UW-Madison journalism Prof. Deborah Blum is best known as a Pulitzer-winning science writer and the author of The Monkey Wars, Sex on the Brain and Love at Goon Park. President of the National Association of Science Writers from 2002-04, she has contributed science-related articles to Discover, Health, Mother Jones and other magazines, as well as the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.
She took her B.A. in journalism from the University of Georgia in 1976 with a double minor in anthropology and political science, and in 1982 took here M.A. in journalism from UW-Madison, where she now teaches courses in advanced mass media practice, creative nonfiction, in-depth reporting and science journalism.
Her new book Ghost Hunters: Williams James and the Scientific Search for Life After Death, was published in August by Penguin Press. Blum's Wisconsin Book Festival appearance is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 21 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, where she will read from and discuss Ghost Hunters, take questions from the audience and sign copies of her books.
The Daily Page: How and when did the concept for Ghost Hunters seed itself?
Blum: I was delving into history of psychology for an earlier book (Love at Goon Park) and I kept seeing these side references to William James veering into the insanity of the supernatural. Then one day I was in Paul's Books, on State Street, and they had an old copy of William James on Psychical Research. I was curious enough to buy it and it contained the most amazing haunted dream -- which I tell in my own book as "The Woman on the Bridge." That was enough to get me hooked.
Where did you find your primary research resources?
I'm a chronic over-researcher so I acquired quite a nice little home library on the occult and I read a lot of 19th and early 20th [century] books, many written by the researchers I was studying, some were reports on the occult, some were diaries and journals, some were manuals on how to fake a sÃ?©ance. I also read newspaper coverage from about 1880-1910, magazine coverage, and reports in science journals. And I read hundreds and hundreds of letters. I went to Harvard and read the pertinent William James correspondence at the Houghton Library. And I made three trips to the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) headquarters in New York City to sift through the unpublished letters and reports in their archive. They were very kind about letting me camp out in their library.
A century after its chronological setting, how is Ghost Hunters relevant to contemporary readers? Do you perceive parallels to current scientific inquiries or debates?
Well, for one thing, we're still hunting for ghosts. Our interest in the supernatural remains as strong as ever -- witness the abundance of popular television and radio shows devoted to the subject, paranormal investigators, reportedly haunted buildings. I happen to think that the paranormal investigations -- then called psychical research -- were smarter than they are now. But the questions were remarkably similar to ours: does science define the world, can one believe in both facts and faith, are we limited to a mechanical existence? We fight those same battles today -- in schools, politics and science -- and the roots of them can be found in my story.
How does this narrative fit into the history of science and its regenerative cycles of observation, hypotheses, discovery, theorems, empirical proofs, reproduced results, broad acceptance as fact, doubt, skepticism, reconsideration, refutation and renewed inquiry?
I think it clearly is part of a moment when science is further defining itself: what is legitimate science, what is not? And Victorian researchers, studying the occult, realize fairly quickly that nothing about it fits into the rules of science: it's not replicable, not predictable, obeys no known natural law. William James used to complain that his scientific colleagues then took the easy out -- they quit studying it rather than concluding that they just hadn't found the right natural laws yet.
Do you believe in life after death, or allow for its possibility?
I think I fall at the possibility end of the spectrum. Part of that's personal temperament: I think it sounds like hubris to assume we understand existence in all its dimensions; life's a lot more interesting, anyway, when you allow it to be an exploration.
Who do you envision as the audience for Ghost Hunters? Do you expect the book to enjoy a more receptive reaction from readers who accept the existence of life after death, or skeptics? And which of these two groups is more likely to have their minds opened by the book?
Well, this is the first book I've written that has been ignored by science magazines and journals (except the occult ones), so I'd have to say the latter. And I like that because I do think that the psychical science in my story is so smart and thoughtful that I think it offers a good perspective for current believers. But my intention is also to reach people who are just curious and people whom are resistant to the ideas, partly because they don't know that much about them.
What will your Wisconsin Book Festival presentation entail, and whom do you envision in that audience?
I want to talk about why we see ghosts -- the different definitions of ghosts, the different ways they arise, and the explanations for them that developed in the science of my story and are still used today.
If it is inaccurate to characterize Ghost Hunters as something of a departure for you, what does it share in common with The Monkey Wars, Sex on the Brain and Love at Goon Park?
I always think that every book looks a departure for me. In order, we're talking about primate research, gender differences, the science of affection, and the investigation of the occult. But the same kind of personal obsession runs through of all them: what underlies human behavior and decisions, how does science interact with and change society?
Amazon customers who bought Ghost Hunters also purchased Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality, by Dean Radin. What book might you recommend to go with Ghost Hunters?
Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, because it's such an ambiguous ghost story, or Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, because it's such brilliant look at the way we think changed with the rise of the 20th century.
What single phrase or sentence you wrote in Ghost Hunters stands out in your mind? What was your reaction upon crafting it, and how does it serve the narrative?
At the start of the book I describe a literally haunted dream, one that leads rescuers to the body of a drowned girl, based on a report written by the great William James. At the end of the report, James does conclude that the dream represents a kind of supernatural knowledge. I concluded that anyone could share that conclusion as long as they had patience, "a belief in infinite possibilities -- and a willingness to accept that a dead girl could rise, as ephemeral and as real as mist, above the black lake of a dream." I love that sentence. It's literary and it exactly captures the dilemma.
Ghost Hunters made the Entertainment Weekly summer reading list of 50 books. Can you qualify or quantify the extent to which this serves your interest in broadening the public's grasp of science?
First time in Entertainment Weekly; first time in O Magazine and, frankly, it's sold a lot better than my previous book. And that's very gratifying to me because I do want to connect with people who don't necessarily follow science and seduce them into some of its more interesting ideas.
Your 1998 testimony before a Congressional committee included an anecdote about reader response to your Sacramento Bee series on Comet Hale-Bopp, illustrating the public's fascination with science despite our overall suppressed levels of scientific literacy. Who or what accounts for this gap between knowledge and interest? How have its dimensions changed over the intervening eight years? And as you work, how conscious are you of your own role in narrowing the chasm?
Oh, I'm always conscious of that role because I believe, absolutely, that science is a tremendously powerful force in our lives and we must be science literate enough to make intelligent decisions concerning its practice. I think some of the problem is the way we teach science -- I heard a very smart person once describe it as a filtering system to sift the future scientists from the unimportant remainder. I'd like to see more really fascinating choices for non-science majors and I'd like to see more science required in school. Science journalism offers a lovely kind of subversive education but it doesn't replace what we don't teach.
As someone who minored in anthropology and political science while an undergraduate at Georgia, how would you define the word science in a way that encompasses both those fields of study?
Well, to me, science is the study of everything, the most powerful tool we have for exploring the world around us. So political science and anthropology -- both explorations of human behavior -- are easily part of that.
Early in your career as a journalist, you covered the police, courts, education and other fundamental beats. How do you draw on this early training for your contemporary science writing?
First, every beat I'd previously covered was so obviously about people's lives and about human decision-making, both good and bad. I covered a corrupt police administration; I wrote about the most brutal criminal acts, I wrote about people struggling to improve their lives. So I always approached science as just that, entirely human, prone to the same mix of good intentions, egos, politics and ambition. And it is all of that and more.
Before coming to UW-Madison to pursue your M.A., you worked as a general-assignment reporter for Florida's St. Petersburg Times, respected among journalists as a frequent recipient of the Pulitzer and dozens of other prestigious awards. What do you carry with you from that experience?
The knowledge that a good editor is one of life's major blessings. I've worked with so many talented and dedicated editors who essentially worked behind the scenes. IÃ??ve written for small papers and national ones and my operating rule is to leave my ego at the door.
In an age of declining print-media circulation and advertising revenues, how do outstanding dailies like the St. Petersburg Times and the Sacramento Bee -- where you wrote the series of articles that was awarded a Pulitzer and became the basis for your book The Monkey Wars -- manage to sustain such high standards of excellence?
I think really good papers know their strengths and play to them. The St. Pete Times was a writers' newspaper. It was one of the first in the country to hire a writing coach and stories were always edited for style and voice. I learned an incredible amount there.
In terms of professional gratification, how does a Pulitzer compare to being honored for science writing by the American Association for the Advancement of Science? And how do those recognitions compare to being named an honorary member of the research society Sigma Xi?
Oh, the Pulitzer is light years beyond all other journalism awards. It's life changing in the way that most others aren't. But I've spent most of my career in the relatively insular community of science writers and in that company, winning something like the AAAS award is a very big deal.
Where do you keep your Pulitzer plaque?
On the wall of my office along with a jumble of other ones, including one I received from the California State Fair. When I worked at a newspaper, I kept them all, including the Pulitzer in a closet. I couldn't have them at work and I didn't want a shrine to myself at home. But once I started at the UW, I thought they would make a statement to my students that I wasn't completely clueless.
As a science journalist, are you more of a scientist or journalist by nature? And to what extent was your parents' nurturing an influence on your aptitudes for science and writing?
Oh, I'm pure hybrid. I've always loved to write -- I was one of those poetry-writing adolescents even -- but my father is an entomologist who tended to bring his experiments home. I had a pet tarantula and we once kept a box of black widows on the dining room table. So I grew up believing that the natural world, even its creepiest inhabitants, was absolutely fascinating.
What was the last science-related book you read that you would recommend to friends, and why would you recommend it?
Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America by Philip Dray. It's just a gorgeous story, beautiful written history of science, insightful portrait of the early America.
What was the last book you read, unrelated to science, that you would recommend -- and why would you recommend it?
Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. It's just so perfectly told, a series of murder mysteries presented as a series of case studies of life and loss and lunacy.
What is it about fictional narratives that you find instructive when composing science journalism?
The use of language, which is sometimes heart-stoppingly good. And the ability to build a story arc, carry the reader along to the end, which is something we're still figuring out in non-fiction.
When, where and how do you prefer to write?
On a tropical island on a balcony overlooking a silver sea. But I'm a working mother so I write when I can (usually in the morning when I'm awake), on a laptop that sits on my grandmother's old mahogany dining table. I do decorate the table though -- it has an art nouveau letter holder, an art deco figure of Joan of Arc and a photo of my sons on it.
Your birthday falls during this year's Wisconsin Book Festival. How do you plan to celebrate?
I'll miss both my birthday and a day of the festival because on that day I'm talking about Ghost Hunters to the Friends of the Library at the University of Miami. But I'll be back in time for my presentation here!
Among the other presenters at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival, which are you most intrigued to see?
Robert Sapolsky, the primatologist from Stanford, because he's brilliant and because he's a great stand-up comedian; Peter Straub because he writes an incredibly creepy story and, believe it or not, Bill Lueders, from Isthmus, because he's an amazingly good investigative journalist (I beg him to visit my classes every year).
Do you have any tattoos?
Occult, do you mean? Not one. I do own a previously owned crystal ball, purchased from a witch in [the state of] Oregon.