On Tapeworms and Laughter

Susan Gerbic

Carl Zimmer is a science writer who reports about biology and medicine. He writes a weekly column for the New York Times and has also written for publications including National Geographic and Discover. Carl has written several science books; his latest is called She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perils, and Potential of Heredity. He has received numerous awards, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism in 2012. Carl will be presenting at CSICon on Friday, October 19, at 10:00 am.

Susan Gerbic: So nice to meet you, Carl. I’ve heard your name before. I see you have been a speaker at NECSS, and I just discovered your latest book on a list of Best Science Books of Spring 2018. I’m surprised I haven’t run into you sooner. You also write a column for the New York Times called “Matter.” Please tell our readers more about yourself.

Carl Zimmer: I started out in science writing as a fact-checker at Discover. I found it incredibly satisfying, allowing me to learn on the job about fascinating discoveries across fields such as biology, geology, and physics. After ten years at Discover, I left to work on books and other projects. I started contributing to the New York Times in 2004, and for the past five years I’ve written the “Matter” column there. You could describe my area of coverage as the “life beat”—the research into biology that’s helping us understand what it means to be alive.

Gerbic: I was just looking at your Wikipedia page, as we do, and I see you have a very unusual claim to fame. You are the only science writer who has a species of tapeworm named for you, Acanthobothrium zimmeri. So please tell us how that happened?

Zimmer: In 2000, I published a book called Parasite Rex, which is a spirited defense of parasites. They’ve gotten a reputation as degenerates and free loaders, but parasites are the most successful lifeform on Earth, simply by counting up all their species. They’re also remarkably sophisticated in their ability to find hosts, live inside them, and sometimes even control their behavior. A researcher who was working on a set of new species of tapeworms decided to name one for me because of that book. My book may go out of print someday, but species names are forever!

Gerbic: At the moment the CSICon website has not been updated with your lecture info. Please tell us a bit about what you are going to talk about.

Zimmer: I’ll be talking about my latest book, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perils, and Potential of Heredity. Heredity is a hugely powerful thing in our lives, shaping our sense of ourselves. And advances in technology are letting us examine it in astonishing detail. Millions of people are flocking to services like 23andMe and Ancestry.com to read their DNA and discover how they inherited it from their ancestors. But there’s a lot of pseudoscience and fallacies out there when it comes to heredity. We like to think that we inherited DNA from all our ancestors, for example, but that’s not necessarily so. In fact, the further back you go in your ancestry, the fewer ancestors share a genetic link with you. As we gain more power to edit DNA—and possibly alter the future of heredity—we need to develop a strong, rational understanding of what heredity is and is not.

Gerbic: Another claim to fame in our community: you were the keynote for the inaugural NECSS conference in 2009 and returned to speak to them again in 2011. I think you will find that CSICon will show you how it is done. I’m a little biased. CSICon does have an amazing lineup this year. Are there speakers you are looking forward to hearing? 

Zimmer: I’m delighted that Dan Kahan will be speaking about his work. Dan’s work on how people process scientific information is always thought-provoking and helps me come up with new ideas for how to be a better science writer.

Gerbic: One of the frustrations of the scientific skepticism world is that we are seeing an attack on the media’s reputation, as well as serious financial cuts in journalism. I understand that these cuts are especially hard on science journalists. If true, can you suggest ways our community can help? I remember a year ago after the 2017 election that there was a serge to subscribe to news media sites. I haven’t heard if that had a positive or lasting effect.

Zimmer: Science journalism has indeed taken some big hits over the past decade. CNN eliminated their science team in 2008 and gives very little attention now to the scientific issues that have big impacts on their audience, ranging from vaccines to global warming. In the 1980s, many newspapers launched science sections, but they’re almost all gone now thanks to short-sighted cost-cutting measures. But many new publications are making science a priority, such as Vox and Five Thirty Eight. And older publications, such as The New York Times and National Geographic, are retooling their science coverage for the digital era.

If you want good science coverage to survive, you have to support it. That can include subscribing to publications you like and spreading the word about them on social media. Skeptics should also hold publications accountable when they do a bad job of covering science and medicine. More editors need to learn that these subjects require time and expertise to report well. 

Gerbic: I’m really looking forward to getting your latest book, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity. I like to wait and purchase it at the conference, so I can get it autographed and get a selfie with the author. (Tip to new conference attendees: don’t overpack; save room for books!) Can you please tell us more about your book?

Zimmer: My book is a look at the past and future of heredity. The concept has had a central place in our culture for thousands of years, but it’s only been in the past 150 years that researchers have approached heredity as a scientific question. New studies are now revealing heredity’s inner workings but also raising interesting questions about how we define it. A number of researchers are now arguing that heredity can flow through many different channels, such as culture. I explore these ideas in She Has Her Mother’s Laugh through stories—stories about sick kings, monstrous flowers, and my own family’s experiences with heredity.

Gerbic: One thing that CSICon does really well is we are very people-focused and know how to have fun. Attendees please follow the CSISon Facebook event page for updates during the conference. Because this is happening near Halloween, we always have a themed party. This year the theme is pajama party. I suppose this is your chance to wear PJ’s with parasites printed on them?

Zimmer: Never say never.

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.