UW-Madison: The Why Files Celebrates Decade Of Science Exploration

CONTACT: Terry Devitt, (608) 262-8282, trdevitt@wisc.edu

MADISON – In 1996, the World Wide Web was a desert.

In a world awash in Web sites, it might be hard to remember that there was once a time when the Web was new and the number of sites was orders of magnitude smaller than it is today.

But it was, and the realm of popular science on the Internet was no different. But that year, as part of a nascent, National Science Foundation-supported institute for science education, The Why Files (http://whyfiles.org), made its debut exploring the science behind the news and set a tone and standard for popular science on the Web.

“What’s unique about The Why Files is captured in its tag line: ‘Science behind the news.’ Put another way, it is able to explain science at the precise moment that you and I have a need for it,” says Sharon Dunwoody, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of journalism who has used the site as a laboratory to study how people use the Web.

Now, the site, produced under the auspices of the UW-Madison Graduate School, is celebrating its first decade online. It is the oldest continuously produced popular science magazine published exclusively online and now reaches an audience of roughly 340,000 users per month.

With hundreds of articles on various aspects of science, math and technology, and winning numerous awards and accolades along the way, the project represents one of the deepest archives of popular science on the Internet.

“When we started, our intent was to demystify science and make it accessible to anyone,” says Terry Devitt, Why Files editor and one of the co-founders of the project. “That’s still our mission. More than ever, people need to know about science, how it works, what it can tell us about the natural world, and what its limits are. We all should be able to do that without having to be card-carrying scientists.”

Each week, The Why Files produces a new illustrated feature on some aspect of science. During 10 years, it has covered just about everything under the sun and beyond using events in the news as a basis for peeling back the veneer of data, statistics and jargon that tends to exclude most people from the scientific enterprise.

>From the evolution wars and global warming to DNA fingerprinting and cloning, The Why Files, Dunwoody notes, details the science that underpins controversy as well as the technologies that govern the modern world.

“We lay folks cope with our dense information environment by attending to information only when we need that information,” says Dunwoody. “Most traditional popular science outlets provide information when they think the time is right, not when their readers or viewers need it. By pegging their science to the news of the day, The Why Files upends that traditional notion and explains the science of an issue at the very moment that we become alert to that issue. There is no better way to help the public understand what is going on.”

That formula, apparently, has appeal, as the annual growth rate of The Why Files audience is nearly 20 percent. People from more than 120 countries tapped into the site in May 2006. Topics and stories that draw the most readers include Why Files features on tornadoes, evolution, school violence and cancer.

Science, Devitt notes, provides a rich story-telling environment and sharing science in language that everyone can understand helps show that it isn’t dogma or a simple collection of facts.

“It is a very powerful way of looking at the world. It is also a very organized enterprise that involves human beings and so carries with it all of the cultural baggage of human society,” he says. “The Why Files tries to dispose of the barriers and show science for what it really is and why it is so important.”

During its decade of existence, The Why Files has won nearly 30 awards, including the first two journalism prizes awarded for coverage of science on the Web by the National Association of Science Writers and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It has also garnered broad critical acclaim and is used extensively in educational settings worldwide.

“We’re looking forward to doing this for 10 more years,” Devitt says. “The need becomes greater every day. Many of the biggest issues confronting society and the world can be informed by science. But if the science isn’t accessible to ordinary people, we’re in trouble. We intend to keep plugging away and propping open the lab door so we all can take a peek.”