Jokes in Journals: Humour and Engagement in SciComm
Science communication in a post-truth world: promises and pitfalls (2019) Kopf et al., Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2072
Communication in a Post-Truth World
Communicating the importance of restoring biodiversity and fighting against climate change is particularly crucial in a world where facts can be so easily distorted. Misinformation and fake news can be easily spread through social media and other online outlets, but the same outlets could also provide effective means of communication for scientific research. However there’s still a lot of work to be done figuring out how to use these new tools, and today’s paper looks at some of the pitfalls involved.
NB: This paper is very well-written, and it’s definitely worth your time to read the whole thing. It’s not open access, but if you get in touch with the authors I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to send out a copy.
The Fine Line of SciComm
We have a pretty solid idea now of the fact that scientific communication needs to be both engaging and factual, yet scientists often forget one of the two. The authors bring up the recent ‘insectageddon‘ paper, a piece of scientific literature which was widely circulated in the media but made claims on a global scale which the data didn’t really support. While it undoubtedly alerted many people worldwide to a serious problem, the dishonest communication employed could potentially damage people’s trust in science.
Humour is a fantastic form of engaging scientific communication, which can (albeit rarely) be used in scientific literature. For a great example, check out the two papers below.
A Final Warning to Planet Earth features the fantastic line “[w]e therefore strongly oppose the agenda accompanying the warning to humanity and will not tolerate any obstacle to our way of life – be it tree-huggers or the trees themselves.”
The effects of climate change on Australia’s only endemic Pokémon – I wrote about my experience reviewing this paper last week, so go ahead and check it out.
However these carry with them dangers. We don’t expect scientific papers to be sarcastic, so it’s not a huge surprise when the authors point out that the first of these papers has already been cited as if it is a serious publication.
More worrying is the second example today’s authors present. A satirical paper by Leonard Leibovici made the claim that praying for someone’s recovery 4-10 years AFTER their hospitalisation was effective. The paper is obviously a joke, but it has been cited often by religious groups as proof of the power of prayer.
I chose to review this article because it encapsulates some of the frustrations I wrote about last week. Funny and engaging scientific communication should not be shied away from. Using humour and other more personal forms of communication humanises scientists and can engender more trust in us. It’s why I started a podcast looking at the biology of movie monsters. And there are plenty of scientists out there using humour to great effect.
Yet there are certain aspects of the way scientists communicate information – chief among them scientific articles – that are so rigid and inflexible that any novel approaches to them come with pitfalls attached. I reiterate my hope from last week that we’ll be able to change this going forward.
Dr. Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist and climate data analyst who completed his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.
Title Image Credit: Bernard Spragg