How I Started the Iraq War (I Think)

By Carl Zimmer | February 15, 2012 11:32 am

For a lot of writers, there’s no greater dream than to get onto the Colbert Report or the Daily Show.

This was not exactly how my dream was supposed to go:

Now, as the author of a book about science tattoos and articles on topics including exploding whales, jumping fleas, zombie cockroaches, and the sex-crazed flashes of fireflies, I’ll be the first to admit that I sometimes like writing about things that may seem–at first–to be pure diversion.

But my hope is that there’s more to the stories than an intriguing headline, an eye-catching opening photo, or, yes, a cute cover of a magazine. I hope readers can learn something surprisingly deep about how the world works.

The flashes of fireflies are one of the best examples of Darwin’s ideas about how sex shapes nature. The parasitic wasps that make cockroaches their slaves have learned things about nervous systems that we humans do not yet understand. Learning about how whales survive deep dives can potentially give doctors clues about how to treat people who suffered from high-pressure impacts. A tattoo of the Dirac equation sums up quantum physics and Einstein’s theory of special relativity on one shoulder. And learning about how animals make friendships may reveal some important insights about how social interactions improve human health.

I’m guessing that Jon Stewart didn’t know that that last item was one of the conclusions of my article in this week’s issue of Time. I’m also guessing he’s not aware that I also wrote in the article about long-term fieldwork on animal societies, or research on endocrinology, or studies on reciprocal altruism. As far as I can tell, he only looked at the cover.

Mister Stewart, meet me at camera three.

I think it’s important to debate about how well journalists are covering the big political issues of our day. But it doesn’t make sense to claim that a science story is a cause of a great nation’s downfall. Surely a well-informed electorate can handle reading about both the evolution of behavior and the latest unrest in the Middle East.

And if you’d like to talk more about this, maybe you could have me on your show. (Hope springs eternal.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Meta, Top posts, Writing Elsewhere

Comments (23)

  1. it might not be your fault that TIME chose you to be the distraction from the political turmoil, but in light of times other cover stories, mustnt you find the timing a little Odd?

    I’m sure he would of loved your article in another context, just not in a moment of world crisis like we are facing. We need to be talking about defaulting on our loans, having a global repudation of IMF DEBT, the decoupling of america into a north american union, agenda 21, corporate globalization, the destruction of the dollar, oil prices…. etc. I mean if they’re going to hint at it in other covers, why specifically pick something science/curiosity to ease some tension?

    You could apply your mind to the science of FRACKING

    I’m sure he would love to have you on his show for other reasons! You are an expert in ways I can only dream of!

  2. Steven–If we play that game, science will always lose. As long as I’ve been reading the news, there has always been a war, a financial crisis, or a political outrage unfolding.

  3. PhysicsGradStudent

    Dirac equation sums up quantum physics and *special* relativity.

    [CZ: Thanks! Fixed.]

  4. Sarah TX

    I think Stewart’s framing was unfortunate but his point is absolutely valid (and if he had cited the sites which originally pointed out this problem, viewers could have researched for themselves).

    The real take-away Stewart should have presented is that Time Magazine skews their covers to an American audience every time it can. How AMERICA started selling cars again, vs. the real highlight of the cover story (an Italian carmaker). Meanwhile, this China cover (which speculates that the China bubble will burst) is mysteriously absent internationally. And I can’t even imagine why this international cover didn’t make it on the US edition.

  5. You’re the unfortunate brunt of what I think really is a trend of questionable editorial decisions by TIME regarding their cover choices (certainly not the only culprit). Newsweek, The Economist and other mags have been trying to create more transparency through things like Newsweek Also-Rans ( and The Economist Cover Collection ( to show regional alternatives and explain their editorial decisions.

    The segment is actually a complete rip of what several blogs (incluting Slate) have been covering for months, and should be directed at editors, not authors. You shouldn’t have to have to be the brunt of the joke at the expense of the greater message. I guess I’m saying I agree with what they are getting at here, but it’s not new, and bad timing is the reason you got associated with it at all. Not fair.

  6. Wilson

    On a less-serious and I guess mildly off-topic note, I hate how clips of The Daily Show (and The Colbert Report and others) are not available in Canada*.

    Not blaming you, just ranting. :(

    (I’m glad that the other commenters gave me a sense of what’s going on in the video.)


    *To pedants: yes, I can get clips for those shows in Canada. However, since I have no idea what date the clip is from, or which segment of the show to watch, that fact does me very little good.

  7. Jennifer Kruse Quirk

    Has anyone else noticed that in the middle of this latest media muddle, we’re *still* not talking about what the allegedly important news is – i.e., the European economic meltdown – but we are instead talking about putting puppies on a magazine cover? We’re not even talking about the *substance* of either the article on Italy’s new Prime Minister or the piece on the science of animal behavior.

    We’re talking about the *cover photos* related to each.

    Just finding that somewhat ironic.

  8. I’m with Sara TX here. Sure, Stewart cherry-picked a cover story because it featured a picture of cute animals rather than a serious old white guy, without engaging with the content. But the content was beside the point; his aim was Time’s assumption that American readers aren’t interested in the world-events oriented stories that the rest of the world is.

    But if it gets you on the show to defend it, win-win!

  9. Sometimes editors need a break from the usual–perhaps, and they make decisions that people will disagree with.

    Perhaps the cover choice will help attract a few people that wouldn’t ordinarily read science! Yeah!…and being “highlighted” on Daily Show is a great thing for science in the long-run….even if the focus was just on the cute cover.

    Keep on doing what you are doing….and I’m hoping that you’ll be invited to the show.

  10. CZ: Don’t let it get you down. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like others summed above, what TIME chooses to cover is no fault of yours. Good for you, shame on TIME. I write shame on TIME because they have unprecedented access to and power in to people across the globe. I feel like there should be news outlets for every scale of happenings (global -> local), and like Stewart highlighted, they have chosen to cover some real waggish covers to the most powerful nation in the world in light of devastation. I understand that catastrophe is pervasive and it could always be covered, but when is it acceptable for it to be replaced? Good article in TIME, as I shared it with many of my peers and colleagues.

  11. I think that it’s silly to expect a magazine to sell in the US if it has a picture on the cover of a man hardly anyone here recognizes and asks, Can this guy save Europe? It’s about what sells. Time magazine put a dog on its cover for Americans because that’s what Americans will buy. Maybe it’s a chicken-egg question of, if Time sells world affairs over dogs, will Americans suddenly become more interested in world affairs, or will Time only sell world affairs over dogs when Americans finally become interested? Time caters to what makes money. Is that Time’s fault or ours? Even if their job were somehow to lift the level of discourse by putting Monti on the US cover…would that even work? No. I’d hazard that the only reason many American’s could find Italy on a map is because it’s “the one that looks like a boot.”

    That said, I read the animal friendship article last night. First of all, I’m baffled by the weird negative reaction dog lovers had to it, and I am one. Second, it’s packed with great science and great information, and if Americans pick this up for the pink cover and the dog yet end up reading all that science–that’s a good thing. I also read the piece on Monti. It was OK, but frankly, the science of animal friendship was more interesting and evergreen. I read three political pieces in that issue of Time in which the information was already so passe, reading was a waste of …time. (Sorry).

    I also just read the Neil deGrasse Tyson piece in Playboy–we subscribe to Playboy–and came away with the same attitude. These stories infiltrate science into minds where it might not otherwise make an appearance. Stewart shoulda noticed that.

  12. Brian Too

    My guess is that Time is under the same sort of pressure that newspapers experience. They compete with other magazines, the Internet, plus TV, radio and all the rest. Oh and newspapers too. Likely they are categorized, fairly or unfairly, as old media.

    In an effort to remain relevant and be seen as interesting, they are likely to put provocative stuff on the cover in order to attract and retain readers. Has anyone noticed that in the last 10 years or so, 3 of their People of the Year haven’t been people at all? It sure seems like an editorial decision to keep a tradition going, while keeping their readers guessing.

  13. Avattoir
  14. Jeanette Garcia

    I don’t normally buy Time magazine but if that is where your article is, it will be worth my while. I am particularly interested in what you had to say about dog relationships that got so many dog lovers in a flap.

  15. Jody

    This feels weird for me to have to write on the Discover Magazine blog, but there are like a dozen magazines DEVOTED to science. Discover, Scientific America, PopSci, NatGeo, Science Quarterly, etc etc. Not on that list: Time. Time is where people go to learn about US and world news.

    So yes, science should always lose out to financial crisises and war…in Time magazine. Thank goodness science has its own set of publications.

    [CZ: Jody–Time has had science reporting in their mix for decades, and from time to time they put those science stories on the cover. (I have written a few times for them before, including stories on Darwin’s 200th birthday and canine cognition research.) While I’m a big fan of the other magazines you list (and have written for most of them), I also like writing for magazines that are not explicitly known as science magazines. I reach new people that way–people who may think that they don’t like science or can’t understand it, and who then gain some insight from one of my articles. I’ve actually had a bunch of emails and conversations around my own town this week along these lines, and they are incredibly satisfying.]

  16. Here’s an article from November that addresses this “issue” precisely.

  17. I’m sure your story is deep and insightful and entertaining. (I don’t have access.)

    But, as you surmise, Jon Stewart wasn’t talking about your story. He was talking about the American readership. Your story wasn’t sold (to us) on the basis of its science; it was presented as a light and heart-warming story about cute cuddly pets. On that cover the word “science” is almost invisible. And editors pick their covers based in part on what they know will sell.

    So Stewart has a point. The American readership is less interested in the European crisis or the Arab Spring or Islam (or even science) than they are in pets or anxiety or chores.

    The point is sad and true, but he made it funny. My advice: laugh along with it. And keep doing what you’re doing.

  18. Eskimo

    It’s funny, I was thinking of leaving a comment linking to that piece on Slate (which compares the American cover of TIME to the other covers) under your post about the animal friendship article. But I thought it would be too snarky. As Joe H points out, Stewart’s people probably saw the Slate piece and used it as the basis for his rant.

  19. A couple of weeks ago I was scheduled for an early morning interview via Skype with a large news network; I was to talk about the close flyby of asteroid Eros and Europe’s NEOShield. On the morning of the interview I received an e-mail cancelling it because instead they were going to run the story of a boy whose parasitic twin brother had been extracted from his abdomen.

    That’s how important Science ISN’T in the mainstream news. I’m not surprised with anything that happened to you.

    —JL Galache
    Minor Planet Center

    [CZ: But parasitic twin brothers are science too!]

  20. I don’t think you have to take it personnally. As a Canadian, and a science writer myself, I must say, unfortunately, that I feel Jon Stewart was right. Frequently, from Montreal, we are seeing choices of coverages in the American press that give the impression that, for everything international, American medias are acting as if their readers were little children that must be kept far away from perturbations.

    And still, every country in the world will put international news after local news. But there is something very strange in the way it is done in the US medias, and this choice of covers by Time illustrates it.

    That being said, yours was an excellent article.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


See More

Collapse bottom bar