Creating a ‘science of us’ has been a contentious effort

Figuring out how people think and feel is one of science’s great challenges. In the last 100 years, we’ve seen the rise of psychology as an established field of study — a rise that has been marked by warring schools of thought and, at times, horrifying experiments. Big questions remain unanswered, but we’ve come a long way from Sigmund Freud and the Oedipus complex.

If you’re going to step into that swamp, you need a trusted guide, and you couldn’t ask for a better one than Bruce Bower, Science News’ behavioral sciences writer. He’s been on the beat for us since 1984, and we’ve benefited greatly from his ability to explain the complexities of research on human behavior, and his willingness to bluntly state when a seemingly great discovery is nonsense.

Bower deploys those skills to review the last century of behavioral science, making sense of a dizzyingly complex chronology, from Freud and Gestalt psychology through B.F. Skinner, the rise of behavioral economics, heuristics and ecological rationality. “I entered journalism because I started out skeptical of psychology,” Bower told me. That skepticism was earned; he holds a master’s degree in psychology and worked in research and in clinical care before deciding that he’d rather write about it than practice it. “One of the first stories I covered at Science News was the John Hinckley insanity defense,” Bower recalled, including the still-contentious verdict in which the man who shot President Ronald Reagan was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

There have been many memorable assignments since then, including an early experience covering the discovery of a lost pre-Inca city in the Andes. That was before computers and fax machines; press releases arrived by mail. After Science News and many other news outlets covered the story, Bower got a call from a reader saying he wanted to stop by the office and show Bower something. It was a tourist map showing the “lost” city. “I saw it and thought, ‘Oh no, this is bad.’ ”

Bower re-reported the story, including a tense interview with the archaeologist who had claimed the find, and Science News ran Bower’s article setting the record straight. “The only saving grace for me was that a lot of other people were scammed,” Bower told me. “But it taught me to be very careful.”

Bower has often applied scrutiny to other controversial topics, including highly publicized claims in the 1990s that many children had repressed memories of sexual abuse. Memory, he says, isn’t that simple. “There’s a good argument that consciousness is like something on a dimmer switch; the trauma can kind of fade in and out of memory at a very low level. But then, people are capable of remembering things that never happened. Brains are not computers.”

Any reader of Bower’s work knows that he is a graceful writer who can turn even the shortest news brief into a pleasurable excursion. But I was surprised when he told me he used to write satires for Science News. Satires? We have our own nerdy sense of humor here, but I don’t think of Science News as the Onion. Yet the archive has Bower’s satirical gifts on display, including a 2011 “interview” with Bozo the Clown, who is upset because he has lost his happiness. Bower uses science to explain how the pursuit of happiness is not always a good thing. The title: “Sometimes, happiness is for bozos.”

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.