The Problem with Boring Science

Here's a newspaper article that reminds me of what I've been saying about why the Bible should be - probably is - IS - entertaining, funny and fun.  I found it in the December 21, 2013 edition of The Des Moines' Register.

ANOTHER VIEW

THE PROBLEM WITH BORING SCIENCE

Troy Campbell

TROY CAMPBELL is a doctoral student in marketing at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Contact: troy.campbell@duke.edu.

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On this season of “Parks &Recreation,” City Councilwoman character Leslie Knope lamented that, “All I have on my side is science and facts ... and people hate science and facts.”

Knope could not convince the public to adopt a scientifically sound water bill because her scientific facts were “too boring.” In the end, in order to the win the vote, Knope, with the help of hype man Tom Haverford, had to play hip-hop music and spin a story that made her idea more fun.

This fictional example reveals a real but unfortunate truth: data does not drive people —fun, emotional and persuasive narratives do. In an ideal world, we would not need people like “Parks &Recreation’s” Haverford to play hip-hop music and flash lasers to accompany scientific charts. But we don’t live in an ideal world.

We live in a world where we need people like Bill Nye to get up and be scientific, but also silly and fun. As a scientific community, we must understand that science needs to be fun and emotional to move non-scientists and influence policy and, on occasion, to get needed funding for research.

To illustrate this point, ask yourself: Are there any successful aquariums without gimmicks like a shark tunnel or Air &Space museums without IMAXs? No, because in reality these places would go out of business immediately —most people would not voluntarily pay to visit places that only educated them.

In working with science museums, I’ve discovered museum staff are smart and, most importantly, practical. They know their two main goals are to educate and encourage guests to be good stewards of the planet. But to reach these noble goals, they realize they must put the goal of “fun” first.

Who's going to forget what Bill Nye just taught them??  

Who's going to forget what Bill Nye just taught them??
 

It may be unsavory, but it’s necessary, and not only with school kids, but with adults, businesses and policy makers. Famed author Malcolm Gladwell has made a career out of making scientifically-inspired ideas fun and emotional, and, in doing so, been able to influence many.

Recently, my fellow scientists at Indecision blog and I asked Gladwell, “Based on your success with influencing policy makers and business leaders, what advice do you have for scientists like us trying to influence those same people?”

His answer boiled down to just two words: “Tell stories.” He said it was “an obvious answer,” but a fundamental strategy to having influence.

Now all this does not mean that every scientist should try to be like Gladwell, start blogging, exclusively aim to be a TED speaker or cut their hair to look like celebrity scientist Brian Cox. It also does not mean scientists should stop conducting research just because it seems publicly boring. Basic and, let’s be honest, boring research is our bedrock and it must remain.

It all just means that when good science is produced, that science needs to be better communicated to non-scientists. That is all.

Today, many scientists fear “headline science.” In almost all fields of science, some journals and scientists have published sketchy results because the results have had good news headlines. On top of this, many “pop science” books have flaws or gross simplifications. Accordingly, many scientists cringe at the idea of communicating in a “fun” and “popular” way. As a result, they reject the whole enterprise of popular scientific communication.

However, there’s a difference between producing bad science for the sake of a good story and producing good science but never communicating it with a good story. The first is a sin of commission (doing something wrong) and the second is a sin of omission (failing to do what’s right and necessary).

Unless good science is communicated with good stories and fun, then the public will only pay attention to bad “science” (like the TV show “Ghost Hunters”) and politicians will only listen to ideological arguments free of data.

Science is a service. It is done for the benefit of humankind. If the ideas of science never influence the public and public policy makers, then science has not succeeded.

And if “mattering” means we need a few more Tom Haverfords dancing around scientific charts or a few more Bill Nyes sporting bow ties, then so be it. Science is meant to change the world, not just entertain and please the minds of a few intellectuals.

The Bible Cabaret's Joy Fuller tells the story of Easter with "Jesus in the Box".... Photo by Louise Spear  

The Bible Cabaret's Joy Fuller tells the story of Easter with "Jesus in the Box"....

Photo by Louise Spear