29 March 2013

Blockbusters and telenovelas: models for science communication

This week has seen a couple of headlines where not surprising things were gussied up to look like very big deals. I’ve already written about the “Darwin had emotions!” headline, and yesterday, a piece about saying “Evolution without adaptation!” was making the rounds. When I read the headlines, I made a face, as it was dangerously close to the sort of “Darwin was wrong!” headlines we’ve seen before. Sure enough, the article is about genetic drift, which is well known to working scientists. The original scientific paper about ring species is interesting,  but the Wired piece was making it seem more unusual than it was.

This is a recurring issue in science coverage. The dominant way people try to push a scientific story into the media is to sell it like this:

Science as summer blockbuster movie. This is the model that sells every story in science as a breakthrough, and that those are the only things worth our attention.

But the reality is that much of science is not about breakthroughs. It’s about slow progress.

For instance, at the recent NESCent conference (Storify here), the ENCODE project was criticized for trying to present itself an important breakthrough finding about junk DNA. The ENCODE team tried to position itself as a summer blockbuster when it wasn’t. There are lots of other examples. Another case in point: that irresponsible Time magazine cover this week, saying it was “now possible” to “cure cancer.” Wrong.

Claims of imminent breakthrough after breakthrough are going to bite us. .
There is a mode for storytelling that is more like most science.

Anyone who has every watched a soap opera or a telenovela knows that on any given day, not a lot happens. Plots advance not in single episodes, but drawn out over weeks, if not longer. The running joke is that someone stops watching a soap, comes back after months or years, and says, “I can’t believe that Robert still hasn’t confessed his love for Alice and broken it off with Britney!” There is a often a huge cast of characters, sometimes with only mildly interacting stories.

Why do people come back to soap operas, and other sorts of long form storytelling, where arcs are drawn out over months or years? The characters.

This is one reason why I think blogging and social media for scientists is so important.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but things like the old Science Blogs site (before the Pepsi implosion), and other independent science bloggers I started following around that time, became my scientific soap opera. There was a cast of interesting characters, each with their own quirks and obsessions. And you could see their progress over time. It’s been great to watch people graduate from their degrees and make it into post-docs, and move from post-docs to tenure-track positions. Some people come, some go, and others make dramatic returns to the blogosphere (though no cases of amnesia yet).

If scientists are willing to present themselves as real people, with their own interests and problems and good times and bad, we don’t need to try to convince everyone that the only reason to pay attention to us is because we’re going to save the world from an alien invasion.

Related posts

No, Charles Darwin was not a robot
Not every radical idea is right
The genius myth
Tales to astonish
Original and transformative
What the Coburn report has in common with arsenic life

External links

Something other than adaptation could be driving evolution
Oh geez, not another exoplanet story
Can science become too big to fail?
How pigeons cured my case of YAGS
Worst magazine cover of the year?


Bjoern Brembs said...

I seriously think that you describe a very profound problem not only in science communication outside of academia. Also within it, the general impression is that you'll only get a job if you're starring in a blockbuster. This needs to change and the analogy to movies/series actually goes quite a far way to explain why this needs to change.

Kevin Zelnio said...

Great analogy! It really is spot on. Science is really a "These are the days of our labs" sort of drama. It's those personal triumphs and personalities and overcoming obstacles that drive incremental advances. What better way to appreciate the life and work of a scientist than to truly display the life and work of a scientist! This strategy promotes empathizing with the characters. And lordy do scientists need more empathizing with!

scicurious said...

Dangit, I was planning to have amnesia and marry my secret clone next week! You BLEW my plotline, Zen. :)

I like this analogy a lot. Though man, it's really hard to write pieces like that. I try to write about "pieces of the puzzle" incremental science, etc, but it's really hard to get people to CARE without a punchline.

Zen Faulkes said...

Sci: I think you mistake my suggestion. I not exactly saying that we set out to write posts like that.

What I'm saying is, if more scientists are be willing to be themselves in public (including pseudonymous scientist), people may get sucked in because they start to learn what the players in the game are like. What are our quirks, our passions, our setbacks, and triumphs?

In summer blockbusters, plot is all important. In soaps and telenovelas and some reality shows, character is king. Scientists are too quick to try to create great plots (breakthroughs) and let themselves be anonymous.

I say, bring the focus back to the people doing the science, and let the individual paper fade into the background a little bit. I know that's not a comfortable place for a lot of scientists, but that's I wrote the post.

I'm practising my meaningful looks of silent longing right now.