Science journalism requires skepticism and simplification


Vijay Vaitheeswaran's MIT education prepared him well for his career as a journalist. He learned to be skeptical--an outlook that serves him well in his job as energy and environment correspondent for The Economist.

"When people try to parade fancy ideas and visions that are going to change the future, it's my MIT training that keeps me grounded not to believe most of what's said," he told an overflow audience of MIT researchers, students and Knight Science Journalism Fellows crowded into a conference room for a Friday afternoon lecture hosted by the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment.

Vaitheeswaran said he "cuts through the clutter" by interviewing a spectrum of people--from oil company presidents to environmentalists--to find the essential argument he needs to present technically complicated subjects to a general audience. Using the example of hydrogen fuel cells, one of the topics covered in his new book, "Power to the People," Vaitheeswaran said that some people see it as the "great hydrogen hoax." Hydrogen is just too explosive to use as a fuel, they say, pointing to the Hindenburg explosion as proof.

"But NASA studies showed the Hindenburg caught on fire," said Vaitheeswaran. It didn't blow up. "It caught on fire because it was painted with chemicals that are now used as rocket-propulsion fuels." Handling hydrogen safely may be difficult, but it's not a showstopper, and the hydrogen fuel-cell car of the future may be a possibility, as long as you don't paint your car with rocket fuel, he said.

Other people view hydrogen fuel cells as an economic hoax, arguing that hydrogen is not an energy source; you have to make it from something else, so it's inefficient and expensive. "You have to make electricity from something, but as a society we clearly find it worthwhile to have electricity. Otherwise we'd have a cow-dung fire in the middle of this room," said Vaitheeswaran.

What if a topic seems too technical for the general reader? asked an audience member. Vaitheeswaran's recommendation: reduce it to a few manageable ideas.

"Like my third-grade teacher taught me, writing a little rough outline before starting to write the paper is a good idea, especially when it comes to dealing with science and technically complex arguments," he said. "If you can really sketch it out, you're forced to reduce it to the essential idea or argument. Then you can see what makes sense in an article or essay, and the science will fall into place."

On communicating uncertainty and probabilities, such as those that permeate the climate change debate, Vaitheeswaran recommended basic forms of tables, pie charts and graphs, but never PowerPoint, he said, making fun of the software's prevalence at MIT. "A clever PowerPoint slide doesn't aid in communicating complicated ideas. On the contrary, it's actually a crutch so that when one speaks, one doesn't have to explain clearly one's ideas," he said.

He offered the following advice for selling a story idea to The Economist: "Know the in-house style and the kinds of stories we cover. Know what we've said about a subject. But really it's the 'so-what' test. Why does this matter? You need to take a bird's eye view, a 30,000-foot view, as the magazine as a whole does, cutting across the range of coverage, globally and on issues," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 3, 2003.


Topics: Media Lab, Industry

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