The humanities of science communication

It’s a surreal feeling to be bothered by things that are completely reasonable. In recent months I’ve been part of many conversations about how to engage people with science. Every time the science of science communication comes up, and every time I feel like something is off.

There’s a big push now to understand what’s known, in formal studies, about how to communicate science. The idea is that, as people who believe in science, we should use research to guide our activities. There have been fascinating findings, such as the fact that in some emotionally or culturally charged situations exposure to more information can *increase* polarization, not decrease it as one would assume. As a result, presenting facts alone won’t, say, increase acceptance of evolution. Instead other, more emotional approaches are needed, and if your goal is to increase that acceptance, it’s worth learning about them. That makes perfect sense, and there’s no reason that discussion of it should leave me feeling uneasy, but it does.

This week I finally realized what bugged me about the talk I was hearing about the science of science communication: Nothing. The issue is what I wasn’t hearing.

This was catalyzed by a short news item Lauren Rugani linked on twitter. A scientist had run a study where they discovered that sometimes a punchline is funnier if words from the punchline had been mentioned several minutes earlier. From the abstract:

“These findings also show that pre-exposing a punchline, which in common knowledge should spoil a joke, can actually increase funniness under certain conditions.”

This is shocking. Not the conclusion, which is clearly correct. The problem is that the conclusion has been known to comedians for at least the last several thousand years. When I trained in improv comedy the third class was on callbacks, the jargon term for that technique. The entire structure of an improv comedy set is based around variations on the idea that things are funnier if they’re repeated. And yet to the authors it was “common knowledge” that this will spoil a joke. There is a long tradition of people who know, from experience, how this works, and yet the idea of asking them is not evident anywhere in the paper. This is the problem — the sense that the only valid answers come from inside science and the research world.

And that’s the same problem I see in most discussions of how scientists should communicate. The universe of ideas is restricted to those that originated in the sciences.

For example, the discussion always comes around to, “So, what does the science say we should do? How do we engage people if not with facts?” The answer, of course, is that the science of science communication has no answers. As Liz Neeley says, “science cannot and will not ever tell us what to do. …[It] helps us understand what kinds of questions to ask.”

But there are answers. There are multiple centuries to millennia old traditions that have been dedicated to exactly the question of how to engage people. There are people called things like playwrights, actors, comedians, journalists, screenwriters, musicians, rhetoricians, advertisers, lobbyists, novelists, essayists, artists. They have studied how to communicate, to understand, to emote, to connect. They write books and teach classes, hold workshops and gather for conferences. There is an entire world of people who know the answers to these questions.

One example: We all know that Hollywood is formulaic. What many don’t know is that there is literally a formula — a very precise formula that you can write down, telling you what needs to happen on page 12 and at the break into the third act. And not only can you write it down, it is written down, in a book called Save The Cat. It’s cheap and a quick read, and I would highly recommend it. Not because the formula is perfect, or because you should use it (particularly if you aren’t writing a screenplay), but because there are reasons that it works. Behind each beat is a specific thought about why it will work the way it does. Knowing this can be immensely powerful.

And for each of the many fields of arts and humanities there are other books — The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell, On Writing, Stephen King, Truth in Comedy, Charna Halpern, On Rhetoric, Aristotle, and countless more. And they all have something to say about science, because communicating science, fundamentally, isn’t very different from communicating anything else. It isn’t easy, but the answers are out there. The textbooks are already written.

This works. Science journalists, of course, have been doing it for decades, producing a wealth of fantastic science writing. Many of the best of them were trained as writers, and those of the best who were trained as scientists spend enormous time honing their writing craft.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t differences. And it’s definitely not to say that we shouldn’t be doing studies — those are essential. But talking about those differences and interpreting the studies isn’t effective without a bedrock of knowledge in the fundamentals. I believe in the value of expertise. There are people who’ve dedicated their lives to learning and teaching how to connect and communicate. Why wouldn’t we avail ourselves of that?

But why tell stories about science? For one, sharing personal stories can help break down the “wall of scariness” that surrounds science at a time when it affects our lives more than ever. “There’s a sense that it’s this big complicated thing that only ‘smart’ people can understand,” Lillie said.

I was answering these questions late Friday on a train home from the last show of the year, so the phrase, “wall of scariness” just popped out. I like it.

For a long time I’ve been talking about the notion that there’s a wall between science and non-scientists, something that makes it feel alien and removed.  The wall of scariness is a particular one. It comes from the idea that science is for “smart” people, and that you have to be smart to understand it. If you aren’t a “science” person, one of the gifted few, you won’t be able to understand what people are talking about.

Now I’m starting think there’s a bunch of walls. A wall of boredom, a wall of irrelevance, a wall of alien-ness. I don’t think we (scientists) mean to put those up*, but there they are. It’s worth remembering that they’re there, and thinking about what can be done about them.

*That said, Ben Goldacre talks about a “force-field of tediousness,” which is more intentional way of keeping people out of the conversation, in contexts where there are policy or financial implications.

Danielle N. Lee: Working twice as hard

Last week’s Story Collider podcast: As a woman of color working in science, Danielle N. Lee has always encountered challenges. But she doesn’t expect the email she receives one morning, or the events it sets in motion.

This story opens with a sampling of the racism Dr. Lee faced throughout her career. It’s crucial to remember that not only do these things happen now, in 2013, they’re incredibly common. After we ran it, people started tweeting to her similar experiences. Here’s just a few.

Lol. That “you didn’t get last place?” thing from classmates is real. got it more in hs. @DNLee5

— Bashir (@Bashir9ist)

December 9, 2013

Lol. That “you didn’t get last place?” thing from classmates is real. got it more in hs. @DNLee5

— Bashir (@Bashir9ist)

December 9, 2013

@DNLee5 @DrRubidium “if *Leigh* passed quals, I’m not worried about passing mine anymore.” #fuckyoutoo

— dr leigh (@dr_leigh)

December 9, 2013


Damn, this made me cry.


There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that.” - JK Rowling

Can we talk about Susan’s fabulous adventures after Narnia? The ones where she wears nylons and elegant blouses when she wants to, and short skirts and bright lipstick when she wants to, and hiking boots and tough jeans and big men’s plaid shirts when she feels like backpacking out into the mountains and remembering what it was to be lost in a world full of terrific beauty— I know her siblings say she stops talking about it, that Susan walks away from the memories of Narnia, but I don’t think she ever really forgot.

I want to read about Susan finishing out boarding school as a grown queen reigning from a teenaged girl’s body. School bullies and peer pressure from children and teachers who treat you like you’re less than sentient wouldn’t have the same impact. C’mon, Susan of the Horn, Susan who bested the DLF at archery, and rode a lion, and won wars, sitting in a school uniform with her eyebrows rising higher and higher as some old goon at the front of the room slams his fist on the lectern. 

Susan living through WW2, huddling with her siblings, a young adult (again), a fighting queen and champion marksman kept from the action, until she finally storms out against screaming parents’ wishes and volunteers as a nurse on the front. She keeps a knife or two hidden under her clothes because when it comes down to it, they called her Gentle, but sometimes loving means fighting for what you care for. 

She’ll apply to a women’s college on the East Coast, because she fell in love with America when her parents took her there before the war. She goes in majoring in Literature (her ability to decipher High Diction in historical texts is uncanny), but checks out every book she can on history, philosophy, political science. She sneaks into the boys’ school across town and borrows their books too. She was once responsible for a kingdom, roads and taxes and widows and crops and war. She grew from child to woman with that mantle of duty wrapped around her shoulders. Now, tossed here on this mundane land, forever forbidden from her true kingdom, Susan finds that she can give up Narnia but she cannot give up that responsibility. She looks around and thinks I could do this better.

I want Susan sneaking out to drink at pubs with the girls, her friends giggling at the boys checking them out from across the way, until Susan walks over (with her nylons, with her lipstick, with her sovereignty written out in whatever language she damn well pleases) and beats them all at pool. Susan studying for tests and bemoaning Aristotle and trading a boy with freckles all over his nose shooting lessons so that he will teach her calculus. Susan kissing boys and writing home to Lucy and kissing girls and helping smuggle birth control to the ladies in her dorm because Susan Pevensie is a queen and she understands the right of a woman to rule over her own body. 

Susan losing them all to a train crash, Edmund and Peter and Lucy, Jill and Eustace, and Lucy and Lucy and Lucy, who Susan’s always felt the most responsible for. Because this is a girl who breathes responsibility, the little mother to her three siblings until a wardrobe whisked them away and she became High Queen to a whole land, ruled it for more than a decade, then came back centuries later as a legend. What it must do to you, to be a legend in the body of a young girl, to have that weight on your shoulders and have a lion tell you that you have to let it go. What is must do to you, to be left alone to decide whether to bury your family in separate ceremonies, or all at once, the same way they died, all at once and without you. What it must do to you, to stand there in black, with your nylons, and your lipstick, and feel responsible for these people who you will never be able to explain yourself to and who you can never save. 

Maybe she dreams sometimes they made it back to Narnia after all. Peter is a king again. Lucy walks with Aslan and all the dryads dance. Maybe Susan dreams that she went with them— the train jerks, a bright light, a roar calling you home. 

Maybe she doesn’t. 

Susan grows older and grows up. Sometimes she hears Lucy’s horrified voice in her head, “Nylons? Lipstick, Susan? Who wants to grow up?”  and Susan thinks, “Well you never did, Luce.” Susan finishes her degree, stays in America (England looks too much like Narnia, too much like her siblings, and too little, all at once). She starts writing for the local paper under the pseudonym Frank Tumnus, because she wants to write about politics and social policy and be listened to, because the name would have made Edmund laugh. 

She writes as Susan Pevensie, too, about nylons and lipstick, how to give a winning smiles and throw parties, because she knows there is a kind of power there and she respects it. She won wars with war sometimes, in Narnia, but sometimes she stopped them before they began.

Peter had always looked disapprovingly on the care with which Susan applied her makeup back home in England, called it vanity. And even then, Susan would smile at him, say “I use what weapons I have at hand,” and not explain any more than that. The boy ruled at her side for more than a decade. He should know better. 

Vain is not the proper word. This is about power. But maybe Peter wouldn’t have liked the word “ambition” any more than “vanity.”

Susan is a young woman in the 50s and 60s. Frank Tumnus has quite the following now. He’s written a few books, controversial, incendiary. Susan gets wrapped up in the civil rights movement, because of course she would. It’s not her first war. All the same, she almost misses the White Witch. Greed is a cleaner villain than senseless hate. She gets on the Freedom Rider bus, mails Mr. Tumnus articles back home whenever there’s a chance, those rare occasions they’re not locked up or immediately threatened. She is older now than she ever was in Narnia. Susan dreams about Telemarines killing fauns. 

Time rolls on. Maybe she falls in love with a young activist or an old cynic. Maybe she doesn’t. Maybe Frank Tumnus, controversial in the moment, brilliant in retrospect, gets offered an honorary title from a prestigious university. She declines and publishes an editorial revealing her identity. Her paper fires her. Three others mail her job offers. 

When Vietnam rolls around, she protests in the streets. Susan understands the costs of war. She has lived through not just the brutal wars of one life, but two. 

Maybe she has children now. Maybe she tells them stories about a magical place and a magical lion, the stories Lucy and Edmund brought home about how if you sail long enough you reach the place where the seas fall off the edge of the world. But maybe she tells them about Cinderella instead, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, except Rapunzel cuts off her own hair and uses it to climb down the tower and escape. The damsel uses what tools she has at hand. 

A lion told her to walk away, and she did. He forbade her magic, he forbade her her own kingdom, so she made her own. 

Susan Pevensie did not lose faith. She found it. 

We need your help! The Story Collider had some initial money to get going, and that covered us for quite a while. But, it’s running out.

So, we’re turning to you to keep us going. We’re committed to keeping the stories free, and that means finding a new way to fund it. We’ve signed up with Patreon, which is a lot like Kickstarter, but for continuing support. There’s also great rewards, like a special extra podcast of the hosting stories ErinBrianAri and I do between stories.

I’m really excited, and really nervous about this. This show started as a monthly thing to do for fun, but it’s turned into something I think is really important. We let people tell science stories in a way that you don’t see elsewhere — and it’s a way that I think is a crucial part of helping people build a connection to science. I really want us to keep doing this.

Also, for this month only, an anonymous donor has challenged us to get 1000 subscribers. So for everyone who signs up, they’ll donate $10, up to $10,000 total.

So I’d love it if you could help. Either by donating, or by passing this on. Running this isn’t hugely expensive, but it does take some money. I know we can do it!

Thank you!!

Science Sparks! What science thing first made you *feel* something?


Yesterday on Twitter I asked:

Right. Switching hashtags. What science thing first made you really *feel* something? #sciencespark

— Ben Lillie (@BenLillie)

November 13, 2013

The response was amazing! Hundreds of people tweeted their science spark moment. I managed to storify about 150 of them.

What’s also amazing were the trends. I had been thinking of “thing” as books or TV or movies. I’m glad I wasn’t that specific, because a large majority of tweets were about experiences — with parents or teacher or on their own, in forests and tide-pools and museums. If there’s one takeaway here, it that to get people interested in science show them actual things and have them really do stuff, let them play and explore. Of course, that’s been noticed many times before, but I love how clearly it comes through here.

Beyond that, the surprising thing is how few trends there were. A couple books were mentioned more than once, and oceans and space were popular. But the array of different experiences and books and TV shows inspired people. Some found it playing or reading alone, some with strong encouragement from parents, some by watching the moon landing or Jane Goodall. Every different discipline of science was represented. Even within disciplines, what excited people varied wildly — the big bang and the weirdness of Saturn in Astronomy, or poisonous animals to the human genome project in biology. So the second less is to do everything, and to recognize that there is almost certainly no best way. (I’m sure there are many bad ways, to be sure — but neither is any one approach best.)

Here are some of my favorite tweets, with the full storify below. (I think it missed a ton. If you notice yours missing send me a note with the link. I’ll also add new ones as they come.)

My father is an illiterate mechanic with a 3rd-grade education, who let me play with his tools as soon as I could reach them. #sciencespark

— Sola Balisane (@balisane)

November 14, 2013

@SFriedScientist @BenLillie @raewing @docfreeride @rocza Parents have vid of me reading NatGeo way too young to understand it #sciencespark

— Erin Podolak (@ErinPodolak)

November 13, 2013

@BenLillie 1978. Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby. I was 15, in Ireland where even contraception was still illegal. Eye-opening stuff!

— The Bringer (@_pherousa)

November 13, 2013

I was born the year after. I don’t even notice how amazing that is, huge moment for @_pherousa.

My #sciencespark was a weird science teacher who brought roadkill into class. In hindsight that was a TERRIBLE idea.

— Rose Eveleth (@roseveleth)

November 13, 2013

I think she meant “FANTASTIC idea.”

Another #sciencespark: spent hours and hours reading this!

— Chris Gunter (@girlscientist)

November 14, 2013

I MEMORIZED parts of that book.

#sciencespark for me:anything David Attenborough but I remember seeing his Mt St Helens episode as kid and suddenly understanding ecosystems

— Kelsey McCartney (@mthumanist)

November 14, 2013

Volcanos -> Ecosystems. Geology and biology aren’t separate.

So, that whole effusive tweet spree about Luis Alvarez? Ann Finkbinder ran with it and turned it into a conversation between me, her, and Hope Jahren, a paleontologist who added a lot of perspective. By which I mean Alvarez was an asshole. Here’s the fun moment where it turns:

Ben:  Oh, I also forgot the part where he analyzed the footage of the Kennedy Assassination. OF COURSE HE DID  How is this guy not a legend?

Ann:  He liked high-powered secret elite club groups.  He was a member of Jason and of the Bohemian Club.  He probably did some real good for the country as a Jason but the Bohemian Club, as far as I can tell, is of use only to its members.

Hope:  He also said crazy mean shit to the NYT about paleontologists not being real scientists.  The paleo-field is still licking its wounds over that one.

Ben & Ann:  What?  No.  Tell us more.

Read the rest at The Last Word on Nothing. (Also, read everything at LWON! And everything at Hope’s new site!)


I went on a tweeting spree!


Ben Lillie went on a tweeting spree last week about Luis Alvarez, Nobel Prize winner and all-around badass scientist. (He Storified the whole thing in a post called “In Which I Discover All The Crazy Shit Luis Alvarez Did,” so go check that out to see the conversation unfold where he discovers it all.) 

As I saw Ben’s tweets coming in, I got really interested in Alvarez and his unbelievable range of important scientific contributions. And then this morning, while I was digging through the Brookhaven archives, he popped up in a passage about the dedication ceremony for our first particle accelerator, the Cosmotron: 

"Mariette Kuper supervised the dinner arrangements, and her efforts succeeded, where others had failed, in wrecking Dean’s intention to keep the dedication ‘scientific and academic.’ She had set up several dozen tables, covered them with paper tablecloths, and in the center of each placed pitchers of her signature martinis. The pitchers had been chilled beforehand in the freezer, and on the tables they glistened temptingly with frost and tiny rivulets of dew. They looked for all the world like pitchers of water, which is how they went down…Behavior loosened, voiced grew loud, and things got boisterous…Luis Alvarez, a forty-one-year-old Berkeley physicist sixteen years away from his Nobel Prize, set his tablecloth on fire.”

Wish I coulda known this guy.