This book, The Best of the Best American Science Writing is just chock-full of what we love on this blog (in case you missed it, that’s science and writing)! If you missed my review of the two essays selected from the year 2000, check it out here, or my review of the two essays from 2001 here.
The two essays selected from 2002 were “Dr. Daedalus” by Lauren Slater and “The Soft Science of Dietary Fat” by Gary Taubes. Slater’s piece follows Dr. Joe Rosen, a renowned plastic surgeon with grandiose notions about altering the human form – wings, eyes with binoculars inside, etc. The piece speaks to what it means to be human, and continuously reasserts that our identity is shaped by our appearance. Slater’s work is definitively narrative, even as she discusses the ethical quandaries of modifying the human form ‘without cause’; she uses dialogue, scene, and reflection to communicate Rosen’s, the public’s, and her own ideas about the ethics of body modification.
The piece is long but truly beautifully written, filled with beautiful imagery, great characterization, and more. It’s more a work of art than the ‘journalistic’ style pieces from the first two reviews. I will say that Slater bites off more than she can chew in this essay – she tries to cover a lot of ground and ends up getting muddled in the process. But it’s a fascinating, and really well-written, look at where the cutting edge of medical science could take us and why the public should be concerned, or excited, for this future.
I found Taubes’s piece to be mind-blowing in an every-American-should-read-this sort of way. Taubes’s piece is traditional journalistic style with very little narrative structure or reflection; the content of the piece is so fascinating, you are quickly enthralled anyway. The essay is a historical account of how Americans came to fear fat in their diets when there is no scientific support (or even consensus) on the matter. The piece describes how politicians, the press, and the public, clamoring for ‘simple, healthy diet advice’ pushed past the bounds of current knowledge to accept what was little more than an urban legend as fact (it reminds me a bit of this piece I wrote about how the public and press still demand the wrong things from science).
Taubes’s piece is incredibly complete in its research, so dedicated to understanding both the scientific and historical nuance that clouds this particular issue. The science and the politics, which can be difficult to understand due to their complexity, are both given the time and attention necessary to make a reader of every level of familiarity with those systems comfortable. The piece is engaging, informative, and fast-paced because there’s suspense in wondering how a completely unsupported scientific theory came to be widely held as a fact. While Taubes does not offer his opinion throughout the piece, there seems to be a lesson to be learned here about how the public, in its quest for simple answers, can distort science (and then blame science for not being ‘truthful’); we must all be more careful when we make demands of science to make sure we understand what can be known and what is actually known before we start asking for easy answers.