Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Opinion

Column: The importance of making science fun

On this season of Parks and Recreation, city councilwoman character Leslie Knope lamented, "All I have on my side is science and facts … and people hate science and facts."

Knope could not persuade 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 and 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 be silly and fun. As a scientific community we must understand that science needs to be fun and emotional to move nonscientists 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 and space museums without IMAXs? No, because in reality these place would go out of business immediately — most people would not voluntarily pay to visits 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 to 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.

It may be unsavory, but it's necessary, and not only with schoolkids but with adults, businesses and policymakers. 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 policymakers and businesses 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.

This does not mean that all scientists 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 boring to the public. 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 nonscientists. 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 policymakers, 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.

Troy Campbell is a doctoral student in marketing at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

Comments
Editorial: Candor key step to restoring trust at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Heart Institute

Editorial: Candor key step to restoring trust at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Heart Institute

Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital has begun the important work of rebuilding trust with its patients and the community following revelations of medical errors and other problems at its Heart Institute. CEO Dr. Jonathan Ellen candidly acknowledges...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Editorial: Tampa Bay House members fail to stand up to Big Sugar

Editorial: Tampa Bay House members fail to stand up to Big Sugar

Big Sugar remains king in Florida. Just three of the state’s 27 House members voted for an amendment to the farm bill late Thursday that would have started unwinding the needless government supports for sugar that gouge taxpayers. Predictably, the am...
Published: 05/18/18
Editorial: Bondi holds drug industry accountable for Florida opioid crisis

Editorial: Bondi holds drug industry accountable for Florida opioid crisis

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s lawsuit against the nation’s largest drug makers and distributors marks a moment of awakening in the state’s battle to recover from the opioid crisis. In blunt, forceful language, Bondi accuses these companies of ...
Published: 05/18/18
Editorial: A sweet note for the Florida Orchestra’s violin program for at-risk kids

Editorial: A sweet note for the Florida Orchestra’s violin program for at-risk kids

This is music to the ears. Members of the Florida Orchestra will introduce at-risk students to the violin this summer at some Hillsborough recreation centers. For free.An $80,000 grant to the University Area Community Development Corp. will pay for s...
Published: 05/17/18
Updated: 05/18/18
Trump backs off China tariff threat as China pumps money into a Trump family project

Trump backs off China tariff threat as China pumps money into a Trump family project

In barely six weeks, President Donald Trump has gone from threatening to impose $150 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods to extending a lifeline to ZTE, a Chinese cell phone company that violated U.S. sanctions by doing business with Iran and North K...
Published: 05/17/18
Editorial: Activism as seniors helps put Hillsborough graduates on the right path

Editorial: Activism as seniors helps put Hillsborough graduates on the right path

Lots of teenagers are walking together this week in Hillsborough County, a practice they’ve grown accustomed to during this remarkable school year.We can only hope they keep walking for the rest of their lives.Tens of thousands of them this week are ...
Published: 05/17/18
Editorial: Bondi holds drug industry accountable for Florida opioid crisis

Editorial: Bondi holds drug industry accountable for Florida opioid crisis

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s lawsuit against the nation’s largest drug makers and distributors marks a moment of awakening in the state’s battle to recover from the opioid crisis. In blunt, forceful language, Bondi accuses these companies of ...
Published: 05/16/18
Updated: 05/18/18
Editorial: Johns Hopkins All Children’s should be more open about mistakes

Editorial: Johns Hopkins All Children’s should be more open about mistakes

A state investigation raises even more concern about medical errors at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and the venerable St. Petersburg institution’s lack of candor to the community. Regulators have determined the hospital broke Florida law by ...
Published: 05/16/18
Updated: 05/17/18
Editorial: St. Petersburg recycling worth the effort despite cost issues

Editorial: St. Petersburg recycling worth the effort despite cost issues

St. Petersburg’s 3-year-old recycling program has reached an undesirable tipping point, with operating costs exceeding the income from selling the recyclable materials. The shift is driven by falling commodity prices and new policies in China that cu...
Published: 05/15/18
Updated: 05/18/18
Editorial: HUD’s flawed plan to raise rents on poor people

Editorial: HUD’s flawed plan to raise rents on poor people

Housing Secretary Ben Carson has a surefire way to reduce the waiting lists for public housing: Charge more to people who already live there. Hitting a family living in poverty with rent increases of $100 or more a month would force more people onto ...
Published: 05/15/18
Updated: 05/18/18