The Over-simplification Conundrum

I believe that those of us involved in science communication have at some point wrestled with this issue: In being able to effectively communicate the science as we know it, we are often blamed for over-simplification to reach the masses or going into too much detail to ending up not reaching the masses.

Not losing your audience’s interest is the goal of any communicator. But when it comes to writing about scientific issues, we scientists have a tendency to try to get the facts straight and be as clear about what we know and what we don’t know. And rightly so, we’ve been trained to pay attention to detail that is part of our jobs. But a friend recently said to me, ‘We scientists pay so much attention to details sometimes, that we fail to recognize the peril in it!’

The conversation began because someone shared the image above. It’s part of advertisements made for Mercedes-Benz. I had read about the left-right brain myth and kindly pointed it out to my friend, when he came back with that retort. Although I appreciate the artistic beauty of the image and that the over-simplification done in this case causes no ‘real’ harm to the society, I am against over-simplifying just to be able to make something popular.

My friend interjects, ‘If you tell a common person that “Oh, this is all a myth. Everything is integrated to every other part of the brain” the common man soon looses interest and in the end does not get anything out of it. But if you can take one step at a time after talking about the left-right dichotomy, he may feel interested.’

As a matter of fact, the only thing a common man may get out knowing about the left-right brain is to pleasure of learning something new (because the ‘methods’ I know that have been ‘developed’ to help someone improve their left brain by doing left brain activities are bollocks). If the ‘something new’ you have taught the reader isn’t even right, and he discovers that later, then you have (or worse, science has) lost a loyal listener.

Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler. – Einstein’s Razor

Looking at the bigger picture, it is important to help people have the most accurate beliefs from the beginning. Thus, when communicating scientific matters, one must not sacrifice details for artistic/populist reasons. The solution, of course, is to give as accurate a picture as possible to anyone but do it in a manner that is attractive (may be by tailoring it to your audience or using audio-visual aids or consulting with experts who usually have a neat explanation). This is definitely one of the main reasons why science communication is hard but also why it is worth doing it.

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