics might be somewhat
unhappy about this trespass. I thought that even if I avoided
all the usual conceptual errors and didn't leave out important
things, they would still be unhappy. It didn't happen. What
made it possible for me to write about geophysics was that the
oceanographers and atmospheric scientists have put all their
teaching materials, review articles and grant proposals on web
pages. This was an amazing resource. Nobody in geophysics could
possibly try to do what I did in reverse, because my field hasn't
put out the resources for an interloper to look at. That will
change, and you will find that if you want to try writing about
other fields, there will be enormous resources there for you.
One disadvantage of interloping scientists is that some come
with an agenda, such as an answer in search of a question. For
example, quantum physics might have the answer to consciousness.
Interlopers might also invent unfortunate terms. For example,
the term neural networks was invented in 1982 by the physicists
to represent an abstract web like set of elements, which they
thought was loosely like the way the brain worked. They did
this in ignorance of the fact that the term neural networks
had been in use for a long time. Every since, when neuroscientists
have had to preface remarks by saying, now in "real neural networks"
we sort of curse the physicists that hijacked our term.
Nesting Sites. Writers
need an established way to reach an audience. The opinion-editorial
pages of local newspapers can provide a place for writing of
700 words or so. This is an entry level niche that didn't exist
about 20 years ago. This type of writing is likely to expand
a lot because web portals are going to have editor selected
commentary. Regular columns play an important role, particularly
if later converted into books. Lewis Thomas and Steven Gould
came by this route, thanks to farsighted editors of the New
England Journal of Medicine and Natural History.
Unfortunately, the regular column for a wide audience is largely
unexploited in many fields. Science journalists have often filled
this niche. They write as observers rather than as participants,
but the sustained output of someone like Daniel Goleman writing
about Psychology is very important. It doesn't require a Ph.D.
in a field to do this. Most science reporters were journalism
majors that developed into fans of science over the years. They
are often better at judging what will confuse general readers
than are people who are used to dealing with students who have
taken all the prerequisites.
You have to be good at writing very short succinct pieces. Even
if you want to write a book, the book proposal has to be short
and succinct. So you are either writing short articles or things
about twice that size for book proposals. When you are going
to write longer pieces, let me suggest that you think about
structuring them using narrative and storytelling. This offers
two major advantages. First, framing material within a narrative
makes it more memorable, so that it is more likely to still
be there two weeks later. Second, the reader is more likely
to make it all the way to the end, because spontaneous abortions
are very common in reading --people don't finish things if they
get hung up somewhere.
I would like to conclude
by pointing out that any writer who aspires to a wider audience
has a number empty niches to contemplate filling. Loren Eiseley
and Jacob Bronowski died in the mid 1970s, and then Carl Sagan
and Lewis Thomas died in the mid 1990s. There is still no one
new on the scene comparable to them. Other niches are empty
in some fields simply because there is no established counterpart
to someone like the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
Lightman chaired a study of MIT students which showed that they
are lacking in their writing skills. Many students just don't
see the need for humanities. I wondered how you would suggest
engaging scientist and engineers in the humanities?
Thurow: My son,
who graduated from MIT not long ago, started out at Williams
College. Then, because of a serious traffic accident, he needed
to have physical therapy that couldn't be done at Williamstown,
so he transferred to MIT. He was only going to be here a year,
but he liked it and stayed. He said that if you compared MIT
to Williams, there wasn't any difference in the quality of the
teaching. The difference was what the students took seriously.
At MIT, if you had a problem set in physics and something due
in humanities, you knew the problem set was going to get done.
At Williams, it was the other way around. The real question
is, how do you get the students to take it seriously? If you
teach undergraduates at MIT, you quickly learn to give a hell
of a lot of problem sets. The name of the game is that if Physics
gives five problem sets, you give seven. There are also similar
differences between Harvard and MIT. If you are give an economics
exam at Harvard with too many mathematical questions, students
complain "you are giving me too many mathematical questions,
how do you expect me to show how good I am." At MIT, it is the
other way around. If you don't have the mathematical questions
on the exam, they complain "how do you expect me to show how
good I am, you haven't put any math on the exam?" However, I
think that curiosity is the most important thing in any area.
There are always new problems in Evolutionary Biology, Paleontology,
Briain Science or Economics.
problem is keeping the problem sets from swamping the curiosity.
a professor of literature who has been teaching at MIT for over
20 years, I would like to tell you about my experience with
the students in both my introductory and advanced courses. Often,
they have been moved in scientific and technical directions
from a very early age, so their verbal skills are undeveloped,
but their skills are there. One of the most interesting and
exciting aspects of teaching these students is to suddenly have
them awaken to their verbal skills. In fact, sometimes you succeed
too well. You have chemistry and engineering majors coming to
you and saying, "I want to go to graduate school in English."
Then you to say to them, "that's really not the best idea --
there are better ways of utilizing your verbal skills." I think
that one of those ways is the kind of model that the people
on our panel illustrate. It seems to me that one implication
of what's been said here is that it would be very healthy and
important for institutions like MIT to show a greater recognition
that verbal skills matter, and there are ways that could happen,
even in this institutional setting.
The function of peer review in traditional scientific discourse
is to make sure that new ideas are robust and well grounded
in what has come before. In popular science writing, there often
isn't a peer review step in the middle, so it is possible for
scientists or quasi-scientists to present ideas to a very wide
audience very quickly. What is your view of how the peer review
process relates to the process of writing for a general audience?
Should you wait for ideas to be peer reviewed before writing
them for popular consumption?
question is, "how do you get rid of error?" The answer is that
you can't. When we started the MIT Lemelson Prize program, I
went to talk to the Nobel prize people about what you should
or shouldn't do. They wait twenty five years, yet three Nobel
prizes have been given for things that we now know are 100%
wrong. If you wait until it is 100% true, you will never say
it. The article Bill Calvin did on abrupt climate change was
very well done. It said that there is a great range of uncertainty,
but this may be the most likely thing. If you wait until you
get certainty, you are going to wait forever.
issue of reviewing is very different in academic and popular
journals. The Atlantic Monthly may have an idea for a
story, they may search around and find somebody like me to write
it. They may send it out to some of their friends to look at
it. They aren't necessarily experts in the field, but they know
enough to go ask an expert. That sort of thing happens at the
level of national magazines, but I would hate to see a real
peer review system established. It is very time consuming. Peer
review takes years.
climate issue is a good illustration of the same type of thing
that happens in economics. You might have 95% of economists
who agree about something, but the newspaper is going to find
the 5% who don't. You might have 99.9% of all scientists believe
that there is global warming, but the newspaper is going to
find the one legitimate scientist who doesn't, and they are
going to be quoted as if it were the equivalent of the 99% who
are really on the other side. That is the way the American press
the readers get confused about what the real scientist say?
Thurow: Of course
Then you are saying then that it is a good thing that readers
now believe that half of all scientist don't believe in global
it is not a good thing, but it is inevitable. I don't know how
you get rid of it. People who write newspapers have to sell
them. Controversy and scandal sells. That's why scandals are
so nice from a newspapers point of view. If sales go up because
you've got a scandal, then you go out and find a scandal. If
sales go up because you've got a controversy, then you go out
and look for a controversy.
is a niche for saying "they are not really sure yet." All the
stuff that we are seeing about not being sure about global warming
is because some midwestern oil and gas people were promoting
this whole thing. It is just like what the tobacco people did
for 30 years. From 1964 surgeon generals' report until the 1994
there wasn't much action. It was just a very good sales job
from their stand point.
do you say nobody knows, and there is this and that to consider?
Do you need more than one person?
now, you have television programs like Crossfire which make
the assumption that there needs to be really aggressive debate,
and that there is no truth on either side. I don't think there
is any way that you can intellectually and honestly participate
in those programs.
All of the panelist have fields where they provide information
to a general audience which has implications for behavior and
social implications. To what extent have you each felt a sense
of political or social responsibilities, so that instead of
just informing the public about interesting or intriguing facts
about science or economics, you implore people to take particular
courses of action?
are some topics that we don't want to hear about that we should.
You can't deal with them every week, but you should come back
to them every once in awhile. For example, for the last twenty
five years in the United States, there has been an enormous
spreading out of the distribution of income and wealth. If you
are in the top 20% of the population, the last decade has been
the best in the history of the United States. Stock market wealth
and income has gone up. On the other hand, 60% of the population's
real wages are down 20% over the same period of time. The simple
fact of the matter is that American's don't want to hear about
it, anymore than they wanted to hear about Bill Clinton. The
question is, how often do you come back to these things? The
issue isn't what to do about it. That is pretty clear, once
you decide you want to do something about it. If you believe
it is a serious issue with serious consequences for America
in the long run, which I do, then you try to keep it on the
burner, and hope that at some point there will be interest in
doing better. So, you keep coming back, and you don't let people
forget it, even if they would like to forget.
Calvin: My Atlantic
Monthly article was about abrupt climate change. Every couple
of thousand years in the Earth's past, there have been these
really abrupt changes. We didn't know they existed fifteen years
ago. It was just the analysis of ice cores from Greenland that
allowed us to see this. About ten years ago, when it was just
appearing in Science and Nature, I watched and
thought, "people need to get on to the band wagon about this--someone
ought to write some good articles." Despite the fact that Science
and Nature wrote articles on the subject every year,
it didn't escape into the popular press. Since that's where
a lot of science reporters get their cue, that was really surprising.
I think that science editors felt that it was far too complicated,
or that it was just another form of global warming. Global warming
had sort of filled that niche, and nothing else was getting
in. After watching nobody else write the story for ten years,
I had my arm twisted, and I felt sufficiently guilty about not
having written the story before that I went ahead and did it.
There are times where you look and say to yourself, "this is
a prescription for disaster and nobody is talking about it."
Then you get an opportunity to do something.
How you think the Y2K coverage by the popular media over the
next year is going to impact the general public's sense of science
and technology? Do you think the coverage is going to have an
Thurow: I think
the Y2K is fascinating, because what's going to get you is the
unknown unknowns. You will correct for anything you think will
happen, and it will not happen. Then the question is what things
are out there that you never even think about, and what problem
is that going to cause.
Y2K is also a good example of one of those things that you can
make a lot worse by talking about it. Regardless of what happens,
there will be a lot of people who will take their money out
of the stock market because there will be some good bargains
later. That creates problems. Its hard to win these things.
There is a case for saying that corporate interest play
a very heavy hand in the way in which scientific issues are
presented, never mind the way science is shaped by corporate
interest. Since we are talking about the popular expression
of that, would any of you care to comment on how power and wealth
influence the way in which these issues are presented through
corporate media to the American people?
can see examples on both sides. For example, there are clearly
powerful political interest that wanted to preserve the nuclear
power industry, but they completely failed when science was
on their side. Every study that has ever been done of nuclear
power shows that more people will die generating the same amount
of electricity from a coal fire plant as a nuclear power plan.
You have to consider the number of men who die from the coal
mines and on the railroads. Piles of coal even give off a little
bit of radiation, so you don't even get rid of your radiation
problem. But it's a ghost, right? It is something you can't
hear, see or smell that can kill you. All the corporate power
in the world was completely helpless to influence American public
opinion, even when they had most of the science on their side.
You can certainly find other cases on the other side. Tobacco
is the major one. They stonewalled in thirty years, but the
facts came down on the other side, and they lost in the end.
People clearly have vested interests in how they present these
issues, but I don't think you can say there is some sort of
evil Machiavelli out there pulling the strings in a way that
works, because I don't know of any examples where pulling the
strings has worked in the long run. For example, the automobile
companies have gotten the message, and if you look at the amount
of money they are putting into fuel cell research, it is enormous.
They are aware there is something going on out there, and they
are assuming they are going to be treated like the tobacco was,
and want to escape that game by going to a different fuel source.
When GM announced that they were going to spin off Delphi-Delco,
the big parts manufacturer of GM, they moved the fuel cell research
into GM because they didn't want to give that to an outside
company. If you are in the oil business, you are between a rock
and a hard place. You are saying, "hey, that's my livelihood--
that's what I do!" So you resist, and I don't think that's terribly
much disclosure should science writers give about their own
personal involvement, entanglements and sources of support in
respect to material they write about?
me respond with an example from Economics. Suppose you were
writing about the Microsoft case, which a lot of economist are
right now. Anybody writing about that case from either side
who has any related financial dealings has got to say so, because
this is a little bit Seattle vs. Silicon Valley. If you do something
to break Microsoft up, the big winners are all in Silicon Valley.
Here is a case where billions are riding on it. If you are going
to write about the issue, and you are making money from either
Sun or Microsoft as a consultant or lecturer, I think you've
go to say so.
I would like to ask the panel if when they had tenure when they
started writing for the general public?
Thurow: I started
out of frustration with not going to Washington. I had tenure,
but I don't think that made a big difference. One of the problems
is that most people don't have an instant success. A lot of
people in economics have tried to write a popular book which
sold about fifty copies, and they never tried again. You don't
have one success after another, or at least I don't. It requires
a certain amount of persistence.
was asked to write some essays for a magazine. I started with
Smithsonian, then I went to Science. That was
in the early 1980s, when there was just beginning to be the
feeling that science writing by scientists was a legitimate
activity. It was still very early though, and I also had the
same feeling that it was something that I needed to keep in
the closet for awhile. It was not given very much value, but
I felt that I had to write. Lester Thurow talked about writing
for the fun of it. I think many writers and scientists, which
I would say rather than science writers, do it because they
feel like they have to write. This is something Virginia Woolf
said in "Letters to a Young Poet." A young clerk asked "do I
have it in me to be a poet, to be a writer." Woolf replied,
"you should be a writer if you feel like you have to write."
It is hard to articulate it better than that. Its a passion
that I think overrides concern about tenure or concern about
reaction among professional colleagues. In some ways, I think
it even overrides some of the lofty ideals that Emerson was
talking about. There is just a sense that you have to write
to express yourself, and you have to communicate your subject
to a larger audience. It is a compulsion. I would guess that
everyone sitting at this table felt that compulsion at some
point that was at least as strong a factor as any of the other
factors in their decision to write. (Other panelists showed