“Questions of science (…) do not speak as loud as my heart”:
Evoking emotions through science communication
The year 2008 marked the 80th anniversary of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. Disconcertingly, it also marked the year in which 45 percent of Americans still did not know that antibiotics, arguably one of the biggest biomedical breakthroughs of all time, are ineffective against viruses. In an era sometimes labeled as the post-factual age, bringing knowledge and evidence into national and global, political and non-political debates is of higher importance than ever. Yet the global scientific literacy, as evidenced by numerous studies, leaves a lot to be desired. This lack of information among the public translates into a vulnerability for false claims and a lower general level of support for basic research. While endeavors such as encouraging researchers to directly engage in public dialogue or calling for differentiated science journalism (e.g. steer clear of sensationalism, explain the scientific method and do not shy away from critical data interpretation or negative results) are undoubtedly beneficial, there is still a lot of ground to be covered.
We live in societies in which the vast majority of citizens appear to have no problems listing the members of their national soccer team and how often their country has won the World Cup, but cannot name the latest Nobel Laureates and their work, or major discoveries of the last decade. And yet scientific information has become more and more available, not least through the global spread of information technology. So if we are increasingly headed for a knowledge democracy, why is scientific interest so underrepresented in our lives compared to fields like music, sports, film and the creative arts ?
There exists a striking difference between the aforementioned disciplines. Music, sports, film and other creative arts do not only appeal to people’s cognitive functions; they appeal to their emotions.
Science, at least in the way it currently predominantly presents itself to the public, does not.
Historically, science has – by virtue of its own nature – largely been sceptical of emotions, and understandably so; after all, it cannot allow itself to be clouded by them. However, things are different when it comes to communicating scientific findings to the general public. Aristoteles already recognized pathos as a mode of persuasion; today we know the importance of appealing to the audience’s emotions in getting across public health messages, for example concerning the risks of smoking or the benefits of cancer screening. We remember emotionally charged entities – be it song lyrics or a movie scene – better than technical facts. So why do we not convey factual, evidence-based information in a way that evokes emotions ? To put it in colloquial terms, we need to not only address people’s minds; we need to speak to their hearts.
In this regard, it is necessary to bridge the cultural gap between humanities and natural sciences deplored by scientist and novelist C.P. Snow in his famous 1959 lecture. While different in methods and requirements, both disciplines ultimately try to approach and understand reality and, in doing so, share fundamental emotional necessities such as a sense of curiosity. We can also learn from and specifically target emotions abundant in other domains of life such as the sense of togetherness and belonging evoked by being fan of a certain soccer team, or the feeling of identification that connects music fans to their favorite songwriters. A similar approach is exemplified by the Breakthrough Prize, a set of research awards in biomedicine and other disciplines that draws public interest to science by emulating televised awards ceremonies in film and music. By conceding the representation of science as an emotionally captivating art, it becomes conceivable to create science-related equivalents of concerts or sports events. These efforts could be of a visual, auditory or literary nature and use elements of narration, dramatization and metaphorization to capture the imagination of children and adults alike. Once we start thinking differently about science communication, it is not unimaginable to have people anticipate the conclusion of high-profile biomedical investigations in the same way they anticipate the release of a new Harry Potter book or the latest iPhone. Biomedicine can confidently look to precedents in astrophysics – the 1969 moon landing, for instance, captivated millions of people across the globe.
In earlier ages, it took polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci to overcome the boundaries between art and science in order to inform and inspire generations. In our modern, more specialized but also more interconnected world, this important task, no less relevant than the actual research, rests on the shoulders of all of us scientists. Only with a major rethinking of the way we communicate scientific information can we lead science from the margins of the daily dialogue back into its midst and carry the fruits of biomedical research to the minds and hearts of the citizens of the world.