After drifting off to edit newsletters and newspapers, I recently returned to science writing, which was my assignment years ago at The Washington Post. So I joined a blog for science writers, where one lively discussion was about how important a background in science is in becoming a successful science journalist, and whether the case can be made that education in humanities/journalism might actually be preferable. Here is my response:

People are different, jobs are different, and times change. But for what it’s worth, some of my most distinguished contemporaries as science writers in the 1960 and 1970s had academic backgrounds in liberal arts and journalism rather than science.

The late Howard Simons of The Washington Post earned a B.A. in English from Union College and a master’s in journalism from Columbia before going to work as a reporter at Science Service. That led to a job as science writer at the Post, where he eventually was promoted to managing editor. He played a key role in the newspaper’s coverage of Watergate, which a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, and when he retired he was named to head the Nieman Foundation. When I succeeded him as a science writer, he taught me invaluable tricks such as scanning the proofs of scientific journals for discoveries that would interest a lay audience and then phoning the authors to get them to tell the stories in English. The key phrase would be: “In an article in Nature [or whatever] and in an interview with The Washington Post, so-and-so described . . . ” This locution protected the researcher because he or she wasn’t going public in advance of peer review, and it freed the reporter from the constraints of scientific jargon. (As it happened, my last science course had been in high school, but I found most researchers willing and able to make their findings accessible to the lay public.)

When I was sent to cover a NASA space mission, Albert Sehlstedt Jr. of The Baltimore Sun was on hand to teach me another memorable lesson: Don’t be afraid to ask a dumb question. (It is the answers that matter.) Al had been a police reporter and night rewrite man for the Sun.

John Noble Wilford of The New York Times, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his science writing, earned a B.S. from the University of Tennessee—but it was in journalism. He went on to earn an M.A. in political science from Syracuse University.

Another contemporary was Victor Cohn, who became the dean of science and medical writers. I don’t know what he studied at the University of Minnesota, but he was editor of the school newspaper before going into the Navy, which first assigned him to write about technology. Upon discharge he went to work for the Minneapolis Tribune, which gave him the university beat—which he deftly segued from academic affairs into a science/medical beat.

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