Sci-comm Comfort Noise

Hello? Are you there?

We all know that science communication is more than the efficient transfer of information. My own work and this blog, for example, emphasise the need to understand how meanings are constructed in different contexts.

But for now, let’s keep it simple and put aside all that contextual, critical, cultural studies gunf. The common sense model of communication is, after all, common sense and it is one which is readily acceptable to many scientists – not least because it serves their own interests.

So, keep it simple.

Communication is the transfer of information from A to B. Science communication is the transfer of science from A to B.

Aside from being common sense this also has some academic status as the Shannon-Weaver model of communication. Claude Shannon was an engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories and Warren Weaver was a key figure for many public science activities in the post-war U.S. Together they wrote The Mathematical Theory of Communication.

As a transmission model it reduces communication to the simple form of Sender–Message–Receiver and accounts for any disruption of the message through the action of “noise” (e.g. the crackle on a telephone line).  The model easily translates as Scientist–Popularisation–Public, and improving science communication becomes a problem of reducing the amount of interference from noise or crackle.

What we have then is a direct analogy between science communication and a telephone system.

But today many telephone systems (and audio systems more generally) far from reducing noise intentionally ADD noise into the system.

Noise reduction can be so effective that you can be misled into thinking the system has been switched off or is faulty. To avoid this, a certain degree of ambient noise or hiss can be added to reassure the listener that the system is still working, that the line is still open. It is known as “comfort noise”.

And if we stay with the analogy, what would be comfort noise in science communication? Do we have it and if not how can we add noise into the system?

In science communication how can we let the public know that there is still a connection, that the line is still open? Indeed, are the lines still open or do they go dead after each public engagement event?

Hello? Are you there? Hello?


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