CPDDBLOG interviewed Mr. Hanson to find out more about his background and his work.
CPDDBLOG: Tell us a little about your background before you wrote your book on substance abuse, “The Chemical Carousel”.
Dirk Hanson: I came out of a liberal arts educational background. As a journalist, I started working as a business reporter for the Des Moines Register, and after moving to California, I was hired by a trade newspaper in the late 70s to cover a place south of San Francisco known as Silicon Valley. I was one of the first journalists to cover Silicon Valley microchip companies as a full-time beat, and it was all based on solid-state physics, about which I knew nothing at the time. However, I interviewed people like Ted Hoff, inventor of the microprocessor, and Robert Noyce, president of Intel and co-inventor of the integrated circuit. Eventually I took the time to write a book about the emergence of Silicon Valley. That was my introduction to science writing. It was a great training ground. My early interest in computers and artificial intelligence—along with some drug and alcohol misadventures of my own—led me to an interest in neuroscience, drugs of abuse, and addiction.
CPDDBLOG: After authoring 3 books, what led you to concentrate on using blogs as your primary medium and focus your blogging on addiction science?
Dirk Hanson: When I went out to sell my addiction book in 2008, the world of book publishing had changed, to put it mildly. Authors were expected to do most of their own promotion, so as a companion project, I started a blog, Addiction Inbox, for short news on addiction topics, and as an online presence for the book. But the blogging quickly took on a life of its own. I found that it was an ideal platform for me as a writer. And, after the blog gained some attention, it opened up online freelance opportunities for additional articles about drugs and addiction. There is a genuine appetite on the web for straight talk about the neuroscience of dependence, craving, and reward, and for basic information about the biochemistry of addictive substances.
CPDDBLOG: An independent review of your book The Chemical Carousel concluded that it “…is a book for the rest of us: friends and families of addicts, support groups, and healthcare professionals alike”. Since many scientists find it challenging to effectively communicate their message to the general public, do you have any tips on how best to present science to the public?
Dirk Hanson: In both my book and my blog posts, I try to treat my readers as intelligent lay people with an interest in science. I come at it from the perspective of a beat reporter. I’ve interviewed dozens of key researchers in neuroscience, pharmacology, and psychology. I concentrate on explaining brain function, and particularly the function of reward systems. But I’m not an M.D. or a research biochemist or a psychology professor, so my perspective is naturally different from theirs. I don’t think you have to “dumb it down,” but in science writing, you do have to take great precautions to insure accuracy and clarity. And you have to find a tone that is conversational but not condescending or overly technical. Frequently, readers tell me that they like being challenged; they like it when I don’t assume they’re idiots. And because of my own background in the Humanities, I also like to do “softer” pieces, such as book reviews, essays on public health policy, or articles on general science issues like fMRI scans. My specific area of focus is on pharmacological approaches to treatment—fighting fire with fire.
CPDDBLOG: What are your future plans for writing and blogging?
Dirk Hanson: I’d like to explore the possibility of doing shorter e-books on selected drug and addiction topics, for one thing. And I plan to continue freelancing on addiction, pharmacology, and the brain. My most recent freelance piece was an article on schizophrenia and cigarette smoking for The Dana Foundation. In addition, writing a blog turns you into a columnist of sorts, providing fresh material on a regular basis. It takes time and research to keep it active and engaging for readers. But the rewards are there. For example, one of the blog’s discussion threads, on the topic of marijuana withdrawal, has garnered more than a thousand comments since I first posted on the subject. The online audience pretty directly engages with you and your work sometimes.
CPDDBLOG: What does winning the CPDD/NIDA Media Award mean to you?
Dirk Hanson: This award is a wonderful validation from the very people whose work I try to interpret for others. I understand that a journalist is not always a scientist’s best friend, so I deeply appreciate the vote of confidence. Also, I think it helps bring attention to online means of presenting reliable information on addiction to a general readership, and hopefully, advancing the public’s understanding of contemporary addiction research. The online world of science communication is here to stay, and that can only be a good thing in the long run.
CPDDBLOG: Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, and congratulations on winning our Award.
Dirk Hanson: My pleasure.