Could nudging Earth a wee bit farther out into space solve global warming? Republican representative Louie Gohmert of Texas must have thought so when he brought up the idea during a congressional hearing in the summer of 2021. The suggestion sparked a flurry of angry responses denouncing Gohmert’s idea as ridiculous. But science journalist Maddie Bender, writing for Scientific American, found a way to put a new spin on the saturated coverage—by taking the proposal literally and examining the science.
Her reporting revealed that draining the world’s electricity grid still wouldn’t produce enough energy to thrust Earth into a different orbit. She also examined whether detonating nuclear bombs or reducing the mass of the moon (such as by ejecting material off the lunar surface) could create additional thrusts, but these strategies are unlikely to appeal to rational people in the first place. By considering Gohmert’s absurd notion seriously and letting the science speak for itself, Bender presented a compelling argument that Gohmert’s supporters might find harder to dismiss than outright mockery.
For a time, her piece was one of the most popular articles on the Scientific American website. “I think I was able to add a little more actual humor back into it,” says Bender, who is now an innovation reporter at The Daily Beast. “There’s no better way [to get] people not to click on your article than to make it appear like it’s going to be really depressing.”
The unusual storytelling technique Bender used here is known as speculative journalism. Speculative journalism—a phrase that may sound like an oxymoron—uses rigorous research to extrapolate into the unknown or brings carefully selected and clearly demarcated elements of fiction to everyday honest reporting. The goal is to use the hypothetical to reflect something true about current events. In an age where the news seems to be a never-ending cycle of doom, it can be a great way to cajole readers to engage with difficult topics or to rejuvenate a story gone stale. In cases where conventional journalism might be a heavy lift for readers, Bender says, the speculative approach might be “the only way to get them in the door.”
To get their point across, practitioners entertain the outlandish, give in to exaggeration, dive down rabbit holes, and fast-forward into uncertain futures. Speculative journalism can take many forms, from humor, satire, and parody, to hyperbole, manifestos, explainers, and thought experiments. Examples of works that marry science with imaginative leaps include Randall Munroe’s book What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions and his Good Question series for The New York Times, both of which use science to deliberate on the bounds of probability under fantastical conditions. The publishing company McSweeney’s runs a humor website, Internet Tendency, that applies outrageous extrapolations to current affairs for comic effect—and as commentary. Slate’s Future Tense Fiction column and The New York Times’ Op-Eds From the Future present short stories that explore how science and technology might change humanity’s lives in the future, for better or worse.
The key to speculative journalism is to balance fiction with facts to present an argument with authority and freshness.
“Speculation is one of the ways we actually understand what’s going on now,” says Kevin Kelly, a public speaker, book author, and founding executive editor of Wired. He often muses about how new technology will improve the state of humankind. Speculative journalism is “productive in the sense that you may arrive at a vision that people will respond to,” Kelly says. If the vision is positive, they can try to make it happen; if it extrapolates current events to a dark outcome, readers can work to help the world avoid it.
A Case Study: Climate Change
Speculative journalism can have particular persuasive power when it’s brought to bear on topics where traditional narratives have been exhausted, or when conventional reporting has repeatedly failed to spur public action to address an important problem. One great example of this is climate change, where the drumbeat of bad news and the need to think long-term can make people feel disconnected from consequences or leave them feeling hopeless. “If you need to make a leap someplace new, that’s probably where the speculative approach can come in,” says Tristan Ahtone, Grist’s editor at large. “It’s got to be around ideals and big ideas that can’t necessarily be tackled through your normal reporting process.”
Incorporating speculation and fiction into journalistic writing requires a leap of imagination. To find inspiration, writers need to practice flexing their creative muscles.
In 2019, High Country News, where Ahtone was an editor at the time, published an entire issue made up of speculative journalism, with a collection of short stories that imagined what the American West might look like in 50 years. Though the stories were fictional, the speculations were based on factual information and analyses in the U.S. government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment, a technical report that compiled the science behind, and the long-term impacts of, climate change. As dire a picture as the report painted, the document itself was “just really, really dry,” says Ahtone. So, the staff set out to give the report’s projections enough emotional weight to readers so that they take the severity of climate change seriously and think about how they can help reduce the problem.
Ahtone himself wrote a piece called, “Climate Criminals,” in which Indigenous people lead a broad effort to prosecute climate deniers for propagating views that helped usher in disaster. But the punitive measures come too late to thwart the climate crisis. Ahtone hopes that when present-day readers grasp this undesirable outlook, they will be forced to think how to reverse-engineer our course to avoid that future while there’s still time.
Incorporating speculation and fiction into journalistic writing requires a leap of imagination. To find inspiration, writers need to practice flexing their creative muscles. One way to do so is to take stock of trending news, then layer in fictional elements such as futuristic scenarios, parody, or satire that uses exaggeration to play up its message.
Humor writer Sara K. Runnels leaned into satire in her well-received McSweeney’s Internet Tendency piece “FAQ on COVID’s Delta variant,” published in 2021. The work compares people who were dismissing the COVID-19 Delta variant, and college students eager to be initiated into a made-up “Delta Delta Variant” house in the “Greek” university system of fraternities and sororities. Her satire weaves together virus facts, albeit turned on their heads, with observations about the factions at war over masking and vaccinations.
“It’s not funny that people were unvaccinated. There’s a point when it’s so dire and absurd, but the absurdity of all of these people not getting vaccinated is what allows us space for humor,” says Runnels. “Humor writing in general comes from a place of tragedy. And of course, there’s a fine line between comedy and tragedy.” Like Bender, she notes that readers are more inclined to listen to humor than rants or point blame, which makes satire a valuable tool.
As thrilling as it might be for a journalist to indulge in fantasy scenarios, it’s important to persuade audiences that there’s good reason to engage with hypotheticals or fiction.
Letting your curiosity lead you into outrageous scenarios is another way to find opportunities to wield the tools of speculation, says Purbita Saha, deputy editor at Popular Science. The outlet’s Ask Us Anything column often ventures into speculative realms, like whether a volcano could reasonably work as a garbage incinerator or what would happen to everything and everyone if Earth’s rotation sped up.
These what-if musings are “tip-of-the-brain questions,” says Saha. Each piece in the column stems from Popular Science staff simply giving free rein to anything that piques their interest, figuring that the same questions will intrigue readers as well. “We are journalists, but we’re also people of this world,” says Saha.
A journalist dabbling in speculation and fiction may feel self-conscious about their imaginings. Ahtone says he has occasionally wondered whether his High Country News story on the prosecution of climate misinformation peddlers was a little “cheesy,” because it incorporated elements of make-believe that traditional journalism eschews. But as Bender notes, to come up with a successful speculative piece, a writer has to take the plunge and embrace their creations.
Ultimately, that’s what makes speculative articles convincing, she says. “At a certain point, when you’re so deep in the rabbit hole of speculating, you start to believe it and you start to forget that this is all a huge farce.” Jumping right into her piece about bumping Earth off track allowed Bender to strike the right ironic tone, she says, and it “made the writing a lot easier.”
As thrilling as it might be for a journalist to indulge in fantasy scenarios, it’s important to persuade audiences that there’s good reason to engage with hypotheticals or fiction. “The wilder your question is, the more setup you want to give to readers on why this question matters,” says Saha.
Speculative pieces derive their authority from the accuracy of their scientific details, despite their fictional elements. The exact times, places, or characters in a story might not be real, as with Ahtone’s High Country News fiction. Or, an article might start from a wholly preposterous premise, as with Bender’s Earth-shifting thought experiment, and in just about every article in Popular Science’s Ask Us Anything column. These stories still rely on bulletproof science as a foundation. As Kelly puts it, speculative journalism can be “at the edge of plausibility, but it has to be within possibility.”
In his book The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars, which some reviewers described as a “travel guide,” author Simon Morden presents dramatic sensory details of the Martian landscape up close. Having never been to Mars, Morden follows what the science suggests to recreate the everyday experiences of laypeople if we ever set foot there. He describes the “susurrations” of Martian dust storms, then gives readers pointers on the best way to hobble in low gravity while wearing a spacesuit that feels like an “airtight duvet.”
At every step of writing, he says, he tried to remain as close as he could to the truth. He based his speculations on existing research, such as photographs from previous missions. He notes that the gale in the movie The Martian that lofted a projectile and knocked the astronaut protagonist off his feet—a plot device that was necessary for him to become stranded on the red planet—could never happen in real life, because Mars’s atmosphere is too thin for such storms. In contrast, Morden’s book sticks to what the science dictates is possible. “If I can’t make it happen the way that I would like, I’ve just got to close that door,” he says.
As important as accuracy is in any work of speculative journalism, fact-checking such work is a little different from traditional journalism: It’s “almost like fact-checking in a parallel universe,” says Bender. Since speculative journalism can be half grounded in hypotheticals, fact-checking has to skirt around some of these statements that form the premise of the main argument. At minimum, a writer should verify the science that justifies the argument. For her Scientific American article on changing Earth’s orbit to combat climate change, she carefully verified every piece of science she used to support each wild suggestion, except for the imaginary conditional that moving a planet is possible in the first place. For all the numbers in her article, she either relied on peer-reviewed academic journals or made sure she understood the equations her sources had used to obtain the figures. She sometimes even repeated the calculations herself to confirm that “we weren’t just getting [the numbers] from thin air.”
The use of fiction-writing tools may make it hard to hold writers accountable by the usual standards of journalism. In the end, it boils down to whether a writer can support what they write, and whether they’re happy for the piece to go out under their name.
Writers can also recruit experts or seek out scientific papers as the starting point for generating ideas for their articles. Peer-reviewed journals are full of golden nuggets to draw inspiration from, such as actual science applied to answer wacky questions. Saha once wrote an article on the upper limit on the number of hotdogs that humans can scarf down after finding a physiological study on the subject.
Similarly, you can find experts who are willing to play along with your thought experiments when writing speculative articles.
When requesting interviews with scientists for speculative stories, Saha suggests, it’s best to give them a heads up about the nature of the article, to ensure they know what they’re in for. Also, they should be given time to prepare to wrestle with novel or off-the-wall scenarios, or think through unusual calculations.
Lest some readers take speculative writing at face value, journalists should provide ample clues, or even an explicit disclaimer, that the work shouldn’t be taken literally, especially when it appears in an outlet that typically doesn’t publish fiction or satire.
“Clear labeling is a big thing,” says Ahtone. When he and his High Country News colleagues were assembling their speculative special issue, they knew that wrapping futuristic fabrications in the magazine’s usual authoritative tone might leave some readers bewildered. For that reason, they penned a foreword that explained that all the stories were fiction and that the goal of this approach was to draw new attention to the climate emergency. The HCN team also flagged the stories’ fictional nature in social media posts, to ensure that readers would understand even before they clicked on a story link that it was a work of speculative journalism.
Critics of speculative journalism have noted that such approaches can be hyperbolic and that overly enthusiastic speculators’ forecasts may be grossly off-base. They’ve also pointed out the risk of inadvertently spreading fearmongering or misinformation. An article might backfire if readers interpret fictional components literally or are unable to distinguish fictional and factual elements. According to a Nieman Reports article, for example, some listeners who tuned into pilot episodes of Flash Forward, a science podcast that speculates about the future, thought the show’s expert guests were actually hired actors. In later shows, the show’s creator and host, Rose Eveleth, made sure to specify which parts of the episode were fiction and which were not, they told Nieman Reports.
There’s a fine line between science fiction and speculative science journalism that’s sometimes hard to define, Morden says. The use of fiction-writing tools may make it hard to hold writers accountable by the usual standards of journalism. In the end, it boils down to whether a writer can support what they write, and whether they’re happy for the piece to go out under their name. “What it comes down to is that you know your own personal integrity is intact,” he says.
Though Ahtone says High Country News caught some flak for its speculative journalism issue, with some people arguing that it “wasn’t journalism,” he has no regrets about the thought experiments he embedded in his story. He notes that the non-mainstream technique of blending truth and fiction is but another creative form of journalism. “People around the world have different ways of telling stories,” he says. “Historically and traditionally, that there’s more or less only one form of journalism speaks volumes about the things that we’re missing.” He adds, “there’s so much more that we could be doing as reporters and journalists in creative ways.”
Shi En Kim is a life sciences reporter at Chemical & Engineering News and a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Her work has appeared in Popular Science, National Geographic, Scientific American, Hakai Magazine, Science News, and Smithsonian Magazine, where she was a AAAS Mass Media Fellow in 2021. She recently earned her PhD in molecular engineering from the University of Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @goes_by_kim.