Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Spotlights: A Reporter's Notebook

By Tom Avril ’89

Tom Avril
"Engineers can help sort truth from fiction." —Tom Avril ’89 is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Photograph by David Swanson.

Think back to a decade ago, before everyone and his grandmother were on Facebook. People used to share things with their networks of friends and family through email: funny photos, bad jokes, political screeds, news bulletins that carried the whiff of urban legend.

One day I received such an email with an especially fear-mongering tone, forwarded by an old family friend and physician who had done his undergraduate studies at Dartmouth.

“Don’t freeze your plastic water bottle,” the article said, or words to that effect. “This practice releases harmful dioxins into the water.”

The paragraphs were written in the style of an authentic news bulletin, but no publication name was given.

I wrote back and asked my friend why he had forwarded it to dozens of acquaintances, urging them to take note of this apparent newfound health threat. Why did he think it was true?

He did not have a good answer. As near as I could tell, the reason seemed to lie in the fact that another friend had forwarded the article to him, and that it quoted someone who was purported to be on the staff of Johns Hopkins University.

The article was nonsense. Yet it had tripped up an educated person—a physician who had studied at Dartmouth as an undergrad, no less.

In today’s era of hair-trigger news cycles and fake news, the problem has only gotten worse. Topics from the realm of science, medicine, and yes, engineering are especially vulnerable to misunderstanding and abuse.

No, vaccines do not cause autism. Global warming is not an environmentalist hoax. And adding more (insert food group du jour here) to your diet probably does not reduce your risk of cancer.

This is the world that Professor Horst Richter nudged me towards. I majored in engineering sciences in Hanover, and like all “engines” students of that era, I have vivid memories of Richter’s information-packed, German-accented lectures on thermodynamics.

I was not an ace student of “thermo,” or of engineering in general, for that matter. Understanding the concepts, sure. But putting them into practice? Solving real-world problems with partial differential equations? Not my strong point.

Once when I visited Richter’s office for extra help, he remarked on the fact that I wrote for the Daily “D”—The Dartmouth—and offered me some career advice. Why not write about science?

He mentioned the possibility of technical writing. Maybe, I thought.

Then, during a winter term off-campus, I landed an internship in Washington at the old MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHOUR, and I became hooked on journalism. Today I am at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I have been writing about science since 2001. At one point I covered environmental topics—energy, pollution, and the like—taking me to such varied locales as a giant pig barn and the innards of Philadelphia’s aging, brick-lined sewer system.

Now I spend half my time writing about medicine, primarily on advances in cardiology, and the rest on whatever scientific topic interests me.

It is no secret that newspapers and other mainstream media outlets are on shaky financial footing these days, yet if anything, their product is more essential than ever. In a December 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center, 16 percent of adults reported sharing a story they later realized was fake. And two out of three adults agreed that fake news was a source of confusion. (Only 16 percent? And only two out of three?)

Versions of that plastic-bottle myth can still be found on the Internet all these years later. To be fair, there is indeed legitimate research on potential health effects of chemicals in certain kinds of plastic bottles. But there is a lot of junk news out there.

Dartmouth engineering graduates are in a rare position to make a difference, as Horst Richter appreciated years ago. All of us, not just the rare oddball who winds up in the field of communication.

Any good engineer or scientist has the critical-thinking skills to evaluate information, of course. But some of them may lack the ability to share their insights with others outside the technical world. I wince a little every time I see an awkward, jargon-spewing researcher depicted in pop culture, yet there is some real-life basis for these exaggerated portrayals.

At a place like Dartmouth, on the other hand, every one of us has been through a liberal-arts education that required us to speak and write effectively. So please, put those skills to good use.

Take the time to explain what you do to others. Neighbors, family members, students at a local public school, whomever. If you see an error in the media, call up the author and offer to explain.

Prepare to be patient with someone whose science education may have gotten short shrift or who got the message that science is “scary.” Follow that old newspaper adage and pretend you are explaining the topic to your grandmother.

The next time your neighbor sees something like that piece on freezing plastic water bottles, maybe he or she will stop and think before deciding to pass it on.

Categories: Alumni News, Spotlights

Tags: alumni, faculty, students

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