Hoo boy, I really liked this. I wouldn’t quite call it an evisceration, but it is a surgically precise critique of popular science writing in general and Carl Zimmer in particular.
Zimmer recently updated his book A Planet of Viruses to include a chapter on Covid-19. Danielle Carr takes him to task for his approach, which is to focus on some etymology, some historical dates, some (large) figures of deaths and infections, some information on the mechanics of mutation and transmission.
What he includes isn’t bad—I for one enjoy learning facts such as that the etymology of ‘virus’ encompasses ‘snake venom’ and ‘human semen’, representing how a virus both creates and destroys. Quick, satisfying facts.
What’s unforgivable is the absence of context, often political and economic context. The overall approach seems to be that ‘science’ is a thing that exists separately of any other process or endeavour, away from social or economic conditions.
In Zimmer’s book the 1918 flu outbreak is noted by the huge number of deaths, but not that these numbers were swelled in Europe by troop movements during the latter stages of the First World War, or that immigrant groups in the US were disproportionately affected due to their increased population densities. Avian and swine flus are discussed by way of viral mutations; things like factory farming, interspecies global trade and wet markets are notable by their absence. They are just as much part of the ‘science’ and popular science writing needs to start taking a wider view.