Why Brian Cox is a dirty cheat 😉.
Science communicators need “hooks” that pervade mainstream culture to draw new audiences to high level science. I explained how, today’s science communicators often outsource these hooks (specifically comedy) to experts outside of science, and how this outsourcing does nothing to help the damaging stereotypes of the scientist.
I f*cking love science: A gleaming hook, a questionable fishing rod
Millions of people fish worldwide. For many it is simply a way to relax, unwind and clear their heads. They will throw back the fish once they have caught and catalogued them. For others, it is an essential means of survival. The catch will provide basic sustenance. However, all these fishermen have two things in common. They know they will do something worthwhile with the fish once they catch them, and they appreciate the need to use the appropriate bait and hook for the job.
Just like those fishermen, we science communicators need shiny hooks to attract new audiences to engage with, enjoy and become excited by high level science. These hooks can be comedy, music, poetry or anything else that pervades mainstream culture. But, what’s the point of hooking new audiences if what you do with them afterwards isn’t entirely worthwhile?
The webpage “I f*cking love science” has become such a questionable fisherman. You only need to look at Facebook to see the whale of a fan base Elise Andrew’s site has reeled in. The hook of motivational language and quotes, memes and high resolution images works so well that it endangers fish stocks!
The website does a fantastic amount right. It uses its highly effective hooks to: inform subscribers about breakthroughs in science they may otherwise overlook, provide links to online scientific seminars and help to break down some of the negative stereotypes surrounding scientists. However, it also gets a few things wrong. So, where can it be improved?
Well, the real problem is simply the site’s name. While the website may claim that “that’s funny” is “the most exciting phrase to hear in science”, one of the most laughable features of the site itself is often its interpretation of science.
Below are a few examples of what the website classifies as science:
The content includes: pretty images, memes and flowery, inspirational quotes from famous science communicators including Neil deGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku.
This isn’t science. Even Elise herself admits, “I’m just telling people things I think are cool.” There is certainly nothing wrong with liking any of these things. Indeed, I am a fan of each of these three genres, and have regularly shared IFLS content. But, it isn’t science. Science is people, and the scientific method is a collective human endeavour, in which people make theories, test them based on observation and refine these theories when the tests disagree with them. If you want a perfect and incredibly simple explanation of what science is look here. The following plots illustrate clearly how – on average – IFLS’s subscribers laud amusing, beautiful or otherwise emotionally stimulating images far and above solid science.
Part of this imbalance is, of course, due to the proclivities of the subscribers themselves and is beyond the control of the website. That said, IFLS’s methods are not entirely blameless. IFLS is a fantastic hook to draw people to science; it is clear that making 400+ people aware of a scientific seminar as opposed to zero is a massive step in the right direction. However, sadly, the site’s content often doesn’t chime well with, or teach its followers much about, the scientific method when they do flop onto the bank.
Why does this matter?
If the site were purely recreational and didn’t advertise scientific seminars and the like, it wouldn’t matter. We all like pretty pictures. I have an image of the Hubble Telescope Deep Field as my desktop background right now. But, while the site continues to do this, and/or followers continue to view it as a “science site”, it does matter.
One important aspect of the scientific process is that all work is scrutinised, checked and repeated. This process ensures accuracy and the dissemination of a consistent message.
All work is peer reviewed. This is not the case with the content of IFLS, which Elise describes as, “the inside of her brain”, not a fact checked stream of verified information, but a personal brain dump. This leads to IFLS content that is regularly wrong or misleads followers regarding the scientific methodology. This is irresponsible, particularly when dealing with such a large and scientifically curious consumer base. Consider the following post (which is far from the only example of its type, and probably isn’t the best):
There are 8 planets in the solar system. This is not debateable. It is a fact based upon the agreed scientific definition of a planet we use. It may only change if the agreed scientific convention changes. However, the number of planets does not change based on the fact you can name more than 8 rocks orbiting the Sun (wrong), and it definitely doesn’t change based on your personal choices or feelings regarding the matter (misrepresents the scientific method).
IFLS regularly blurs an important line. It suggests that the scientific method is personally pliable and that the most important aspect of science is the personal satisfaction and hit you can draw from it. This is a problem that pervades modern science, and its communication, and has been recently discussed in relation to the famous TED platform.
There is no doubt that science can be amazingly fun and emotionally satisfying. But, this isn’t its purpose. IFLS dangerously merges the positive personal reaction people have to the hook designed to draw them to science and the science itself. This is a subtle, but important distinction.
I’m not saying this to be controversial, undermine I f*ucking love science or to have a go at Elise Andrew. I’m just a fan of IFLS, and I genuinely f*cking love everything positive it has achieved. It’s just that, like all the CERN analysis code I have ever written, it needs some bugs ironing out. Merging science and entertainment is extremely difficult. I know this better than most! The two often tug in different directions. The essence of science is ‘it is what it is’ – whether we like it or not. The audience’s ‘feelings’ are irrelevant. In order to be scientific, they are supposed to suspend their beliefs and engage their critical faculties. The essence of entertainment is ‘it is what it feels like’. It’s not surprising that some tweaking of IFLS’s content is necessary. It is a pioneer in an emerging field.
I just don’t want IFLS to be yet another symptom of the “buzzfeed” culture of modern media, where well informed, well researched and fact checked content is readily replaced by content that may lack these qualities, but generates the maximum number of likes and shares from an insatiable consumer base. It’s too important for that, and it can be far better than that.
I also don’t think it should continue to dominate the online alternative science outreach space in its current, slightly flawed format. Where, despite the holes in its scientific message, it dominates the “hook” marketplace of alternative science outreach. Why would you listen to X when IFLS, despite its faults, seems to have everything wrapped up so nicely in your Facebook newsfeed already?
Like Ahab, IFLS has harpooned a whale of public support, and I don’t want to see it dragged down in its continued pursuit of it.