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?

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