The Science of Communication and the Communication of Science

There are very few Christmas traditions in what I would loosely term “my family”, but one of them is that at some point I sit down with my other half and we watch the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures together and regress to being excitable ten year olds. The very first RI lectures I can remember watching on TV were to do with the progression of climate change, ice core samples, and separating out data sets. The lectures are aimed at children, much like the one – one – my school consented to take us to regarding Faraday somewhere in Bristol in the late 90s, but I have a great love of well-constructed children’s education tools and enjoy amassing Usborne language books, Horrible Histories books (and songs and clips from the  TV show, which is award-winning for a reason), and really patronising and condescending books about science written in the 1930s-50s and aimed at Curious Schoolboys. While I enjoyed children’s literature as a child I had the greatest pleasure from the books which were quite self-consciously trying to teach me things about the world more concrete than “don’t be an ass” and “learn to share, you selfish little prick”.

The rise of popular science writing and popular history writing has been an absolute boon for me: I opted out of history as soon as I could at secondary school because both of the teachers we had for it were unbearable (usually referred to in conversation as “the paedophile, and then the useless one”), and our Science teacher (we had one covering all all three of Physics, Chemistry, and Biology, and took a combined exam) had given up on us as pupils before we even sat down. Consequently, and with a deeply anti-science hippy New Age parent at home during the holidays, I wasn’t given the grounding in the sciences that other students might have been, and while I’ve learnt a lot of practical skills from my mother she was never very interested in the academic pursuit of anything. No help there.

I was eventually drawn back to the sciences by a fleeting mention of quantum physics in a dreadful piece of erotic horror about serial killers when I was 17, and promptly overreached myself in trying to read people’s dissertations on the internet. I ended up falling sideways into a well-known and not exactly well-regarded book, The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra.

This post comes off the back of a couple of recent brouhahas, carefully chronicled and dissected by a friend of mine in two posts with which I agree wholeheartedly. There is a bad smell about the idea that one must come at knowledge from a specific direction and that it must be communicated in a specific way: granted, when acquiring data it is important to design one’s data collection methods (be they physics experiments, medical trials, or sociological surveys) in such a way that they will be easy for someone else to repeat as identically as possible, in such a way that contamination of the results with the trial-maker’s personal biases is as limited as possible, and in such a way to make it easy to isolate where you fucked up if you fuck up or the thing you are trying to find out turns into a shit tornado and blind-sides you with Knowledge Which Was Not Really Expected. This does not mean that the same set of rules designed to communicate information between people well-versed in a discipline’s encoded language (usually encoded that way for ease of transmission of accurate information between people who are already very well-versed in the basics, not-so-basics, and very-not-basics) should be applied when trying to impart a general understanding of the subject.

When getting ideas across to people (we were taught in my “Feature Writing” class, which I think I got my worst mark in) it’s important to consider your audience and the access that they do and do not have to specific information, language codes, and social touchstones. For example, if you are writing about something which has taken place in a culture foreign to the readers, you need to take a moment to explain the significance of culture-specific events or tragedies. Often when this happens, we draw on analogies. We say “Diwali, which is like Christmas to Hindu people”. Now you can immediately argue that it is fuck all like Christmas, but the analogy conveys in a limited number of non-sidetracking words the cultural weight of Diwali to people who have a culturally Christian background and no exposure to Diwali, and allows them to weigh up how they would feel if a terrible terrorist attack took place during Christmas, and apply it.

Analogies are very useful tools for introducing new information to people. They provide a frame of reference, and the frame of reference can be defined too: “like Christmas in that it is a major festival of cultural as well as religious importance and basically everyone celebrates it in this country or is aware of it happening around them even if they don’t”. Analogies can be used as stepping stones, or stepladders, to keep raising the audience’s understanding of what they are being told, until they have an adequate grasp on the situation. At each step, once understanding is established, more information can be brought in.

This is of course a lot easier in a conversation than in an article, as you can gauge the knowledge levels of your audience, solicit feedback to determine their understanding of what you have told them, and correct assumptions which have fallen short of the mark.

Analogies are priceless in helping people get to grips with new perspectives, by linking back an emotional truth to their own experiences. What they are not, cannot ever hope to be, and should not be, is wholly accurate. Apart from anything else, the only perfectly accurate map of the territory is the territory itself … which is, itself, an analogy, wherein “the territory” stands in for the expert-level information you wish to impart, and “perfectly accurate map” stands in for the analogy. Analogies are similes by nature. They state “it’s like when someone makes fun of you for your looks” or “it’s as if you walked up to someone and said HA HA I CAN HIT YOU AND NO ONE WILL STOP ME.”; an analogy is not a perfect representation of the facts, it is good enough to get someone onto the next stage of understanding.

I find that the trouble presented both by people who dislike popular science writing and the people who behave as if all writing about feminism must never contain humour is that they fail to understand fundamental tenets of human communication outside of academia. Within academia perfection or as near to perfection as we can come is vitally important. One must be able to defend one’s ideas, especially about feminism, with as much force and rhetorical and moral energy as possible. Academia is designed for competition, and breeds competitive writers.

This doesn’t work very well for communicating to the wider world the importance of the work being done both by scientists and by academic feminists. Not everyone speaks the same language code, even when we’re speaking the same language. Imperfect analogies, jokes, and relating the importance of ideas to practical applications help to break the ice and diminish the intimidating gibberish of an unknown code linked to a background that isn’t shared with the reader: the ability to treat someone as a friend and confidant who is coming with you through the confusing waters of a new but exciting idea rather than a rival to be fenced with is important.

I have seen it argued that the idea that “academic language excludes working class women from feminism” is condescending to working class women, and the argument was made by a working-class woman. Who was an academic. So perhaps the language of exclusion needs to be changed: academic code excludes women who do not have and may not want to have an academic background. Practical feminism would include people whose lives do not allow them to spend their lives writing essays and reading articles and familiarising themselves with the history and theory of a subject; practical feminism requires that analogies and commonalities are used. Practical feminism does not equate “lack of education” with stupidity and it does not value a prestige dialect over a transferable vernacular.

The same can be said of various sciences. The vast majority of people do not have the time or the inclination to dedicate on becoming scientists in the professional and academic sense. The streets still have to be swept; the tables still have to be laid; the traffic still needs to be directed. The inability or disinclination to inhale entire forests of articles should not be a barrier for a person to a) the enjoyment of learning, and b) using the principles of scientific enquiry to protect themselves from shysters and frauds. Providing the average human being with an easy-to-use shield against pseudoscience or an explanation for why thing X does not occur when thing Y is invoked is a public duty, and kindling an interest in one’s field ought to be the entire purpose of communicating about it at all.

I have an amateur’s mind when it comes to both feminism and the sciences. I came to feminism as a child, raised by a second-waver, and missed a lot of the indoctrination which has to be reversed at a later age; I came to science late, after my (arts) degree, and had a lot of anti-science indoctrination to be chipped away at. I have never made my living writing about feminism and nor, if I can help it, will I ever be required to. From the position of an invested amateur, it strikes me that true love of the sciences and a lifetime of dedication to them should go hand-in-hand, and in that love should be the joy of being able to pass on the benefits of a specific discipline or the scientific process itself onto others who have not had the chance to love it as you do. Jealously hoarding interaction with the sciences like a cantankerous, lab-coated dragon behind an impenetrable wall of “imperative” jargon is not the act of someone in love with their field, it is the act of someone in love with the prestige conveyed by enigma.

Similarly, to care about feminism as a movement is to care about accessibility and flexibility of ideas and to be able to apply both “good enough for now” and “we can still do better” to every battle and communication. Turning every attempt to communicate feminist ideas to a wider audience into an opportunity for struggles for moral or theoretical dominance only turns away people who have contributions to make, as does walling up “real understanding” behind academic concepts. A woman should not have to attain a degree in higher education in order to be able to assert her right to self-determination or for her peers to listen to her, and the people who have climbed that particular giddy mountain may well feel that an equality of attention paid to unaccredited feminists removes the prestige of their achievements or in some way belittles the effort involved in fighting the academic battles.

Rather, in feminism and in science, the point of climbing the mountain is to make it easier for others to follow behind you. This, too, is an analogy. It is imperfect, much like the essay; I am the very spit and image of a nobody and a nothing person, hectoring the intelligent and great and good from the bottom of the damn mountain. But I would really, really appreciate it if you would continue to throw the rest of us a rope, and let the populists keep talking.


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