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Data smog: the impenetrable mass of information available online.

Added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2004, the term was coined by writer David Shenk '88 — the second of this year's four speakers in the Great Brown Nonfiction Writers Lecture Series. Shenk, who spoke to a mostly full Smith-Buonanno 106 Wednesday night, is an award-winning author of five non-fiction "novels."

The talk, titled "Making the Truth Truthful: Turning Science into Story Telling," focused on three challenges Shenk faced during his career as a best-selling science writer and how he learned to overcome those difficulties.

Shenk, a former editor of The Herald's weekly magazine Good Clean Fun, began by describing his time at Brown, when he first came in contact "with very curious, intellectual minds" and made connections that would shape his path as a writer. Among them was the late Professor of English Roger Henkle, a mentor who made him realize how "incredibly lazy" he was as a writer.

Shenk said attracting audiences who "don't want to read books about science" is a challenge. With books ranging in topic from chess to the molecular changes in the brain due to Alzheimer's, Shenk acknowledged that the vast majority of the general population would not pick up a science book.

"I hope to one day write about something inherently exciting — like naked people, astronauts or even naked astronauts," Shenk said. Meanwhile, Shenk's solution is to "trick" people into reading his books.

Though aware that some people would argue it's necessary for a writer to demand more of a reader, Shenk said that his "first job as a science writer is to come up with devices to get people to continue reading ...And that comes down to telling stories."

Once he's able to maintain the reader's attention, Shenk said the next problem he confronts is that "most good science is impossibly complex." After doing his own extensive research to understand complicated concepts, he often finds it necessary to construct metaphors to make the ideas more accessible to a general audience. But metaphors can be misleading, and Shenk said picking an appropriate one is essential to correctly communicating complex ideas.

Despite the inaccessibility of some scientific work, Shenk said many scientists believe they understand the work they are doing best and are unreceptive to "outsiders" coming in to report on their findings. But he said it was incredibly valuable for people not directly involved in a certain field to look at the questions experts are studying.

"There is an advantage to not being steeped in detail," he said. "There are things you can see at 10,000 feet that you certainly couldn't see when you're on the ground."

Although he said it has nothing to do with being smart or not, scientists "can have the best possible grasp of data and still not understand what it means (because) it's hard to stand so far back when you're so close to it."

And it is precisely that fact which makes the role of a nonfiction writer important. Or, in Shenk's words, "that's why we need pipsqueak writers like me."


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