It’s Just Not A Science

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Yesterday a post by Dr. Dhruv Khullar appeared on Scientific American Blog about the science communication crisis, and what (in his opinion) we can all do about it. The post is engaging and well written, and Dr. Khullar does an excellent job of diagnosing the problem and highlighting the urgent need for a solution, but I couldn’t agree less with the remedy he proposes.

I won’t quote Khullar’s prose at length (the post is well worth a read), but he sums up the problem he and his fellow scientists face when he says simply: “We don’t know what to say, or how to say it.” He’s dead right about that, and he gives a number of salient examples of how this problem is not only troubling, but truly dangerous, especially when it affects the decisions people make about health and healthcare.

I applaud Dr. Khullar for drawing attention to this problem, and I am confident that he is a member of the vocal minority of scientists who truly cares about addressing this question in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, he stumbles headlong into the same trap that has foiled innumerable attempts at improving science communication. He thinks the answer is more science.

Khullar’s prescription involves “devoting more research attention and funding to the science of science communication.” I’ve heard this argument many times before. Science communication is an optimization problem like any other, the argument goes, and though it may be difficult to study, careful collection of data, followed by a rigorous analysis, will allow the development of certain metrics…. well, you get the idea. Khullar is not the first to advance this notion, the National Academies held a colloquium a few years back devoted to it. Implicit in this argument is the notion that the scientific study of communication will somehow lead to the development of better communication practices.

After a decade of communicating science and training scientists to be more effective communicators, I have come to believe that it’s utter balderdash. I don’t believe the problem of science communication will ever be profitably addressed through a scientific approach, because, in my view, science communication is fundamentally not a science. It is, and always will be, an art.

Despite his recommendation, Khullar seems intuitively aware of this on some level. His piece begins with the story of the film Sideways, and how the loud condemnation of merlot by the film’s protagonist led to a subsequent drop in sales of that varietal in the years after the film’s release. He goes on to cite the examples of Sarah Palin’s “Death Panels” and Katie Couric’s colonoscopy as events which triggered measurable shifts in public opinion. These moments are great examples, because there was not a trace of science behind any of them.┬áIn each case, they involved an emotionally engaging story told by a talented storyteller. They are all (in some sense) works of art, and that is why they are effective.

The reason I take issue with the idea that the solution to the science communication crisis is to apply more science is that it tends to aggravate the symptoms it was intended to ameliorate. People don’t reject climate change, or vaccines, or GMO foods because they don’t have enough data. They reject them because of a host of complex, interconnected, emotional responses to information. If your intent is to change their minds, your goal must be to trigger an alternative emotional response. That’s not something one does with science. The whole idea behind science is that it’s detached, rational, dispassionate. Science illuminates truths that exist independently of the individuals who observe them. If your goal is to stir people’s passions, science is not the right tool for the job.

By and large, most scientists hate this advice. Emotional engagement seems…vulgar. The arts seem mysterious and impenetrable. We want an equation or an algorithm that tells us what to do.

Unfortunately, arts don’t work like that. No one becomes a great communicator through study. Proficiency comes only through practice. Luckily, there are a few folks in the field of science communication who are helping train scientists to maximize the efficacy of that practice. (If Dr. Khullar thinks that suggestions to “limit jargon” or “start with an anecdote” represent the full breadth of available instruction in science communication, I submit that he has not made a sufficiently thorough survey of the field). But these training programs can only be truly effective for those scientists who are willing to check their analytical minds at the door, and embrace the challenge with the passion in their souls.

The challenge we face is indeed becoming a crisis, but we will not find a cure by probing with the same tools that infected us with the disease. There is no science to communicating science. It’s an art, and the scientist who succeeds is the one who can self-identify as an artist.


Tim Miller is the author of Muse of Fire: Storytelling & The Art of Science Communication


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