By Stephen Strauss

Who’d a thunk designing a summer science communications — but not science journalism — program was sort of like trying to mentally undo a 21st century Gordian knot?

Not me, at least initially, and not the people I have been working with trying to make such a program for one of the Toronto-area colleges. Essentially we don’t want to start another journalism program because there is, if not a myriad of them, then for sure a heap: 10 undergraduate, five graduate, 26 college, and nine joint college/university journalism programs across the country. And in an epoch when we hear the words “the end of traditional media” and the “collapse of journalism” almost every day, we don’t want to provide yet another educational highway — I think the following hyperbole is absolutely appropriate — for lemming-esque students to travel en route to a career cliff over which they can hurl themselves into a stinking sloe of rancid debts and putrid disappointments.

Rather, we would like to give students science communications skills they can use even if legacy media withers into a dead, forgotten nothingness. And that means having to, if not completely rethink, then at least seriously reconsider what was supposed to be the basic elements of science (and many other area) communications.

Let me just give you a couple of examples.

In a print-only 20th century world, the second sentence of this blog might well have told you readers something like “the Gordian knot was the knot holding a cart which Alexander the Great came across when beginning his conquests. Legend had it that whoever undid the knot would conquer Asia. After trying to undo it all night long Alexander suddenly picked up his sword and cut it apart. This has become known as the Alexandrian solution to difficult problems.”

Or more likely a print editor would have viewed that as creating a literary knot and cut it to read: “the Gordian knot was a knot Alexander undid by cutting it with his sword and thus gave rise to the notion that you can solve a problem by cutting through it.”

But today should one accept that the lingua franca of the 21st century is hyperlinks and so the first sentence should simply have linked to this Gordian knot site or this or this?

So the question becomes: Can you just let the reader click on a link and figure out for him or herself how much to read about what was being casually referred to? You’d think so but hyperlinking creates its own knots. How do science communicators judge what sites should be linked to and which not? The “not” being both a measure of authenticity and equally importantly an awareness of when too many links turn a piece into something nauseatingly Gordian. Not to mention how do you write assuming in the same piece that some people will hyperlink and some won’t?

On top of this as an even more fundamental communications rethink. If there is a first principle all journalism students are taught it is: Learn to tell a story. And indeed narrative is seen as so important that there have been articles which pound the drum for storifying itself as being intrinsic to the human psyche and to humans’ bio-neurological understanding of the world.

Unfortunately it doesn’t look as if internet-linked people understand that the story is the only way to learn, think of the last time you went to some party and somebody said did you hear about that category 5 hurricane in New York? And somebody else said, yea, wow, but how do they give hurricanes their numbers? And then everyone took out their cell phones or tablets and zipped through the web to find out what hurricane classifications mean.

That is to say in the 21st communications world journalism and story-telling have conflated with reference texts — those things that used to be called encyclopaedias and dictionaries and now are called Wikipedia and its comrades.

The joining occurred because sometimes people want to learn by narrative and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they want facts and information now and — here is the heresy — a story can get in the way of what is called The Stream. This would seem hyper-obvious, many people coming out of the j-school-English-lit-story-fying high church of communication can’t accept that sometimes we just want to know stuff and that “stuff knowing” doesn’t need a story. It needs accuracy and it needs timeliness and it needs ease of access, but it doesn’t necessarily need Homer or Shakespeare or any science journalist as its voice.

All of which leads me to circle back to the college science communication’s program. It doesn’t yet exist and is aimed at scientists and science students who may want to do different things with their lives.

I’m proposing a course that teaches several things.One is how to approach the writing of science blogs. What voice do you use? If you are writing about the same topic to different audiences, how do you do it? How do you hyperlink and to what? And do you write thinking always about someone doing a Google search looking for information?  I want to see how conscious I can make students of the relationship of message to media, in an epoch when we are still trying figure out what the Internet media best does.

And another part of the course would be to try to take a complicated  Wikipedia science entry — see this and this — and using a Wiki model make it simpler and more accessible to non-scientists. It’s like a Wikipedia Junior on the model of what was once known as The Encyclopedia Britannica Junior. And having done that — and this is extremely important — see if you then can get Wikipedia to mount your version.

Finally try to see if there are principles and practices for commenting on stories, blogs, Facebook pages and the like. Can one make a comment that changes an Internet discussion like pithy comments change the flow of discussions in our daily non-digital conversations? Are there more effective tones to comments, and to links in them? Can a tweet or a series of tweets change a readers mind about anything scientific?

And do all this within the context that while the story isn’t dead, if you are going to be communicating science outside of existing traditional media, you might have to conceive of yourself as an Internet Alexander, someone who deals with the knottage of a digital information world by cutting through the ties of storytelling and cleanly just says what is there.

I say all the above and then in a very humble and non-Alexanderian way ask any CSWA members who read this posting:  Does what I am proposing make any sense to you? And if so — or if not — please comment upon the ideas as I am still considering what and how to teach.










6 Responses to Can You “Communicate” Science Without Telling A Story?

  1. I think this is a great idea, Stephen. Especially the question of how you decide what to link to, and where you place that link within a text. This is something I really struggle with – first of all providing credible links from which people can derive more information, but also finding the right balance of what should/shouldn’t be linked.

    It would really help if the scicomm community had a conversation about this, with everyone sharing their approaches/rationales, and then coming up with some kind of methodical approach to it.

    Same with blog audience and voice. There was an app going around that would scan your blog posts and tell you what grade level it was written to. Most of mine came out at about 7-8th grade. While this was interesting, I wasn’t really sure what it meant. Did they mean an 8th grade education with lots of science, or no science, background? Can I assume that everyone has the ‘same’ level of 8th grade education? Is that too easy of a level – should I be aiming for 10-12th grade? And if I am – what are the main differences in content/structure/syntax/etc between an 8th and a 10th grade post?

    If you can find a way to put these things (plus the other topics you’ve mentioned) into a course – people who take it will be well-served.

  2. Thanks so much Sarah.
    We’ll see what transpires but what I have been quite adamant about is that what I want students taking my course to think about science communication as something which can be real apart from traditional journalism. But, as they say in French, on verra.

  3. […] the Canadian Science Writer’s Association blog, Stephen Strauss (CSWA President) reflects on the challenge of creating a science communications course. He also has a guest post on Matt Shipman’s (American) blog, Communication Breakdown, about […]

  4. rshoff says:

    Being neither a teacher nor scholar, a scientist nor journalist, I would say you have explained this issue very well. Instead of a knot, my perception is that the pieces of information we consume via web links creates chaotic and disorganized understanding of the world around us. It’s dysfunctional to the point that it’s not only useless, but dangerous because it can lead to grossly inaccurate conclusions. It’s schizophrenic in thought, if you forgive the comparison.

    Telling a story is a compelling way to communicate, as long as the story is flush with thesis and the thesis is supported with proofs. There can also be too much story telling which can be burdensome to follow and lead to it’s own confusion.

    Sometimes I watch wonderfully comforting science programs that tell a story, and in that one hour story, I garner 10 minutes of information stirred in a pot of generalizations, assumptions (mine), and leaps. Perhaps that’s due to my intellectual limitation or perhaps it’s due the program editing.

    Perhaps the two should be married. Good storytelling where the reader/viewer navigates the level of detail. For example, a well written story with appropriately placed links. You’ve done it yourself. I’m ashamed to say that I had to click on the Gordian Knot link to understand the metaphor.

  5. rshoff says:

    As far as the collapse of journalism, I think you are correct. However, it’s not solely due to our web-link culture and inability to contextualize information. I think it has very real roots in the ownership of the news media by the entertainment media. We now accept gossip as journalism and factoids as knowledge. It’s sad, but until that issue is addressed, journalism is for entertainment.

    Journalism should not be production based capitalism with return on investment. Neither should healthcare nor many other things. Journalism, and education, should be held in high esteem well above the money hungry sharks snapping at our pocket books.

  6. Kevin Shi says:

    I definitely don’t think the story is dead. People remember the story best, not the hurricane classification system that they looked up on their phone for a few seconds. People relate to the story best, because the story has context and the story has a human element to it. People are more engaged when listening to a story (as long as it is told well). I think stories are the only truly engaging means of science communication, and they should never be replaced.

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