It is often said that science and communication don’t mix well. Having a foot in both worlds, I can totally understand why. And disagree.
(Animation based on Karim & Alan’s presentation of this article at the Crastina Hub Unconference in Leuven in June 2016)
Science vs Communication in 7 Conflicting Ideas1
1) Reason vs. Emotion
Pragmatic deductive reasoning lies at the very root of the scientific approach. It’s almost never about how the data makes you feel, but about the logical conclusions that will help you make more accurate predictions and eventually understand a phenomenon better. The facts don’t care whether you’re in the mood to deal with them or not. They are what they are.
Communication, on the other hand, speaks to the heart first. We know that consumers buy products because of what they’re feeling, not what they’re thinking. We also know that the more positive a message is, the more viral it can go, that people get bored quickly in the absence of an element of surprise and that even negative emotions such as fear or disgust can be the most efficient in specific cases.
In my opinion, the two approaches are not necessarily antithetical; they can coexist. I will try to be more specific as we explore the other arguments.
2) “Feed my brain” vs. “Don’t make me think”
Scientists spend a lot of time thinking. I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t be impressed by the title of a bestselling UX book (UX stands for User eXperience, a branch of digital communication) called “Don’t Make Me Think”. Literally.
Now, the title is provocative, but what the book actually says is that making things complicated doesn’t help get the message through. If I need an instruction manual to access your message, I will simply ignore it.
3) Factual vs. Appealing
I once met an astrologist. Don’t worry, I didn’t go for a consultation; we were simply members of the same theatre company. I remember her saying: “I have not always been an astrologist. I have a degree in psychology. But I couldn’t make a living out of it. I wasn’t telling people what they wanted to hear”.
I’m pretty sure that most psychologists can pay their bills without resorting to making nonsensical predictions, but again, it is true that science is about facts and doesn’t care about how they make you feel.
Thankfully, communication does not imply deception. But it does imply finding an angle rather than simply exposing the bare facts.
4) Doubt vs. Trust
The scientific method, in essence, is about disproving things. No assumption is ever taken for granted. Every claim is challenged and tested until, eventually, nothing wrong can be found about it. As a scientist, if you see flaws in a theory, you have to report them. Even if it is your best friend’s theory. Doubt is the very driver of the whole scientific endeavour.
Whereas communication is mostly about trust. Branding is about getting people to trust an organisation(and its products, services and activities) by making it unique, as if it were a person or even a friend.
Even though things are slowly changing, and marketing is becoming more and more data-driven nowadays, historically, advertising, marketing, and branding campaigns have usually been gut-driven rather than based on any rationale. And most campaigns were failures.
The whole value chain of the communication business is based on – sometimes misplaced – trust. No wonder the scientists get wary.
This said, doubt and trust cannot be opposed in such a simplistic way. Communicators have their doubts. Science is also about trust. We are talking about an incremental process: Researchers don’t have to reinvent the wheel at every generation; they can safely rely on the existing corpus of knowledge. It can be challenged, of course, but it doesn’t have to be.
My point is that doubt and trust can be complementary forces rather than opposed to one another.
5) Counter-Intuitive vs. Hard-Wired in the Human Brain
Science is the one of the main processes that produce knowledge nowadays, and its methods are essentially based on doubt. Weird, isn’t it? After all, as a social species, we have always needed to trust one another.
Infants trust their parents, their life depends on it.
Most people have religious beliefs even though no evidence supports them. This is who we are as a species:Believers. Trust is the social glue that makes relationships possible.
In this regard, science – and its doubts – is probably the most counter-intuitive of all human activities.
Communication, of course, is not. I’m not just talking about TV ads, here, but about the very definition of communication: it is what makes it possible for us to live together, to understand each other, to share information, to build up this formidable culture of ours, that crosses generations and has made us what we are.
Instead of viewing science and communication as opposite, couldn’t one see them as complementary?
Science – based on doubt – helps produce knowledge. Communication – based on trust – helps spread knowledge.
How cool is that?
6) Questions vs. Answers
We, humans, are a remarkably curious species. We want to understand things. We have always wanted to know where we come from, what the universe is made of, why things happen… Stories, legends, religions have filled the gap, providing their answers to these haunting questions, satisfying our curiosity for a time.
Throughout our history, we have turned to elders, sorcerers, druids, and priests whenever we have needed answers. Even if that demanded a leap of faith.
Nowadays, the old authority figures have lost their lustre; many of us know that a belief is not a truth. So we turn to experts for reassurance. In modern representations, experts are old male scientists in a white lab coat. The media readily turn to them with blind faith. Toothpaste and washing powder ads have been exploiting the cliché as an argument of authority for decades.
But this is not what science does. It doesn’t answer any question before actually exploring it in depth. As a result, there are more questions than answers in science. And the few answers it produces are never accepted as truths: They can be challenged, and even disproved, if new evidence is available. Science is not about answers but about questions.
The few answers the process produces build up very slowly. But they are incredibly fruitful. They sometimes lead to amazing technologies: Planes fly, GPS works, cancers are diagnosed before the first symptoms, thanks to the hard work scientists have put in finding answers instead of imposing their beliefs on other people.
The trouble is that when we turn to an expert for reassurance, not all of us are ready to hear an honest answer which, in some cases, can be “I don’t know”. Or “I was wrong”. We just want our experts to know, like in the good old days. We tend to recognize authority only in the people who don’t make mistakes, who always seem to know what they are doing, where they are going, and finally, who tell us what we need to hear and reassure us. In politics, the people that we elect are the very reflection of these expectations. When is the last time you heard a politician saying “I’m not sure my plan is the best solution” or “Sorry, I was wrong”? If you listen to scientists, though, these are things you might hear more often than not.
But acting as a reassuring, all-knowing-expert is something that most scientists are very uncomfortable with. They hate being pressed into oversimplifying the message. They don’t like having to reassure when the truth is that things could go in many directions.
Do you remember the tragic case of the Italian seismologists almost jailed, accused of misleading the public instead of predicting the unpredictable?
When scientists do try to live up to the expectation, endorse a reassuring role, and make black or white statements, it just doesn’t sound right. Most scientists suck at communication. In their defense, communication is rarely a part of a scientist’s curriculum.
Communicators, on the other hand, know that people crave answers, and do their best to provide them. Not always asking the good questions, though, for you seldom ask the right question when you know what you want the answer to be. (Most communicators are scientifically illiterate (just as the rest of the population).
All of us are subject to the confirmation bias, a tendency to accept primarily the answers that confirm our beliefs and assumptions. To carry on asking questions when answers are available is extremely challenging to any normal human being. But not impossible. I would love to see communication experiments based on an infinity of answers rather that just the first one, I’m sure there is something to look into, here.
7. Serious vs. Fun
Science is often perceived as grim and dull. We picture boring, serious, old male scholars in their lab who only become entertaining when the “Mad Scientist” character jumps in. These are mere stereotypical representations, of course, essentially fuelled by the movies. In actuality, scientists are not (all) mad, dull, old or even male. For instance, did you know that, worldwide, 3 out of 10 scientists are women? There is still plenty of place for improvement. But the figure already shows that science is not a thing of men only. On average, a PhD degree is earned at the age of 32. Science is not a thing of old people either.
The perception of the world of communication, on the other hand, is just as grotesque. Never-ending-parties and cocaine…
Again, this has very little to do with reality. Employees in communication agencies work on computers all day, have to punch in their timesheets, and have to cope with infernal meetings, just like everybody else.
Beyond the stereotype of people, the outcome of communication as an activity is not necessarily perceived as serious. And… It is not.
Communication is about conveying messages. A bit like pipes conveying fluids. The content of the message can be anything from factual to fantastic, accurate to misleading, fun to boring.
My point is that we are in the realm of prejudice and bias with such representations. And that we are not viewing things as they are. Of course, some scientists are old and boring. Certainly not a majority, though. Some communicators are hollow cocaine-sniffing hipsters who think they’re funny. Definitely not a majority either. The time has come to get rid of these stereotypes.
Science – as a process – is a serious thing, but communicating around it can be fun, as my team and myself keep demonstrating, week after week on our radio show Podcast Science.
Communication is also a serious thing. It might look like fun, but getting someone’s attention, creating an emotion, leaving an impression requires a lot of hard work.
Why I believe these “reasons” aren’t valid
It’s pretty obvious to me that most of these “Science vs Communication“ arguments don’t hold up.
Science is a method that helps us understand reality. It produces knowledge. Communication techniques enable us to share information. The complementarity between science and communication seems pretty obvious to me.
Science is made by humans. Humans communicate, for better and worse. The “better” requires cooperation. Scientists know the facts. Communicators know how to make the message clear and understandable.
Science communication, in order to make the facts clear and understandable, should never be undertaken without the one or the other, as is so often the case.
Our model of civilization relies on more and more complex technologies, that nobody really understands, not even the decision-makers. We have pushed the only hospitable ecosystem that we know of beyond its limits, and the challenges we are facing today as a species are unprecedented. Science should be at the very heart of our decision-making processes. And it is not.
Almost nobody understands how science is done and what it is really about. The time has come for a better understanding of how science works.
Scientists and communicators must work together, combine reason and emotion, satisfy the public’s curiosity (without making things seem overcomplicated because of the hyper specialized vocabulary), find the good angle to present the facts, find out when to trust and when to doubt… One must never forget that science is counter-intuitive to untrained people… Its being difficult to explain is normal. Ask the proper questions to get the proper answers… Accept that one can be very serious in producing knowledge and yet entertaining in sharing it.
This is the incredible tour de force that many science communicators in English-speaking countries have managed to realize, and they are a true inspiration in showing that this complementarity I dream of is actually possible. I’m thinking of Jim Al-Khalili, Dr Kiki, David Attenborough, Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Marcus du Sautoy, Ben Goldacre, Lucie Green, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, Alok Jha, Karl Kruzcelnicki, Joanne Manaster, Karen Nyberg, Bill Nye, Alice Roberts, Adam Rutherford, Simon Singh, Carl Zimmer, the late Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks et Carl Sagan to name but a few.
A new generation of science communicators have even managed to go beyond the simple sharing of information, and have initiated an actual conversation. I’m thinking of YouTube science channels both in English and in French, science bloggers (En, Fr), science podcasters (especially Podcast Science).
We can – and we must – tell science stories and include science in conversations. Show how captivating and fascinating it is without ever trading off the facts for sensationalism.
It’s hard work, good luck!
Oh, and if you need help, you know where to find us 🙂
Massive thanks to Puyo for the original illustrations and to the most extraordinary improvised team of proof-readers, whose comments and suggestions greatly improved the overall quality of this article: Ariane Beldi, Vanessa Christinet, Cédric Limousin, Karim Madjer, Johan Mazoyer, David Medernach, Jul Pourquoi, Nico Tupe, Guillaume Vendé and especially to Alex Brown and Pierre Kerner.
1 The ideas in this article result from my own observations and reflections. To my knowledge, no research exploring these claims is available as of today, but I would love to be proven wrong. Please view my ideas for what they are: The mere opinions of someone who has been giving these questions a lot of thoughts. This is a very personal perspective, which, I hope, may fuel your own reflections.