Why doubt leads to discovery…

Science has invaded the contemporary public consciousness like no other time in history. But in the media, a little science knowledge can be stretched an awfully long way.

It’s always great to see research in the news, but communicators on science and technology run a fine line between explanation and simplification. Just how simple is too simple?

The aphorism that: “Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler”, is commonly attributed to Einstein, but nobody really knows.

It’s a popular quote that often finds itself pasted in a contemporary font over a superficially deep image. But like many of these trite memes, there’s a genuine question that we battle with every day: How simple do you make science communication before it loses its integrity and value?

Seemingly every year a new fad diet, health craze (Wellness anybody?) appears, or new superfood is discovered. All appear to be supported by a wealth of scientific evidence and generate acres of press coverage. The problem is, the research is almost always much less conclusive than the headlines it generates.

As a case in point, see how the Daily Mail treated some research about blueberries (the true superfood, apparently), and an article our MD Lawrie Jones wrote for the Spectator. Same hypothesis very different conclusions.

As a society we may have assumed this sort of pseudo-science reached its nadir with quacks like ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith, but over the past years we’ve seen many more health, fitness and food fads that have defied both logic and science.

The fallacious claims of these charlatans are rightly eviscerated by popular scientists like Ben Goldacre in his wonderful ‘Bad Science’ column. Logic doesn’t always sell, so as soon as they’re knocked down, more seem to take their place.

As we approach Christmas, it’s about to start heating up again.

If you need an example, take a look at any self-help shelf in Waterstones (or other independent bookstore) and it will be bursting under the weight of book extolling the virtues of ‘Hygge’. This intangible and seemingly indefinable term loosely refers to the way ‘people do things in Denmark’. It’s more than Danish culture though, apparently it’s a philosophy of life.

While previously Denmark’s biggest exports have been Lego (which is unquestionably amazing), bacon, depressing TV series and (for the 80s and 90s football fan) Jan Molby we’re now supposed to hold this small Nordic country up as an example for how we can all live a better and more meaningful life.

Are they happier in Denmark? Perhaps. Scratch the surface though, and the suicide rate, alcoholism and an appallingly large ecological footprint point to a society that may not be as rosy as some portray. It won’t stop a raft of self-help books, lifestyle columns, recipe guides and adult colouring books being published about a fad that essentially involves being friendly and sitting next to a fire.

How many of us even bother to scratch the surface? The answer is, not many.

Gladwell

Perhaps nobody has had more of an impact on the popularization of science than New York Times bestseller Malcolm Gladwell. Some of his claims (the 10,000 hour practice rule in Outliers is perhaps the most famous) have been proved to be demonstrably false, but the damage has already been done. They’ve entered the collective conscious and are now treated as immutable facts. It was even quoted on Loose Women (which probably made Gladwell’s week).

The fact that Gladwell cherry picks his studies to support his conclusions isn’t new. In fact it’s as old as journalism itself. What he doesn’t ever seem to do (in his newspaper column at least, his books are slightly more analytical and questioning) is to investigate the veracity of the claims he makes.

A wonderful writer and storyteller, Gladwell uses intellectual sophistry to trick the reader into believing his claims – and he’s good at it. Reading books like Blink and Outliers, it’s difficult not to be carried away with his arguments, but scratch the surface again, and you’re clearly left with very little else.

When challenged about the simplicity of his work, Gladwell uses a sophisticated argument that’s hard to refute. If we find his books too simple, then we’re not the target audience.

It’s a beautiful way of making us feel superior and moving on, but we shouldn’t. Gladwell, and many others, are reducing complex, difficult and nuanced science into pithy, Twitter-worthy soundbites.

By doing so they removing the element of doubt and investigation that characterizes science, they’re reducing its beauty too.

How simple is too simple?

There should be no absolutes in science, everything should be open to question. The same is true of science writing.

Science needs iconoclasts and those with a critical eye. It also needs to embrace the uncertainty that comes with scientific endeavour. The media in general – find subtlety and nuance difficult to deal with, but readers don’t.

As writers and communicators we should challenge readers and embrace those gaps where we can find doubt.

Because doubt leads to discovery.

And that’s science.

42group is a leading agency that works to communicate science positively and appropriately. We don’t dumb down, we skill up. We have a long and impressive history in knowledge transfer, helping researchers to tell their stories.

We work with science, technology and healthcare clients to help them develop, design and deliver marketing campaigns that make a difference. If you’d like to chat about how we can help you tell your story, contact us today.