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Mar 09

Clarity and vividness in scientific journalism

By Bradley Dowling, WSU Vancouver Neuroscience student

Alan Alda, From: http://www.anu.edu.au/events/an-evening-with-alan-alda-getting-beyond-a-blind-date-with-science

Alan Alda, From: http://www.anu.edu.au/events/an-evening-with-alan-alda-getting-beyond-a-blind-date-with-science

I vividly remember summer evenings when I was little, when my dad and I would hang around the living room and watch TV after dinner. Most of the time, we’d sit and watch Jeopardy or catch a Seattle Mariners game (this was back when they were worth watching). But on Tuesday nights at 7pm, my dad would switch the channel to PBS and I’d hear the familiar jingle of Scientific American Frontiers. For the next half-hour, host Alan Alda would take my dad and I on journeys through the Amazon rainforest, the human brain, and the even the darkest and most distant parts of the Universe. I was only in elementary school, so I had next to no knowledge on the subjects that Mr. Alda presented, but that didn’t matter. Scientific American Frontiers was more a show about scientists conducting their research, rather than a show describing concepts and explained findings. I got to meet real scientists, and see how they worked! I got to witness the humor and conversations between Mr. Alda and these researchers. And most of all, I got to see their enthusiasm for what they did.

Scientific American Frontiers is no longer aired, but Alan Alda has continued to push for better science communication and scientific journalism. Today, he is a visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communication Science at Stony Brook University in New York. The Alda Center’s mission is to improve scientific communication between scientists and the public. This can often be difficult for scientists who feel like they need to describe every detail of a complex subject. “What we try to teach is, first of all, not dumbing down the science,” says Alda. “Science is exciting and it doesn’t need to be dumbed down. What we really look for is clarity and vividness. And to be vivid, to me, is to show us how it affects our daily lives, and what the stories are that led to these discoveries.”

Most readers won’t understand—or care—about the minute and utterly complicated details of the research, but everyone can connect to a story. For instance, when Dr. David Muller of Cornell University became the first to create a sheet of glass one atom thick, it was the fact that it was made by accident that caught the attention of international news sites. In a way, the science was able to ‘piggy-back’ the story of accidental discovery, and subsequently reached a much larger audience than it ever could have before.

In the end, a journalist’s goal is to reach the largest audience possible. When it comes to reporting on science, it should be clear and concise. It should quickly get to the point for how the research will affect the reader’s daily lives. Think about telling a story if the science appears too complicated! Above all, don’t dumb it down. Alan Alda is right. Science is exciting. It’s only the way you talk or write about it that can be boring.

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