There are two versions of this post. Version one echoes to the sound of my head banging against the desk and is filled with imaginative expletives that would make Malcolm Tucker blush…..This is version two.
Sorry about that. Version one may have been more entertaining but probably not very productive – and please note I say “productive” not “effective”.
This post is prompted by a piece by John Timmer, Science Editor for Ars Technica, “Applying Science to Communicate Science”.
Common knowledge of rhetorical strategies will now get you expecting me to set it up so that I can knock it down. That is certainly not my intention because there is an understandable frustration in the piece that should not be dismissed lightly. If there is anything of an adversarial tone that slips into my response then it is simply because the frustration is not unrequited.
The essence of the article is captured at the top. The opening sentences:
“Anybody who communicates for a living faces a certain degree of frustration. No matter how hard you try, some people just don’t get the intended message.”
and the heading:
“Applying Science to Communicate Science: right now, it’s hard to find relevant information on how to do it well.”
The assumption seems to be that communication is a system for delivering information (e.g. about evolution). As he says, “my job is largely to convey basic facts”. The problem, as he sees it, is that research into science communication does not help him do that.
He turns to the science of science communication as “an attempt to take what we know about human information processing and use that to get better about communicating science”, but finds that “we’re sometimes ignoring things that science told us years ago” (e.g. about how memory works, about using technical terms and so on).
Like everyone else he dismisses the deficit model:
“If you just dump more facts on them, they’ll simply undertake a biased process of assimilating those facts in order to protect their beliefs. In many cases, a strict fact dump actually leaves people less likely to believe the facts, since the protective processes get triggered so strongly”
“…simply attempting to fix the informational deficit won’t do the job. The deficit model is a dumb way to go about shifting the public understanding, and people who care about scientific communications are regularly warned against it.”
What is needed, he says, is an applied science of science communication, “the communication equivalent of the engineers and biotechnicians who take the latest research and figure out how to put it to use.”
It was at this point that my head started to hit the desk and version one of the post began writing itself. Not because I was reacting against what was being said, but simply because it seemed that nothing, absolutely nothing, has happened since the Bodmer report was published nearly thirty years ago.
Timmer’s call for an applied science of science communication is just the latest echo of what Sir Walter Bodmer and Janice Wilkins had to say in the launch issue of the journal Public Understanding of Science: “We need to know the most effective models to use to get messages across to a wide variety of target audiences”.
OK, perhaps there is an element of me arguing back against the article, but it is only from a frustration not unlike Timmer’s own.
The problem that I have is with the initial assumption, namely that communication is a process of transferring information, of delivering facts.
He might reject the deficit model but the argument is still built on a transmission model for communication. The solution may not be throwing more and more information into the public’s empty bucket, but he is still trying to find ways of getting things into the bucket. We just have to be a bit smarter in how we throw things – sneaking things past the lack of attention, through the “cultural lenses” that “filter” the facts, and getting them “assimilated” with previous beliefs…….and why can’t the science of science communication teach us how to do that? Like learning how to throw a curveball or bowl a googly, how can we deliver the facts more effectively?
The first rule of Being Effective Club is not to talk about being effective.
If you are talking about being effective then you are missing the point. And I know that if I’m not talking about being effective then you will think I’m missing the point. The frustration cuts both ways. (I’ve touched on the ideological dimension to this in an earlier post).
Communication is not simply the transfer of information. In fact it is probably only very rarely that and only in very special circumstances. What is much more important is what things mean. The information a statement contains might remain the same, but how we make sense of it changes with context, medium and the relationship between the people involved.
It is not difficult to grasp the idea of how meaning is important and how it changes with context. The Four Tops nailed it in 1965:
It’s the same old song,
But with a different meaning since you’ve been gone.
However, meaning is not something that is communicated. It is not transferred and passively received but something that is actively constructed. In turn those active constructions of meaning will differ not only with context and medium but also with culture, with gender, ethnicity, age, class etc.
For example, take the simple statement “Eat more fruit”. The meaning will change from circumstance to circumstance. A doctor telling their patient “eat more fruit” is different to a mother telling their daughter. The meaning will be different again if we were to see it on an advertising poster in a supermarket.
Similarly, the meaning changes with the medium. Having a face to face meeting to be told you have been made redundant is different to being told by text message or finding out via the TV news. A flipchart or PowerPoint presentation may work well enough at a conference or in a lecture but imagine one in a bar-room discussion (my next slide shows what happens if Utd play 4-4-2 with Rooney playing deep); not only would it be inappropriate but even the inappropriateness would have a meaning.
Or think of a rose. We want someone to have a rose (deficit model). We could give one rose and hope they get it, or we could throw out lots of roses in the hope that they catch one of them, or target them by sending it to the right address (different versions of “effective” transmission). But what does a rose mean?
What does it mean if:
It is from your partner
It is from your partner after they have been on a “business trip”
It is from your ex-partner
It is from someone unknown
It is from someone unknown on Valentine’s Day
It is from that creepy person you cross the road to avoid
It is a last-minute panic buy from a petrol station as you stagger home drunk
It is on the desk of a detective as the calling card of a serial killer
It is a red rose in Lancashire
It is a white rose in Lancashire
Now if we can have all these meanings simply for a rose how many meanings do you think there might be entangled with climate change, GMOs, evolution/creationism or any other aspect of science you care to mention?
The question should not be about how we can learn to bowl a more effective googly to get past the cultural filters and land our fact in their bucket. The question should be about how we can learn to be more productive in the co-creation of meanings.
This post can be seen as a form of communication. Has it been effective? I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter. That misses the point.
But if you are a practising science communicator then there is one thing I hope will have landed in your bucket. When you think about science communication make sure you have the Four Tops playing in your head.