miércoles, 26 de noviembre de 2014

Storytelling and Metaphor in Science Communication

Sabiduría de mi colega Sergio de Sergio de Regules. Enjoy.

Storytelling and Metaphor in Science Communication
Sergio de Régules

I am a science writer working as curator of scientific content for ¿Cómo ves? magazine, a science monthly published by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (www.comoves.unam.mx). Next December, with the publication of our 181st issue, we will celebrate fifteen years on the market.

Our readership is varied. Aimed originally at highschool and college students, the magazine is also read by teachers, scientists, white-collar workers , retirees, and at least one prison inmate (more on that later). Our contributors are science communicators, journalists, researchers, and teachers. A university publication might be tempted to pander to the academic community surrounding it or to university authorities, but ¿Cómo ves? is fully reader-oriented. We want our readers to stay with us and we want them to come back. This means that we will modify originals as necessary in order to make them not only scientifically rigorous, which would suffice to make the end product acceptable to academics, but also clear and pleasant to read. This is more easily said than done: what is a pleasant read?

Storytelling evolves

I am reading a document published by the US Department of Defense. It is titled The Encyclopaedia of Ethical Failures and it aims at providing government employees with guidelines to appropriate conduct. I know, it sounds awful. You might think it is a list of rules and regulations to learn by rote, or a handbook of inappropriate responses in a zillion different circumstances, catalogued by type of violation. But it isn´t that at all. It’s actually fun to read. The Encyclopaedia of Ethical Failures is a collection of stories; real stories about real government employees –the lady who took private business calls through her phone number in the Pentagon, the guy who channeled government contracts to his brother’s company and accepted time with escort girls as a kickback. The EEF is a sampler of human turpitude that would make a novelist looking for ideas drool.

The US Department of Defense is on to something and that something is this: if you want information to really sink home, deliver it in the form of narrative. A narrative is a tale in which people, or characters identifiable as people, vie with each other in order to achieve opposing goals. In the end the goals are achieved, or not, but something or someone is changed in the process. There is something about information delivered as narrative that keeps us reading, holding our breath, and rooting for a particular ending to the story. It’s primal.

Scientists such as Leda Cosmides and John Tooby argue that storytelling evolved in our species as a way of passing on important information about the ways of the world to new generations, or as a way of gleaning from the environment information that is not prewired in the brain. I like to think of stories as a way of downloading apps and updates to the basic programming of the brain, although I know this metaphor will not be palatable to everyone. Nature has provided us with a passion for stories in the same way it has provided us with yearnings, cravings, hunger, and the sex drive –to get us to seek what is useful for our survival. And so the human brain is a sucker for stories generally, whether they contain information that is useful or not.

This is what the Department of Defense is trying to do with the Encyclopaedia of Ethical Failures. The message is too important to entrust to traditional lists and tables and regular encyclopaedia entries. The narrative form is much more potent because it is simply the most natural way for the human mind to absorb information. Lists of facts have to be forced into the brain; stories are sucked in like oxygen into air-starved lungs.

Which is why, when the message has to do with a complex subject such as science, the ideal mode of communication is the narrative form.

Science as a source for the storyteller

The results and formulas we are taught in school are only the end products of a protracted and convoluted process called science. At ¿Cómo ves? we emphasize the process without neglecting the results.

It is approximately true that science is based on observation and experiment, but these have to be planned and performed following strict, formalized, protocols to guarantee objectivity (or as much objectivity as possible), reproducibility, and consistency. Once the data are in, the team of scientists (scientists almost always work in teams) has to interpret them, that is, build a coherent story out of them. Then the research has to be published, or offered for social validation. It behooves the researchers to justify both their methods and their interpretation of the data. Their peers will then try to find fault with the research. If they can’t, then they may start quoting it and using it in their own work –the research has been validated… at least for the moment.

But what happens when experiments fail, or when the only way to interpret them goes against everything we know about the Universe? How are scientific disputes solved? What if they cannot be solved? How does a scientist procure funds for his or her research? This is a simplified version of the process called science, but it may be enough to show that there is plenty of fodder for storytelling beyond simply explaining the results of science. At ¿Cómo ves? we urge our authors to seek every opportunity to tell a good story.

Seven-leagues boots

Many scientists are wary of metaphors. They consider them vague and confusing –even dangerous. For these scientists metaphors are little more than a distraction, a way of speaking indirectly. And scientists hate to speak indirectly.

For poets, writers, linguists, and cognitive scientists, however, metaphors are much more than this. A current trend of thought, perhaps initiated by cognitive linguist George Lakoff and philosohper Mark Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By (1980), views metaphors as handles for the mind. New ideas and concepts are slippery, but if they connect with familiar ideas by way of metaphor, the mind can grasp them. A metaphor is a way of using the structure of a known idea as scaffolding for constructing a novel one. For Lakoff and Johnson, the primary function of metaphor is understanding. And for Laura Otis, author of Literature And Science in the Nineteenth Century, “metaphor plays a key role in original thought.”

More important to science writers, metaphors are a powerful and concise way of conveying very precise ideas, like covering great distances with only a few strides, a sort of cognitive seven-leagues boots.

Recently I showed my highschool students a stroboscope, a contraption they are only familiar with in the context of a party. I took the flashlight-like device out of its box, pulled the curtains, darkened the classroom, and turned on a fan. It started whirring, the blades going at full speed. Then I trained the strobe light on the blades. A stroboscope emits bright flashes of light at a controlled frequency. By carefully tweaking the frequency I made the blades of the fan appear to stand still while the motor went on whirring and the air kept on blowing. I asked what was happening. The kids understood what was going on –at least vaguely—, but they were hard-pressed for eloquent words to describe it. “When you take a long-exposition picture, movements show as continuous blurs or lines”, I said. They knew this, of course. “But if you use a strobe light you can turn these blurs and lines into individual static images of the same object at different points in time. So this contraption is, in essence, a time slicer.”

Although the students had more or less understood the principle of the thing, the sudden appearance of metaphor fired their minds and lit up their faces. The metaphor crystallized the concept. The whole structure of the idea of a slicer (think ham slicer) was grafted onto the idea of a strobe light. This suggested other ideas: time as a substance that can be sliced, time as something we can exert some control on, perceiving things we would otherwise have no access to. Metaphors are like musical sounds: they have higher harmonics, they echo in the mind.

Good will

There is a property of metaphors I find extremely intriguing, as well as very useful in my line of work. A metaphor, taken literally, is nonsense (a time slicer?). A metaphor in itself contains very little information in the mundane sense of the mathematical theory of information. But if the writer has earned the confidence and good will of his or her reader, the reader will actually work very hard to make sense of the writer’s words. The metaphor will fall on fertile soil and a tree of concepts will bloom in the reader’s mind… a tree of concepts that were already there. A metaphor uses what is already in the reader’s mind (their experience, the culture they share with the writer, their personal taste) to actually put new ideas in it. So, in a sense, metaphor is a way of compressing information.

There is even more to metaphor. The human brain loves puzzles and enigmas. This is perhaps a throwback from the days when solving problems and finding relationships between the data of experience was a matter of life and death. The brain rewards us with waves of pleasure when we accomplish acts that promote our survival or our reproduction. There are pleasures associated with eating and sex, but there is also the pleasure of understanding. It is the adrenaline rush of the eureka! moment. Putting two and two together to decipher metaphors gives the reader a thrill. Screenwriter Andrew Stanton (of Pixar fame) said in his TED talk (www.ted.com): “People are willing to work for their meal, they just don’t want to know it.” One way of granting our readers this secret pleasure is offering them stories and metaphors to work on. If we do this, they will stay with us.

Better yet: they will come back.

A special reader

A couple of years ago a very strange letter arrived at ¿Cómo ves? headquarters. It was handwritten on a creased piece of paper and it had been mailed from a Mexican prison. Estrella Burgos, our editor-in-chief, read us the letter. The author, who must remain anonymous, recounted how he was unfairly apprehended during a police raid in a bar and sentenced to prison. One day he got hold of an issue of our magazine. He read it and was hooked. He told us how his new interest in science had sustained him over the years. We cannot hope to have the same effect on other readers, of course, but this wonderful letter gave us a thrilling sense of the possibilities

jueves, 30 de octubre de 2014

Hace rato que no leía un artículo tan importante... Oro molido.

The varieties of denialism

Global-Warming-Denialism-04by Massimo Pigliucci

viernes, 18 de julio de 2014

Dos puntos de vista sobre las revistas de divulgación científica en México

Primero, un excelente comentario de Pere Estupinyá, en el Knight Science Tracker, sobre el prejuicio que persiste sobre las revistas comerciales de divulgación científica en México, muchas veces infundado:

Y segundo, el artículo de Eric Vance que al perecer dio pie al de comentario de Pere Estupinyá. Me parecen muy interesantes sus comentarios, también, pero creo que se contradice, al menos potencialmente: habla de lo "malo" que es mezclar temas controvertidos (que no "controversiales", palabra que no existe en español) y semi-esotéricos con ciencia real, como si los lectores fueran tontos y necesitaran de tales "anzuelos" para leer las revistas de ciencia como Quo y Muy Interesante. Pero luego dice que urge llevar las revistas de ciencia como ¿Cómo ves? a los lectores que no están interesados en la ciencia y no la conocen. ¿No sería lo que hacen Quo y Muy maneras de lograr esto? No veo por qué usar el "morbo"; como lo llamó un amigo, como gancho para atraer más lectores sea "malo", si es solo eso, un gancho, si se usa bien (sin mezclar seudociencia o esoterismo, sino sólo como pretexto), y sobre todo si FUNCIONA!.


lunes, 31 de marzo de 2014

Consejos para hacer periodismo científico...

Suena como una bonita lista de consejos y buenas intenciones, pero habría que ver qué tan realista es... Los puntos uno y dos asumen algo que no es cierto: que los periodistas pueden entender un paper científico.
En mi opinión, hace parecer que para hacer buen periodismo científico basta con seguir ciertas reglas, cierto método. No es así: hay que tener cierta preparación, que es muy compleja...

How to write a science news story based on a research paper
The Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2014, in association with the Guardian and the Observer, is open for entries. In parallel with the competition we're publishing a series of weekly "how to …" guides for budding science journalists


sábado, 8 de marzo de 2014

Calidad en el periodismo científico

La calidad en el periodismo científico depende de manera central de entender la ciencia y poder distinguir las afirmaciones falsas o distorsionadas de un buen trabajo periodístico.

Un comentario de Joel Achenbach en el Washington Post, tomando como ejemplo una reciente (y absurda) teoría sobre la Sábana Santa de Turín. 

jueves, 20 de febrero de 2014

¡Qué alguien estudie el fenómeno Beakman!

Es verdaderamente increíble el éxito que el programa de Beakman tuvo en México, su penetración, la cantidad de gente a la que le encantaba, las vocaciones que despertó, incluso, pero sobre todo el cariño que tanta gente le tiene al personaje.

El actor Paul Zaloom debería regresar pronto, con una serie de grandes shows en algún teatro grande... ganaría buen dinero y haría felices a muchos. 

Pero, más allá de eso, creo que nadie imaginaba lo que iba a pasar cuando el Instituto de Física decidió traerlo para celebrar sus 75 años, la respuesta los rebasó por completo, y a duras penas lograron organizar dos actos masivos, que aun así resultarán insuficientes.

Yo creo que estudiar el fenómeno Beakman sería un tema muy interesante para una tesis, un estudio serio del impacto de la comunicación televisiva de la ciencia en México. ¿Quién se anima?

miércoles, 19 de febrero de 2014

La divulgación según Beakman

Beakman sí entiende lo que es la divulgación científica:

En entrevista, dice: que su trabajo en el programa de TV "no era el de enseñar, "no éramos una escuela, era televisión. Lo que hacíamos era abrir puertas de la ciencia de manera divertida; las partes detalladas le corresponden a maestros, a la gente que hace libros".

Exacto. Ojalá todos lo entendieran tan claramente.


miércoles, 22 de enero de 2014

Una opinión sobre las revistas de divulgación mexicanas, y un comentario:

Un interesante artículo de Eric Vance donde hace una crítica ruda a las revistas de divulgación científica mexicanas... y le echa bonitas flores a ¿Cómo ves?:

Ahora mi comentario:

El texto me parece muy bueno (y es padre que señale a ¿Cómo ves? elogiosamente, luego de sus rudas, pero desde cierto punto de vista justificadas, críticas a Quo y Muy Interesante.)

En todo caso, le faltaría la perspectiva de reconocer que en México todavía no hay suficiente público interesado per se en la ciencia, y por tanto es necesario que estas revistas recurran a "ganchos" para atraer al lector y lograr que compre (y lea) una revista que quizá de otro modo no compraría.

Pero hay algo con lo que no estoy de acuerdo: me parece injustificada su afirmación de que ¿Cómo ves? es una "revista institucional" y por tanto "no es el futuro de la divulgación escrita". Supongo que se refería a que es una revista editada por una institución pública (la UNAM), pero si algo caracteriza a ¿Cómo ves? es precisamente NO ser una revista institucional (como sí lo son muchas revistas de divulgación de universidades de los estados, o la Gaceta UNAM, o como lo era Conversus, del IPN antes de su cambio). Y en gran parte a esto le debe su éxito y supervivencia por 15 años.

La difusión institucional es importante, pero es distinta de la divulgación, que también es importante. Y el público ávido de ciencia, que como bien dice Vance está ahí, se da cuenta claramente cuando se le ofrece ciencia y la distingue de la propaganda institucional (que, insisto, es también necesaria e importante). Creo que ¿Cómo ves? ha sabido mantener muy bien la diferencia, y Vance lo reconoce.

Quizá sería deseable que en el futuro hubiera revistas de divulgación COMERCIALES como las que él vislumbra (tipo ¿Cómo ves?, o Ciencias), gracias a que los divulgadores hubiéramos sabido crear suficiente demanda como para que fueran viables, y que ya no fuera necesario que las apoyaran las instituciones públicas. Pero eso no quiere decir que por ser hechas por una institución las revistas como ¿Cómo ves? tengan algún problema. Al contrario.

miércoles, 15 de enero de 2014

¿Sí es confiable el peer review?

El famoso experimento de Science donde se puso en cuestión la confiabilidad del proceso de peer review científico:


sábado, 11 de enero de 2014

Todo lo que usted siempre quiso saber sobre la Wikipedia...

Una interesantísima, y muy bien escrita, serie de artículos sobre la Wikipedia, probablemente la fuente información más consultada del planeta.

"Nadie conoce exactamente la psicología que subyace en la dinámica de creación y edición de Wikipedia (...) la inteligencia emergente ha concebido la enciclopedia que, en suma, presenta más ventajas que inconvenientes a la hora de obtener conocimiento fidedigno y contrastado del mundo"


Redes sociales para científicos

Un muy interesante y bien escrito artículo sobre el uso de redes sociales especializadas en el trabajo de investigación científica. La más usada, por lo visto, es Research Gate, de la que me han hablado muy bien.

Está interesante que los divulgadores las conozcamos, y quizá hasta las usemos. O que creemos las nuestras propias, ¿no?