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When Good Science Meets Good Journalism

Last week, an article appeared in The New Haven Register by their science editor, Abram Katz, entitled “Confused by the lights: UFO sightings plentiful, but why would aliens visit Stratford?” The article was brought to my attention as part of a company-wide email blast by a co-worker of mine whose brother was interviewed in the article. Another co-worker of mine asked me in a company wide email: I’m still waiting for the official statement from The New England Skeptical Society. I replied: stay tuned.

Abram Katz has been the science editor of The New Haven Register for much longer than I have been seriously reading about science and skepticism (since 1996). In the late 90’s, when the internet was not readily at my fingertips, I had to rely much more on print newspapers to keep track of the Connecticut happenings on science and pseudoscience. Of the three Connecticut newspapers I would regularly peruse, one journalist stood out as being the best writer of science, and that was Abram Katz. And by “the best writer of science”, I mean that he would be able to communicate science in a style and flow that was easy to understand, perfectly paced, and all the while, accurate and informing. Katz first introduced me to many different tidbits of science, including the notions that quarks and leptons are the smallest parts of matter, and that the brain’s limbic system controls our brain’s emotions.

With the continued evolution of the internet and “Media 2.0”, my perusal of newspapers has become a lost practice, and with it, so went my recollection of just how good a science writer Abram Katz was. These recent office emails have been the perfect tonic to remind me.

Upon reading the headline of the article, my first thought was effectively “OK, just another UFO article.” Then I saw that Abram Katz was the author, and my mind sprung to attention. Not only had I not read a Katz article in a long time, here he was talking about UFO’s. I can not recall an article of his that was entirely focused on such a cultural pseudoscience. His work has primarily been to deliver reports on good science while being able to differentiate it with bad science. But for him to delve into a purely pseudoscientific topic was quite a nice surprise. And in my opinion, Katz got it right and for all the right reasons. No surprise there.

And so as I thought about how to reply to the email, I decided to call Abram Katz to talk about the article, and a little about science news journalism in general.

Evan Bernstein: How did you come about covering this story?

Abram Katz: Marc D’addio contacted The New Haven Register, claiming that he saw mysterious lights over Long Island Sound. He emailed us some photographs. I tried to reach him back by email several times to clarify some information about the lights, such as how did they appear to maneuver, follow up on the fact that they were “silent”, how bright were the lights – various things like that. But I never heard back from him.

EB: What did you do next?

AK: Curiously enough, I called the local MUFON chapter. I thought that their main purpose was to address issues like this, but they never got back to me. I was sort of surprised. Ultimately, I did not have a lot of resources to depend on. It is not easy to find serious, respectable experts to discuss UFO’s in a scientific context. I did speak to Professor Fulmer over at Southern Connecticut State University, but he was rather reluctant to speculate because he did not have enough information to offer an informed, scientific opinion.

EB: What are your thoughts on the feedback you’ve received so far?

AK: The people who read the article and who sent me messages calling me such things as a “moron”, their position is that if I myself could not explain the lights, then therefore they must be extra-terrestrials, which is fallacious as far as I’m concerned. The other thing that struck me is that I received a tremendous amount of responses about the UFO article, but I have also reported a great deal about issues like stem cells, genetic engineering, obesity, global warming, – many contentious issues, and the number of people responding has been minimal. What I’m wondering is why there are so many people hung up on UFOs, but who seem to be ignoring real legitimate scientific issues.

Many of the critical comments I have received said that I should go and investigate the claims myself. While I am interested in seeing the lights, if I can’t figure out what they are, it doesn’t mean that its something exotic form another planet. The lights were silent, so they claimed, so therefore they state that it couldn’t have been a helicopter or airplane. They are not willing to accept the possibility that someone developed a silent helicopter. What they would rather conclude is that it must be from a different civilization, which is odd to me, because which one of those two scenarios is more likely? They are very critical about some things and then totally credulous about other things.

They have no real solid observations to base anything upon. They don’t have any concrete evidence. They are not able to make any predictions based on what they’ve seen, and they have no hypotheses that are testable. There might be some reason why lights appear over Long Island Sound, such as some kind of refraction or strange atmospheric conditions. But it’s not up to me to figure out what it takes to prove that the lights are not from outer space.

One of the arguments that I received was that Edgar Mitchell has claimed to have seen UFO’s and believes them to be ET’s. Even so, I think people, in general, are notoriously bad at estimating the altitude, size, and speed of objects in the sky. Even people who are very experienced can be fooled, and simply being an astronaut does not make Mitchell infallible.

EB: From your perspective, as a journalist and editor, what is the state of science journalism in the newspapers?

AK: I’ve been in the business for quite a long time. My sense is that a few years ago there were science sections in many regional and national newspapers – the New York Times still maintains one, but its not as good as it used to be – but the number of science pages at some point declined precipitously. I think that most readers are interested in science & medicine, and there are many issues these days that require science to make sense of the issues – global warming, seal level rises, alternative forms of energy, pollution, nuclear energy, just to name a few. People will be voting on these issues directly or indirectly, and I am concerned, because if you have a whole bunch of people who don’t understand these things they cant make informed decisions.

EB: What has caused such a rapid decline?

AK: I attribute it to the fact that all the papers in the United States have reduced their working staffs. In the past, a newspaper might have employed a pollution specialist, or a medical specialist. But now, assignments are being given to general reports that are unfamiliar with science terminology or the skepticism that one needs to approach these subjects with.    (end)

I invite you all to go the The New Haven Register’s website and type ‘Abram Katz’ into the search window for his latest articles. Katz also has a pair of blogs: Who Knows? and Know It All. Read up, folks. Abram Katz is a rare breed; a science news journalist who actually knows science, and news, and journalism. What a concept!

3 comments to When Good Science Meets Good Journalism

  • Did you ask him why he didn’t call The NESS?

  • Muero

    Correct plural of UFO: UFOs

    Correct possessive of UFO: UFO’s

    Incorrect plural of UFO: UFO’s

    Did anybody else watch that (mostly) terrible “special” on UFOs on at 10 PM on ABC tonight? There was a little skepticism, but the overall direction of the show was “there are so many sightings, some must be true.” It was a very bad sign when they mentioned the Phoenix Lights in the first few minutes. I was surprised Neil deGrasse Tyson agreed to be interviewed for it.

  • alexjbutterfield

    It’s actually accepted to use an apostrophe to pluralize acronyms, although I tend not to myself. (perhaps because an acronym is a form of contraction)

    So I wouldn’t worry too much about it. I would worry about those rising seal levels, though.

    Interesting article, Evan. Perhaps Katz would make for a good guest on the podcast.

    I know an inciting article like Katz’s will bring them out of the woodwork, but I was surprised at how many believe this stuff.

    “Look at the evidence!!!” they shout.

    I went to Roswell (on my way to see Tombstone), and they have museums about this stuff. The best exhibit was the X-Files posters. It was literally the most pathetic thing I have ever seen.

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