At this year's World Science Festival, actor Alan Alda has called on scientists to stop using jargon and better communicate scientific discoveries to the public. Contributing to a better public understanding of science can have widespread benefits to society, Alda says.
Dan Fagin, science journalism professor at New York University, knows the value of effective scientific storytelling. His most recent book, "Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation," examines the effects of toxic pollution in Toms River, N.J., a small town that became a dumping ground for many chemical companies.
The book has been hailed as a new classic in scientific journalism; according to the New York Times, Fagin's book "transform[s] a long sequence of painfully plodding steps and missteps into a narrative of such irresistible momentum that the reader not only understands what propels enthusiasts forward, but begins to strain forward as well, racing through the pages to get to the heady views at the end."
Kerri Miller sat down with Fagin during the World Science Festival to discuss the importance of making science accessible. The field is getting better, he said.
"As the economics of science journalism become more stressful, you could say that people are really aware of the importance of telling good stories and humanizing their work," he said.
The trick is to reach people at multiple levels, Fagin said.
"It's really essential because it's wonderful to simplify as much as you reasonably can and to draw people in, but it's not really enough, because you want to draw them in but then you want them to stay," he said. "You want them to really learn something that's maybe a little bit deeper than they ever thought they would be interested in. I always say you want your communication to be sticky in the sense that you want people to be sort of drawn in and stuck, but in a happy way."
Laura Allen, writer and media producer at the American Museum of Natural History, also joined the conversation. For many scientists, it's a fear of "dumbing down" their material, she said.
"That 'dumb-down' phrase really gets me," Allen said. "But making something clear and accessible is not dumbing it down; in fact you're providing an opportunity to access those deeper connections with material that can actually be very difficult."
Over the last four and a half years, Fagin has trained more than 300 science students at NYU to improve their communication skills in a four-week intensive course.
"Many scientists simply don't know how; they haven't been taught how to communicate beyond their immediate peers," he said. "There's also a problem that the way scientific careers are structured, especially in academia, is you don't get any points for communicating effectively outside of your core field, which is ridiculous."
EXPLAINING SCIENCE TO 11-YEAR-OLDS
Last year, Alda asked scientists to explain flame in language accessible to 11-year-old judges.
Here is the winning entry: