Tea time with NYT science writer

New York Times science writer Ben Carey said at a Monday Master’s Tea that he has focused much of his writing in 2013 on mental health issues.
New York Times science writer Ben Carey said at a Monday Master’s Tea that he has focused much of his writing in 2013 on mental health issues. Photo by Joyce Xi.

Sometimes, New York Times science writer Ben Carey finds it difficult for his articles on psychology to compete with stories on former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and a nuclear North Korea.

In a Master’s Tea hosted by Branford College on Monday afternoon, Carey highlighted the challenge of picking stories that are both academically sound and sensational enough to garner public interest. Addressing a crowd of 15 students and faculty, Carey discussed his career as a reporter for the Times.

As a popular science writer for a major newspaper, Carey said stirring up controversy in the academic community is not uncommon. He added that researchers can become “extremely angry” when they disagree with his writing.

In 2013, Carey said he has focused much of his writing on mental health issues — a “huge story” that he said typically receives little media coverage due to its grim nature and slow progress toward treatments.

“But I feel kind of an obligation to be in there and doing more stories for the paper on that,” he said.

Carey said his favorite article from his career was an obituary of H.M., a man whose hippocampus — an area of the brain essential to the formation of new memories — was removed for medical reasons. Researchers studying H.M. concluded that motor memory is entirely separate from long-term memory after determining that he was able to master skills without remembering learning them.

“It was a privilege to write about him,” Carey said. “He contributed to science through his own generosity.”

To close his talk, Carey gave advice to the students in attendance, suggesting they participate in the research opportunities provided by the University. He singled out Yale School of Medicine psychiatry department chair John Krystal’s research — which he has covered in the past — as an example of “exciting work” done at Yale. Krystal is “very open minded about using psychedelic drugs to treat mental disorders,” Carey said. “They’re doing work with pot, LSD and ecstasy.”

Fellow science writer Annie Murphy Paul ’95, who attended the Master’s Tea, agreed with Carey about the challenges of covering popular psychology responsibly.

“I think it’s a tough line,” she said. “It’s important to stay honest and truthful, and I don’t really know how I would feel as a journalist trying to decide how far to go to get a story people think is interesting.”

Josh Barrett ’15 said he appreciated Carey’s advice.

“It’s important to make the most of Yale,” he added.

Carey is also the author of science-based mystery books for middle school students.

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