From Science to Journalism

Rubina Davtyan

Future biophysicist

Imagine, after acing your astronomy exam, you decide to read the news, and the news outlet offers you astrologers. Or after studying the modern methods of cancer treatment, you suddenly “discover” that cancer can be treated by simply drinking carrot juice every day.

Anyone who, like me, spent the last four years of her life at the Yerevan State University’s Department of Physics where she suffered from studying quantum mechanics, filled several notebooks of math analysis homework, or cried from joy after solving the problem for her graduate thesis might have the same feelings I do while reading yet another anti-scientific news article in the Armenian media.  

Even elementary knowledge in the exact and natural sciences is enough to identify Armenian anti-scientific news stories at first glance and to get enraged, but the situation is somewhat different when you’re preparing to become a scientist. Any anti-scientific story circulating in the media not only shows journalists’ unprofessionalism and ignorance of the subject, but also yet again proves that journalists are not at all interested in science news, preferring to gather views through “sensational” pseudoscience than cover real science, or simply don’t distinguish the scientific from the anti-scientific.

One of the most important issues in science news coverage in Armenia, perhaps, is the low level of journalists’ knowledge and awareness of the topic being covered. Though it’s not at all necessary for a journalist covering science news to have a science degree and write stories by accessing academic journal articles, having elementary knowledge of science and understanding the information received are necessary. Otherwise, journalists in their stories may exceed the speed of light, discard the Earth’s gravity, and create eternal engines, violating all the laws of physics and journalism.

Much can be said about the problems of science journalism in Armenia, but the main problem of science journalism perhaps is its absence. In Armenian media, most of the news stories in the science section are usually translations from other, foreign sources, so in the best case, they can be called scientific translations. Whereas research and analysis on scientific discoveries are notably absent.

Rarely seen are interviews with Armenian scientists and stories about scientific institutions, but these reveal financial issues more than scientific ones. Scientific discoveries in Armenia remain inside laboratories or in the pages of science magazines; as a result, the opinion prevails that we are not engaged in science here. Though no scientist who is a resident of Armenia has received a Nobel Prize, research is conducted in scientific laboratories in Armenia, and Armenian scientists too are published in world-famous science journals.

Another obstacle to scientific news coverage is the widespread opinion that science is uninteresting and incomprehensible for those not engaged in it.

But my daily attempts to introduce science have shown that any physical phenomenon can be presented in an accessible way, avoiding formulas and definitions. For example, if I’m asked what my graduate thesis is about, I can say, “The dynamics and kinetics of the self-regulation of protein,” write a few basic formulas, and earn the half-scared, half-surprised looks of people unfamiliar with the topic.

However, I can refrain from scaring people with my several lines of formulas and explain the topic in everyday, comprehensible language. Instead of terms, it’s enough to say that numerous illnesses, for example, certain types of cancers and Alzheimer’s, are due to adopting the “wrong” protein structure, and I study the transitions between the “wrong” and “right” protein states. Presenting the topic this way gives people the opportunity to understand not only the scientific research, but also its significance and purpose.

Science journalism is the intermediate link connecting science to the public and is responsible for “translating” strictly scientific texts written with formulas and definitions into plain language for people. Thus, science journalism can generate public interest in science, show the beauty of science, and teach us to distinguish the scientific from the anti-scientific.

Rubina Davtyan

The views expressed in the column are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Media.am.

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