Science, Emotion, Communication!

To communicate science effectively beyond merely presenting data, it is necessary to connect it with emotion and narrative.

Professor Richard Feynman colloquium at the CERN. Geneva, 1965 | © 2014-2016 CERN

Professor Richard Feynman colloquium at the CERN. Geneva, 1965 | © 2014-2016 CERN

Science communication, in many cases, is limited to the mere presentation of data and evidence to raise awareness on issues such as vaccines, climate change and pseudo-therapies. However, neuroscience and experts in communication are reminding us of something that figures such as Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman already intuited: science must not dismiss emotions, nor story-telling, in order to connect with society and communicate more effectively.

According to TIME magazine, the most influential person in the 20th century was Albert Einstein. A question for readers: do you think he achieved this thanks only to physics?

To attempt to find an answer, try this experiment: ask a little boy which superhero he would like to be. It is possible he may answer: that one that has all the superpowers! A smart answer to a badly-posed question, because in general: why do we see incompatibilities where there may be hidden opportunities? And more specifically: why should science and emotions not be compatible?

According to Ignacio Morgado Bernal, Director of the Institute of Neurosciences at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, reason and emotion are not only not incompatible, but they go hand in hand, they need each other. What’s more, as described by Ana Rosa Pérez Ransanz, feelings such as amazement, doubt, curiosity or passion work as powerful driving forces, in science too. In other words science, as the human activity that it is, needs emotions as fuel. However, and no less importantly, science also needs emotions as a mouthpiece, to make its message known.

Perhaps for that very reason, Einstein tried to humanise the figure of the scientist, by riding his bicycle, sticking out his tongue, and striking amusing poses. Because Einstein, like many children, was not going to pass up on any superpower.

Bearing this in mind this could be of vital importance, given that science communication in all of its facets (popular science, institutional communication, scientific journalism) and through all of its actors (researchers, journalists and communicators in general), is probably as important as science itself. An example: what would be the point of understanding the origin of a disease and subsequently developing effective and safe vaccines against it if nobody new that the vaccines existed? And what’s more, what purpose would these vaccines serve if, even with access to all the information, there were parents who refused to have their children vaccinated with it? Well, this is a situation that is occurring, every day somewhere in the world, right here in the 21st century. So it is not so far-fetched to think that science communication is probably not such an easy undertaking as one might imagine.

Penn and Teller on Vaccinations
Penn and Teller on Vaccinations

According to experts such as Tim Requarth, we could improve science communication if we did not overlook, precisely, what was explained at the start of this article: the reason-emotion connection. And the fact is that, as Requarth points out, many communicators limit themselves to merely presenting data, evidence, in order to raise awareness on such diverse subjects as the aforementioned vaccines, climate change or pseudo-therapies. However the “improving science literacy” strategy, according to some studies, could have a limited and in some cases even counter-productive effect. As an example: although the climate change represented a milestone in the history of international relations, on occasions an inverse relationship is detected between scientific information and concern about climate change, which is known as the “climate paradox”.

Within this context, experts such as Jim Hoggan seem to be in agreement with Requarth: it is probably necessary to connect data with emotions, and with personal values, to communicate science effectively. And Hoggan points to the subject that we noted previously: the problem is that “we don’t know as much about the science of science communication as we know about global warming.”

Fortunately, there are people who are seeking out new ways, unearthing others and trying to better understand science communication. So we are seeing innovative initiatives in the form of theatre plays, television shows or science and music festivals that may be as or more effective, when creating awareness and a positive attitude towards scientific knowledge, than the mere presentation of data. And this is not a matter of chance: as scientists discovered some time ago, human decisions, prejudices and actions are intimately affected by a non-rational component, which researchers call the “framing effect”. It is precisely this framing effect that is related with the activity of our amygdala and our emotions.

But the fact is, also, that many of the communication initiatives mentioned previously share an agglutinating element of reason, science and emotion: they are based on stories. This has nothing to do with chance either. As shown in studies by scientists in the USA in recent years, immersion within a narrative context means that different areas of the brain are activated to those that are stimulated simply by receiving information. In addition, when listening to stories the brain receives the stimulus of oxytocin, a molecule capable of influencing our attitudes and beliefs. In short: science communication is more effective when it is also affective.

Alan Alda's adventures in the art of communication | Scientific American Frontiers
Alan Alda's adventures in the art of communication | Scientific American Frontiers

Film and television actor Alan Alda is well aware of this. And the fact is that one day Alda received a letter at his home. It contained an offer to work on the popular science television series Scientific American Frontiers. Alda was delighted to get the offer, because he had been a reader of the magazine of the same name for many years. However, the experience did not turn out as expected, at least at the start. So Alda invested several years in seeking answers and, recently, published his book “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating”, featuring some of the ingredients that may help create the necessary connection for communicating science. According to Alda, empathy, listening and observing the interlocutor, putting oneself in someone else’s place and story-telling, are essential tools for science communication. All with the objective of avoiding what Alda points out in his book: “the biggest mistake with communication is to think that it has taken place.”

The paradigm of a science communicator who appreciated and knew how to successfully implement many of these communication tools and subtleties was Carl Sagan. In his work, Sagan tries to put us all in the same boat, our planet, our universe. And we are all made of the same thing: star stuff (a phrase that, by the way, was probably pronounced by Albert Durrant Watson before Sagan). This, automatically allowed Sagan what we have been commenting on since the start of this article: to create an emotional connection with the spectator. Another character who knew how to connect with his audience was Nobel Prize for Physics laureate Richard Feynman. Besides being a creative and rebel scientist, also a great fan of playing and being photographed with his bongos, Feynman was, according to many of his contemporaries, a great teacher and communicator, perhaps one of the best that ever existed. But the truth is that, when Feynman was informed that he had to teach classes, he did not show much enthusiasm. Until something changed. So much so that, in the words of David Goodstein and Gerry Neugebauer, of the California Institute of Technology: “when Feynman taught a class, the classroom was a theatre, the speaker an actor and the event an especially captivating show”: According to The New York Times, “Feynman behaved as an impossible combination of theoretical physicist and circus artist; all corporal movement and sound effects.” What caused that change in Feynman? It is not so outrageous to think that Feynman realised the power that was conferred upon him before his audience, i.e. his students, by what we have been talking about: being able to tell stories. In this way, Feynman delighted several generations with his stories about physics, the beauty of a flower or the name of things.

In short, telling stories and using emotions in communication is probably something as old as humanity itself but, fortunately, there are figures such as Einstein, Requarth, Alda and Feynman, and disciplines such as neuroscience, that remind us of their value for connecting with society. Because, where we sometimes see incompatibilities, in reality opportunities are hiding. Why pass up on them? Science, emotion… communication!

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Science, Emotion, Communication!