Can non-scientists tell science stories?

bonzo dogs

In the 1960s a group of musical Dadaists challenged the British music scene with a series of albums that blended anarchy, parody and musical virtuosity. The group was called the Bonzo Dog Doodah band and their second album, The Donut in Granny’s Greenhouse included tracks like the twelve bar blues “Trouser Press” — featuring a solo on a genuine trouser press fitted with a pickup — and another called “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?” which lampooned the British blues boom.

While they were ridiculing the white English blues artists of the day – they were also singing the blues themselves – in their own inimitable way.

So what’s that got to do with science, you may well ask?

Apart from seeing Vivian Stanshall, the Bonzo Dogs’ lead singer perform when I was at university – my tenuous link is that in the same way that the blues ultimately belongs to everyone – so does science.

There are blues purists who believe the only true blues is played on acoustic instruments and sung by African Americans during the early part of the 20th century.

And there are science purists who believe that only scientists can truly express the heart and soul of science, that you have to live and breathe science in order to communicate it honestly and effectively.

I believe that to be an erroneous and limiting view – one that re-enforces the demarcation lines that can at times separate scientists from so-called non-scientists.

It has in my experience been true to say that there are those who look down from the parapets of science on the world of science communication and regard journalists and popular writers with a degree of lofty disdain.

And that disdain can equally be applied to fellow scientists who demean themselves by “seeking popularity” through the media.

I can understand why people with powerful intellects and an extraordinary passion for pursuing a scientific quest might regard the business of science communication as peripheral at best or pandering to the demands of populist  entertainment at worst.

There is no doubt that the media can be preoccupied with sensational issues, and in their search for headlines and immediate answers to complex questions, journalists and reporters can trivialise or misunderstand the content, purpose and processes of scientific research.

But my aim is not so much to address class war in the science world but rather to take a bigger picture perspective, one that asks us to think about science in a very different way.

Science must be open to everyone – more than that – everyone has to feel they belong to a world of science.

In some ways – the biggest challenge with telling science stories – is the word science.

That word alienates people – it speaks of “otherness” – another world to which non-scientists don’t belong. That’s re-enforced through stereotypes which the media perpetuate, and the notion that science is hard, inaccessible, removed from everyday reality and experience.

The reality is that every single person on this planet – all 7.4 billion of us are connected with and through science – through our DNA, our species’ history and the forces we interact with daily. Science from the old French and Latin really means knowledge – which defines and encompasses everything we think and do.

If you said to people – are you interested in knowledge? They’re much more likely to say yes, than if you ask – are you interested in science? Yet science as knowledge underpins our existence – whether it’s the knowledge of a builder, farmer, plumber,  chef or an architect.

The difficulty and the challenge with the word science is that it tries to cover meanings and definitions that are both extremely diverse – but in some cases at odds with each other.

The most obvious is that doing Science – as in being a scientist – denotes a profession – with standards, measurements, qualifications, professional peer reviews and professional status. More specifically, some scientists will argue that true scientists are those who conduct research, investigate the nature of our world, produce and analyse data, test hypotheses, deduce theories and establish evidence based truths. They will deny that engineers or technologists are for example scientists.

It’s understandable that a profession will want to have a clear sense of identity, of practice, performance and standards. But that’s where the word science lets us down. It’s being pulled in too many directions at once.

We need to find a way to bring us all back together under the umbrella of knowledge.

I watched the 3D documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams about the Chauvet cave in the south of France. The cave is decorated with paintings and drawings of ice age wild life, drawn with exquisite beauty and skill. You can tell immediately what these animals are – the observation and depiction of the woolly rhinos, wild horses and lions speak to us in an instant. Across the span of 32 thousand years, we can imagine what these animals looked like in the landscape; more than that we sense how they moved; they’re dynamic, caught in action by the artists and with subtle intent given dimension by the natural formation and shape of the cave’s rocky walls. These people, living in ice age Europe more than twice as long ago as the people who painted in Lascaux, were fully modern humans – both scientists and artists – observers of shape, behaviour, movement – driven by the innate human characteristics of curiosity, wonder and the urge to understand, capture and express what they see and feel.

We are no different today.

Humans are naturally curious – you only have to watch a small child picking up stones to see what’s hidden underneath, fossicking in rock pools, watching snails and insects go about their business – and see their eyes light up with amazement and wonder as a ladybird spreads its wings, a crab scuttles across a rock or a kangaroo joey pokes its head out of the pouch.

We have, I suspect always been like that.

Observing our world, testing it, doing experiments and communicating what we find. How else did we discover the best kinds of stone for making tools and weapons, the best food to eat, the best materials to make clothing and baskets, the best sources of colour to decorate ourselves and record our observations on cave walls.

The latest evidence supports the existence of Homo Sapiens living in South Africa 164,000 years ago – and that by at least 72000 years ago, these early modern humans were using carefully controlled hearths to heat stone and change its properties, in a process known as heat treatment.

According to paleoanthropologist Curtis Marean, project director and a co-author of the paper published in Nature, “This knowledge is then passed on, and in a way unique to humans, the technology is slowly ratcheted up in complexity as the control of the heating process, cooling and flaking grows in sophistication. This requires complex cognition and probably language to learn and teach.”

I believe we are hardwired for storytelling.

Written language has existed for only 5-6 thousand years. But our species has been passing on knowledge for tens of thousands of years, the results of experience and experimentation, of exploration and innovation.

Some of that communication would be the simple transfer of information. But I bet anything you like that the most common means of passing on knowledge was with stories. Stories connect facts, events and ideas into a narrative. We remember narratives much more easily than a collection of facts. In memory competitions, people who memorise the random order of an entire pack of playing cards in under 30 seconds do so by constructing a story as they view the cards.

In Australia, Aborigines have for many thousands of years used storytelling to keep alive and pass on knowledge that embodies the history and culture of a tribe, stories of the dreamtime, creation stories, the meaning of paintings and tribal memory of where to find seasonally available food.

In an interview for the ABC, Aboriginal storyteller Pauline McLeod – now sadly dead – said that for her:

The true role of the storyteller is to teach.

…to pass on knowledge and beliefs within stories to the next generation.

And…that storytelling is one of the most powerful forms of change within the modern world today.

Around the world, most if not all belief systems are story-based; they use stories to recount the origins of how, why and where their society and beliefs started, using archetypal characters and events. And those stories are told and retold to re-enforce the beliefs and pass them on to future generations.

Stories are the best way to engage someone with ideas. Stories appeal to our natural curiosity and we remember the contents more easily because they are given dramatic impact by the narrative.

Story-telling is fundamental to human experience.

Telling science stories is integral to human history and development and cannot belong to just one group of people; it must be shared, open to all who have the gift of story-telling.

There are of course trained scientists who are great story tellers.

A Canterbury scientist who fronted dozens of media interviews in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes won the Association of Scientists Science Communicator’s Award for 2011.

Dr Mark Quigley, the University of Canterbury’s Senior Lecturer in Active Tectonics and Geomorphology became the science face of the earthquake recovery.

What made him so effective? According to Dr Quigley – a respect for his audience. Whether he was talking to a three year old about the earthquakes or a crowded town hall of traumatised Cantabrians, he knew how to connect to his audience and adapt his message for the best effect, something he feels a lot of scientists fail to do.

The ability to communicate, to tell stories, to connect with your audience is essential. Not everyone can do that successfully. That is why we need to recruit storytellers from a diverse range of backgrounds to communicate science – not just those with an expert knowledge of the subject matter.

My education was excellent in some ways – a tragedy in others – I started learning French and Latin at eight – which was smart, the plasticity of the brain at an early age means learning languages is best started as soon as possible. And I did go on to study Geography, Maths and Biology. But I went through ten years of schooling in the UK without once studying any physics or chemistry. I emerged from the British education system with three arts subject A levels and Bachelor of Arts degree – but no understanding whatever of the forces of nature that govern every aspect of our lives. I didn’t even know how an electric light bulb works.

I was a typical liberal arts graduate who, if they thought of scientists at all, it was as the clichéd, white coated boffin with a clipboard in James Bond movies. At university, scientists were the poor buggers who actually had to work hard and go to lectures. While the arts guys went to movies, partied and had fun. While the scientists were discovering molecules and atoms, we were writing poetry and discovering ourselves.

Science and technology were invisible – like dark matter. All this invisible stuff – that held the universe and my life together – but I wasn’t even aware of it. You plugged in the stereo – turned it on – and you got music – great. You turned the ignition key in your car, it started. How? Damned if I knew – or cared.

After graduating, the spirit of adventure and curiosity took me to Australia where I trained as a journalist and reported on social and political stories from around the country.

Then in 1987 I got an invitation to join the ABC’s weekly science and technology series, Quantum. They were looking for a storyteller. I was blown away by how my knowledge of the world of science was so deeply impoverished. I knew nothing. It was frightening – but at the same time exhilarating. I had so much to learn – and so much to communicate to the audience – challenging, fascinating, mind-bending stuff.

A science communicator is like a time-travelling tour guide – taking the audience on a virtual trip to the past and future.

In those heady days we were on a mission. We were there to celebrate science and technology – and it seemed as if the audience’s appetite for science was unbounded. We could and did do shows on supernovae, gravity waves and nanotechnology.

But times changed.

As we headed through the 90s, and I joined a show called Beyond 2000, the internet began to have a significant impact on the world. I felt the tug of popular and emotional gravity attract our information-seeking audience away from television and towards the online universe. It seemed as if life was accelerating and people’s time was becoming more precious; they didn’t have as much brain space for soaking up information from TV. TV was for entertainment. Now for many people even TV doesn’t exist, the internet is the source of everything.

Today the challenges for science storytellers have become even harder. You’re competing with a multiverse of sources, platforms and opinions. To get your story noticed you’ve got to grab and hold people’s attention – anyway you can.

So – what makes a good science story?

The unusual, the mysterious, the unexplained, the familiar made strange, the startling and the monumental.

Look for challenges and drama because they’re valuable story-telling tools

Engage people’s emotions – you want them to care

Look for strong characters – people who are passionate about what they do – because that passion is infectious and projects through the media.

Storytelling style should be conversational, so people feel comfortable – they’re not held at arms’ length by jargon, dense prose or convoluted language

Are we guilty of trying to dumb things down? Are we scared of being serious about science?

No – but we are storytellers working in a rapidly evolving, unbelievably competitive market that is entertainment driven. We must entertain our audience, otherwise they won’t watch. You can entertain and inform. But with a mass market, you won’t inform if you can’t entertain. And if they’re not watching or listening, you’ve failed.

Nobody deserves an audience – you have to earn their time, interest and respect

Getting the balance right between entertainment and content isn’t easy. There are those who believe it’s a great idea to use crashes, explosions and dramatic practical demonstrations to capture people’s attention with science, and those who ask if it’s all just spectacular showmanship without any meaning or outcome? All bang and no substance, son et lumière without intellectual enlightenment or purpose.

In schools, teachers are experimenting with entertaining ways to engage children and get them excited about science. Hook their curiosity – then they’ll start asking questions.

That’s like a good story, it starts with something intriguing – an accident, an argument, a murder –  something unusual, disturbing or inexplicable, or a character behaving in a way that makes you want to know more about them. You want to know what happens next, how will this turn out? So you keep reading, listening or watching.

It’s critical that we get children familiar with science early on, engage them with the fundamental stories of our planet, our environment, our biology how things work and how we are connected to the world around us. It should be second nature to understand that science is about life – about all the questions they ask – how do tadpoles turn into frogs, why does the sun disappear every day and where does it go, what are stars, how do plants grow, where do mountains, rivers and lakes come from, how do buildings stay upright, why is the sea salty, why is the sky blue, how do my eyes see, how do I catch a ball, how does light convey data, where do TV and radio signals come from.

We have to get science with a capital S in the curriculum much earlier – tapping into the innate wonder and curiosity in young children that’s unfiltered by what other people think. As a university lecturer said to me, primary school children come home knowing they’ve studied English, Maths or French – but not Science.

My belief is we need to get kids in primary schools doing science and loving it. Once they get to 12 or 13 when they’re formally introduced to science as a curriculum subject, it’s too late for many of them. They’re at that critical age when hormones and peer group pressure kick in – it’s not cool to be interested in science. It’s a subject for geeks or brainiacs – who are definitely not cool (even though they might go on to become the next Mark Zuckerberg). They’re made to do “health science” which is all about their bodies – all so embarrassing. The decision about whether to study “hard science” becomes daunting, they develop a feeling that science is not for them – one that re-enforces the polarity between scientists and non-scientists.

It’s tempting fate to allow that to happen. Students need to emerge into the wider world feeling at home with science, knowing and understanding that science is everywhere and that it’s a vital part of their lives. They should not enter life being ignorant and therefore afraid of science.

Once kids have left school or university, the chances of them being exposed to scientific knowledge and becoming impassioned about it diminishes rapidly. If science isn’t a part of their consciousness then, the chances of them getting that understanding are slim to negligible.

The squeeze on budgets in newspapers and news services over the past 20-25 years has caused the demise of many of the specialist correspondents who used to cover areas like science, medicine and technology. Media coverage of science today is sparse and often ill-informed, because it’s not seen as mainstream. Papers are more likely to have a section devoted to show biz and celebrity gossip than science.

That has a critical, subversive and dangerous effect on our world view.

We have to make science feel central to our lives, not peripheral – so everyone can ask questions about how things work or why they don’t. We need to recreate a renaissance mentality – one that doesn’t see a separation between arts and sciences, one that sees life as the pursuit of knowledge, about what makes things “tick”, and through that understanding we can live a richer, better informed, engaged and more responsible life.

How otherwise can we make informed decisions about climate change, clean water, what food we eat, immunisation or alternative energy sources.

We talk a lot about role models – and yet the unsung heroes of society are the men and women who make stuff work – biochemists, electricians, engineers, medical researchers, ecologists, computer programmers, builders, mechanics, pilots, food technicians, pathologists, nurses, doctors, pharmacists – are just some of thousands. They have an understanding of how component elements can be combined to create something that works and serves a purpose. Are they all scientists? Of course not in the strictest sense. But without all the people who use their skill and knowledge of how things work to keep our complex industrial society functioning – our infrastructure and our lives would grind to a halt.

We need to widen our appreciation of science – so we recognise that it can encompass both Science as knowledge and Science as profession.

We must be innovative and generous with knowledge and with ways of spreading it around. In 2009, Tim Berners-Lee – the “father of the world wide web” gave a TED talk in which he got a bunch of people to chant “get raw data now”. The idea was to liberate vast amounts of raw data gathered by governments and make it available online, free of charge. Berners-Lee subsequently advised the British Government on its internet data access policy and got them to agree to his suggestion. As he explained in an interview in Prospect Magazine,

“It’s about seeing whether the mash-up-sphere, if you like, will do it for you…. Somebody who is out there mashing up data sources, or someone in government doing that, is always going to produce things that go far beyond one single data set.”

In other words – knowledge released takes on a power and potential of its own – mashed and multiplied through the consciousness of many people to produce new ideas and applications.

Of course, as Berners-Lee acknowledges there are fears about what can go wrong, how knowledge can be misused or misunderstood.

But, as he says, “once the data is out there, those sort of excuses won’t be there anymore, because people will say, well, the data is out there and it’s not really being abused, and people do understand that it’s not very clean data and that nobody is perfect, but they are very grateful to you for making it available.”

We must take the same approach with communicating science. We have to use every vehicle possible to get it out there, to give it to people to use in their lives. It won’t always be “clean” information or presented exactly how a professional scientist would prefer – but it’s better to have it out there being consumed, applied and interpreted in ways we may never have imagined.

Artists like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards or Stevie Ray Vaughan may not have sung and played the blues the way purists would like or approve of – but they took it to a wider audience, developed an appreciation of the blues globally which brought millions of people not just pleasure but an awareness about where the blues came from, its history and cultural significance that they never had before.

For that they have a right to sing the blues.

And it’s why non-scientists have a right to tell science stories – passionately but honestly, entertainingly but accurately, with excitement and integrity.

(I wrote and delivered this as a talk at Otago University’s Science Teller festival in 2011. For me, it’s just as relevant – perhaps even more so – in the world of fake news and anti-science sentiment and suspicion. Hence I have published it with one or two minor amendments)

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