November 21, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich
Science communication in a hyper-real world
I recently asked myself the question: Is there still a point in doing or thinking about ‘science communication‘ in a world where facts have become indistinguishable from fiction and where experts and scientists are regarded with suspicion. This question struck me again quite forcefully when listening to the Now Show on Saturday 19 November, a BBC radio comedy show that provides some of the best insights into our post-satirical world. At the end of the show Pippa Evans sang a song with the strap-line “I have got an opinion”, a song that deals with echo-chamber communication. Listen to it here (26.50 minutes in)! Pippa sang her song at the very end of the show, that is, just before the ‘real’ one-o’clock news, and just after the Now Show had discussed the rise of false or fake news).
As highlighted during a previous episode of the Now Show (and elsewhere), we now live in a hyper-real, even surreal, world, where satire seems to be no longer possible, as reality has itself become satire. However, the Now Show still manages to do its stuff: Inform, entertain and satirise. So, I thought, if satire is still possible and even funny in a post-satirical world, science communication should still be possible in an arguably post-science, post-expert, post-fact, post-truth, post-real, hyper-real world. But is it? What are the obstacles to real science communication in a hyper-real world?
Frames and mirrors
When thinking about all this I found a post by Aaron Huertas on Science Communication Media which, like Pippa Evans in her song, reflects on the issue of echo-chambers and says: “We live in increasingly cloistered information bubbles thanks to the algorithmic mirror of social media and demographic sorting. That makes it easier for conspiracy theories to spread and for serial fabricators like president-elect Trump to lie without political consequence. Social scientists, science communicators, social media companies, and mainstream media fact checkers must dedicate themselves to figuring out how they can debunk and prevent the spread of conspiracy theories in the future, lest they take permanent hold as a basis for governance.”
This is difficult. As George Lakoff pointed out in 2004 in Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: “we know from cognitive science that people…think in frames. … To be accepted, the truth must fit people’s frames. If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off. …”.
Advances in science and technology (interestingly those used and appreciated by billions of people every day) have turned communication, especially on social media, into a dance inside closed cabinets of algorithmic mirrors. Once trapped inside, it is very difficult to escape. It is also very difficult to get into them if your are not invited, if you are not the in-group.
How can ‘science communication’, as a communal and democratic project, work in these circumstances? Do facts and reality still stand a chance? This is now, we have to remember, a world where NPR’s senior VP of news, Michael Oreskes, had to remind listeners that: “Our first principle is that facts exist and that they matter.”
Facts bounce off frames. Facts are shaped by algorithmic mirrors. Facts are almost indistinguishable from fakes. Facts are under threat.
Facts, yes facts
We live in a world of echo-chambers, fake news, algorithmic mirrors and ‘frames’, where we are all entitled ‘to have an opinion’ but where it becomes increasingly difficult to share and discuss ‘facts’ together and to find common ground. The situation is not entirely new. We once lived in a world of ‘spin’. At that time experts in science communication recommended that ‘factual reporting‘ was one way of empowering people to see through the spin. There was hope that this would enable people to engage in healthy dialogue and informed decision making.
Is that still possible, is that still something to aspire to in a hyper-real world? It might be much more difficult but I think there is nothing else for it: We have to stand up for reality, for hard-earned facts, for evidence, for science, for hard-working experts and scientists, even for truth. But above all we have to be clear why we care about these things, why they matter and why they are not only a matter for the few but for the many.
As Alice Bell once said (quoted here): “We pool our resources to allow a few people to cut themselves off and become experts in particular subjects. We do this so that they might feed back their knowledge and we can, collectively, try to make a better world.”
We should not apologise for science, culture, philosophy and education, but continue to promote and share them as widely as possible. We should not be afraid of using words like ‘fact’. Facts matter, now more than ever. Some will bounce off frames; some will get distorted by algorithmic mirrors; but some may stick and be shared.
Image: Wikimedia Commons, author: ŠJů (cs:ŠJů)
I came across George Lakoff’s ideas of frames from this article:
I was looking for explanations as to why we do not act on the finding from climate science.
I am not sure there is a general difficulty with science communication and I think that scientists in general are highly respected by the general public but there are some specific subjects which raise problems.
What could be done is much more on scientific methodology and how it tries to determine what are the ‘facts’ and how it differs from political and legal arguments. Crucially, the emphasis should be on how scientists are required to search and understand all the scientific publications on their research area and not select those that just agree with their findings.
How to deal with the press is another topic!
Thanks for the Lakoff reference. I hadn’t come across this! Really interesting.
Of course you are right. We should emphasise process over process and, in a sense, fact finding over fact. And we should acknowledge that scientists also use frames and select accordingly. I think I wrote this blog post because I felt that while all this is true and sensible (and I have sometimes said it myself), we have now reached a point in time where somehow we also have to stand up for things that science HAS found out, whether you call that ‘fact’ or not. It’s not easy…… And, of course science doesn’t have all the answers. It mostly has all the questions (and ever more)…
Thank for the reference. The media, particularly the press, do present some tricky issues, I agree.
I also think that science teaching in schools doesn’t really cover the scientific process as too much of science is presented as cast in tablets of stone. I prefer to think in terms of explanation. By that, I mean that such and such an explanation is the best we have to explain various phenomena and the longer we have had an explanation, the more likely it will represent a truth.
Science is a messy process.
Yes again. I remember when my son got interested in ‘science’ at school and all the ‘facts’ he had to learn because he wanted to pass the exams ‘well’. The only good thing was that he had a really inspiring science teacher, and, now, almost a decade on, they are still in touch. If only one could convey the messiness and the process of science without distracting from the fact (argh) that despite this or actually because of this, some always unstable, but nevertheless agree-upon ‘facts’ do emerge…. They don’t have to be swallowed and/or regurgitated but they can be built upon for a while at least and be used to think with…
Very important topic. Thank you for writing about it. I wonder whether debunking sites (snopes etc) have a role to play here.
Yes, these are important. However, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hold back the growing tide of not quite falsehood I think but absurdity, or rather not to drown in it…. Yesterday, I heard that the German word of the year is ‘post-faktisch’ and my poor old parents were quite appalled when they read about that in their newspaper. Returnng to science, there is some work which looks at facts, truth, perceptions, identity etc. from a cultural cognition perspective, which is quite interesting. Here is something dealing with Zika, an interesting topic: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2811294
Came across this via the Huffington Post:
Reason’s enemy is not emotion: Engagement of Cognitive Control Networks Explains Biases in Gain/Loss Framing
This is really interesting and actually makes quite a bit of sense.
Yes, it brings up a question I have had for some time. Coming from a background in the physical sciences, we are expected to write in a passive tense and the subject matter lends itself into using a more value neutral language. I am not sure it is possible to write in a wholly value neutral way. So my question is this, is it possible to write in a value neutral way in any science?
Ha, that’s a good question. I’d say know. All words have denotations but also connotations and it’s almost impossible to write without evoking connotations. In 1910 Erdmann talked about ‘Nebensinns und Gefühlswerte’ of words – the sort of side-meanings and emotional value of words. Of course some words have more of those then others. Even, to choose a word at random, polyphenol, say, has emotional values in some nutritional discourses perhaps. But of course scientific language tries to stay as (value)’neutral’ as possible (read the early Royal Society people about that, such as Locke and Sprat – but even while talking about that they used value-laden language). I am prattling on…..the last resort is mathematics…. but even pi has emotional value – see pi day!
Thank you for addressing my question. I’m inclined to agree with your assessment. This now leads on to further questions as to the various extents in the sciences, the degree to which it matters and whether it corrects itself over time. Perhaps it should be emphasised that all sciences should strive to minimise value laden language so as to inform rather than convince.
Ahhhhhh….. THAT reminds me of John Law Austin‘s attempt to divide ‘speech acts’ into ‘constatives’ and ‘performatives’, as in ‘the cat is on the mat'(you state something about the world) and ‘I hereby pronounce you man and wife’ (you change the world), a division that later, to his chagrin I suppose, unravelled. So that makes me wonder whether one can inform without convincing. It depends probably of what type of ‘convincing’ you try to do. I suppose when writing an article about the latest experiment in quantum physics you want to convince readers that this is a great article and a wonderful new contribution to knowledge. If you write an article on the latest global warming data you want to do the same. However, readers might think that over and above that type of convincing you want to convince them that global warming is true, not a hoax, not a conspiracy and so on. And in a way you indirectly do, just because you publish something that supports, probably, the general consensus. If you are publishing something that doesn’t, you need to do a bit more convincing. Beyond that there lies yet another sort of convincing and that is trying to find effective ways of changing people’s minds, behaviour etc. towards a certain problem. That is, I suppose, the type of convincing that you want to separate from ‘informing’. And I myself try to do that as well. I may want to communicate about climate change but I don’t see it as my task to ‘persuade’ people of something. I think we want to stay with what Karl Bühler called the expressive and representation functions of language but not venture into the appeal function. Which brings us back to Austin… and the question as to whether that’s entirely possible.
Again, you have expanded my education. I had never heard of Austin or Bühler and had to look them up.
My background is that at one time I did a lot of experimental science and the write up was descriptive and any conclusions would have to follow from the experimental evidence. So, for me, in your example of global warming, I would see the evidence for or against that as entirely separate from any implications of the need for action or not.
As an example of what I am not comfortable with, your post on AMR where you referenced Helen Lambert on the Rhetoric of Resistance, http://amrchamp.blogs.ilrt.org
In short, I thought there was too much rhetoric complaining of rhetoric and a lack of objectivity.
But lets not forget that the language we speak creates the world we live in. So reflecting on rhetoric is sometimes needed.
I think my previous comment was open to misinterpretation. I meant to say it was Helen Lambert’s piece that I was criticising but my text did not make that clear. Nevertheless, I can agree with you that reflecting on rhetoric is sometimes needed.