The Breakfast Table

Killing and Being Killed

Dear Atul,

May I say that it is a pleasure for me as well to be chatting with a doctor (and a fine, fierce, and very brave writer as well) whom I am not interviewing and who therefore isn’t suspicious of me, as all interview subjects should be suspicious of reporters; and whom I am not consulting as a patient and therefore not suspicious of myself. In truth, I don’t go to doctors unless I am desperately ill, which means I am always trying to wangle necessary prescriptions for things like Synthroid from people I don’t actually have to SEE. It’s a holdover from my dad, who could never quite shake his Christian Science upbringing and who therefore mostly refused to go to doctors. Of course, his record was not exactly inspiring. He died 25 years ago this week of a melanoma that he watched growing on his torso for many months before he finally had it surgically removed. Too late: It had spread to his brain.

On that peppy note, I’ll answer the question you thought I wouldn’t. I’m working on a story about the origin of cooking and its profound impact on the evolution of human beings, a quirky little exercise for me, considering that my idea of cooking has a lot to do with poking fork-holes in microwaveable food bags.

I will also address your question about why there is so little science news on days that don’t correspond to the publication dates of scientific journals. You’re right. It’s ridiculous. Science writers are far too beholden to the whims of the journals and their Taliban-esque embargo policies.

But we have problems trying to do end runs around journals, because if a scientist discusses data with reporters in any but the most general, wishy-washy terms, the scientist’s work will not be accepted by any of the major journals. The journals give high-handed explanations for their gag rule—to improve the accuracy of science reporting!—but, as my colleague Larry Altman has pointed out, the real reason is simple greed. Journals want to make money by amassing the greatest possible advertising revenue, which requires, among other things, that they dictate the terms of how and when scientific data are released.  

Speaking of the release of data, is it possible that one reason why New York’s murder and crime rates are down when everybody else’s are rising is that New York really was shaken to its marrow by Sept. 11? Maybe even the bad guys got good for a while. And now that I’ve brought bone marrow into the discussion, are you interested in hashing out the stem-cell and cloning mess at all? I really loved the letter in the New York Times this morning from Nancy Horwich, pointing out that if President Bush opposes human cloning for any reason because, as he said, “no human life should be exploited or extinguished for the benefit of another,” then how can he defend capital punishment, which involves killing one person for the questionable benefit of others?

As for capital punishment, it was wonderful that for a while the nation, as exemplified by Illinois’ moratorium, seemed to have soured on the whole barbaric business. But since September, ah, how sweet and righteous revenge can seem! Yup, killing and being killed are sure working their usual magic around the world. 

Will you cheer me up now with happy news of that patient on the table??