The Second Draft of the History of Science

I’ve been hearing good things for a while now about Retro Report, a journalism project that produces 10-to-20-minute-long videos about what happened to big headline stories from decades ago. I’m now gobbling up my Monday morning watching their backlist. It’s excellent stuff, and I’ve been trying to figure out why I like it. I think it’s because the programs get beyond the simple “Where Are They Now?” format. The journalists who make the pieces really report the stories–they go back and find people who were in the midst of the news to interview them, and then they discover the surprising course of the story after it fell away from the world’s attention.

What really surprised me about Retro Report is that most of their categories are related in one way or another science. I write about new scientific research, and so my job requires me to keep my eyes locked on the future, trying to figure out what some discovery or invention will mean to generations to come. And the longer you spend in this job, the more you start asking yourself, “Hey, what happened to…?” In many cases, things quietly take an unexpected–but revealing–turn. Retro Report shows that going back to a story about science can reveal important lessons about what’s going on today, but ones you may not have predicted.

Here, for example, is a piece about a GMO tomato that turned up in supermarkets way back in 1994. People went hysterical over the Flavr Savr tomato, either as an evil plot or the salvation of our food supply. After the cameras were shut off and the reporters went away, the company that made the tomato struggled to make a business out of it and quietly sold their patent off to GMO giant Monsanto, which then quietly shut the project down–arguably because it was boldly labeled in stores as genetically modified. Since then, Monsanto has gone on to make big profits on GMO plants by making farmers their customers, not consumers.

Here’s another piece, called Crack Babies. In the 1980s, people got frantically worried that crack-addicted women would give birth to a generation of brain-damaged infants. The idea–based on some preliminary research–turned out to be wrong. Yet it became a wildly successful meme, perhaps because it involved a then-new drug and perhaps because crack addicts were mostly poor blacks. Retro Report rightly asks why we never talk about the threat of “Booze Babies,” when alcohol is more harmful during pregnancy than crack.

These videos remind us forcefully that the real meaning of stories about science takes time to unfold. That is very hard to remember, because there’s something intoxicating about a new science story. Suddenly some great truth about the world seems to be unveiled. That truth can be terrifying, or elating. I can’t count all the emails I’ve gotten when I’ve written a story about some very preliminary research on a disease, from people who suffer from the disease and want to know where they can go to get cured.

In reality, a lot of science-related conclusions fall apart or have to be revised in later years. Science itself is starting to grapple with its flaws, with papers like “Most Published Research Findings Are False.” On the other hand, some findings gain strength over the years, as more and more evidence supports them. But those studies pile up like sand grains, and so it’s easy for journalists to overlook them, even after they’ve grown into a mountain.

I hope Retro Report does more investigations into science. They’re wonderful history lessons, and they also help people think more realistically about today’s news.

Other science stories include:

Summer of Fire: How this year’s massive forest fires are part of a 25-year trend, due in part to human activity.

Biosphere 2, the sealed building that was supposed to become self-sufficient and instead went wrong in a fascinating way.

Y2K, the computer bug that terrified the world in 1999 with the prospect of computers shutting down on New Years Day.

Voyage of the Mobro 4000: an ill-fated voyage of a garbage barge that gave rise to the recycling movement.

(P.S.: Retro Report is a non-profit project. The New York Times, where I’m a columnist, distributes Retro Report, but I’ve not had any dealings with them aside from as a viewer.)