How damaging is sexy soundbite scicomm?

The ‘tyranny of the sound bite’ has plagued politicians and celebrities for decades. Pithy one-liners, taken out of context, can be extremely damaging to a person’s reputation.

In science communication, Sexy Science soundbites, condensing complex ecological problems into simple data points or the efforts of single researchers, can damage public understanding of science.

We’ve seen this with Insect Armageddon and the recent ‘3 billion lost birds’ story. Ecology is the science of nuances, and any claim of global patterns or precise data points must be interpreted with context.

Much of the problem with these soundbite disasters lies with the science communication around the story, not necessarily the science itself.

The recent story in Nature mag* on Crowther Lab’s work on estimating global tree density and restoration potential has many problems and has provoked ire on social media. A lot of ecologists are pointing the finger at Crowther as the source of blame. Sure, he is quoted as saying some naïve and silly things. His flippant comment about observational ecology and natural history not being actual science was certainly offensive to most ecologists. It’s ironic that he is portrayed in the story as a passionate science communicator.

But my issue is not with Crowther himself – I don’t know him personally, he’s published some cool research and won a prestigious award as an early career research leader. This blog is not about him.

To me, this article is a timely reminder that as scientists, when we engage in science communication, we are not always in control of the story around our research. Our comments are part of a bigger network involving other interviewees, the writer, the writer’s editor, the publishing company, the audience, and more. What you say in a 1-hour interview can be misinterpreted, condensed, moulded, taken out of context and spat out the other end as a collection of snappy soundbites that might make you sound a bit silly. (Not all science writers do this!)

There aren’t many ways around it, other than to articulate carefully (asking to proof the final draft is not an option; it’s not the role of the interviewee and it’s insulting to most journalists). At the end of the day, a writer will write their story.

This Nature article highlights a common confusion about effective science communication – stories about scientific research are not your average news or human interest story. Scientific context is the most important framing narrative in science communication, one that is often overlooked or misrepresented.

We don’t need to like (or dislike) the researcher involved in the research. As an audience, many of us with no specialist knowledge of the relevant discipline, we need to know the research is valid and why it matters, not whether the author is a cool person.

This article makes the mistake of appearing to justify the validity and importance of the research because the guy who led it is a cool superstar. This is absolutely not how science works.

The language throughout the article constantly conflates quality and quantity:

“Publicity, he believes, will get him closer to his goal, and his goal is nothing less than restoring the planet.”

“Crowther’s maps are bouncing onto the pages of leading science journals — five so far this year in Science and Nature alone..”

“But he gradually cajoled more scientists into [giving up all their hard-earned data]…”

“Although the error margin for the estimate ranged between one trillion and ten trillion, the figure of three trillion trees caught the public imagination.”

“…he was encouraged to inflate his ambitions to match the pocket and vision of his funders.”

In using this language, the article does a disservice to Crowther’s research and sells two dangerous myths about the process of science:

Myth 1. Big Data has all the solutions to our environmental problems. It doesn’t. The Crowther Lab’s work, and most other Big Data synthesis projects, are useful and interesting pieces of the scientific jigsaw.

But it’s misleading to present these pieces as the Answer to all our problems. People have been promoting the promise of Big Ecology for decades. Why hasn’t it solved all our problems?

Because there is no one-size-fits-all solution to environmental problems. The value of place-based, descriptive ecology and natural history research, which allows Big Data to exist in the first place, is ironically often belittled by Big Data proponents. We still don’t have any data on the identity, distribution, and life interactions of most organisms on Earth, so how can we map them all?

Myth 2. Success and impact in science is all about salesmanship, high-power journals, ‘a slick website’, and lots of money. This is a theme that runs throughout the article. The star researcher is presented as a well-funded distracted genius, juggling international media interviews with lab fun times and serious work. He apparently has an “emphasis on outreach”, but this reach is not measured. He is also lucky enough to have an admin team that manage all the critical liaison, administrative, and communication work that underpins his lab’s research and science communication. In reality, most researchers don’t have this level of financial and labour support for their science, but they still manage to do great research, science communication and engage with stakeholders.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to celebrate the successes of individuals and promote early career scientists that are doing good research. But presenting this level of early career stardom (unnecessary to do quality science and unattainable to the majority of early career researchers) as representative of research quality and impact does no favours to ecology. It also potentially puts most early career researchers at a disadvantage.

And about that impact… The story implies that the ‘3 trillion trees’ research is the key to global restoration success. It’s not.

Restoration ecology is a complex science. Simply planting trees is not the goal, nor a true measure of success, for ecological restoration. Restoring functioning ecosystems depends on restoring ecological interactions, like pollination, predation, decomposition. All the processes that occur because of variation (across time and space) in the interactions between plants, animals (including humans), fungi, and microbes.

Sure, hype has existed for ever. But we’re seeing more and more contemporary science communication where single studies are portrayed as the answer to all our environmental problems, and Big Sexy Data are misrepresented as the bread and butter of ecological research. As scientists, editors, journalists, and audiences, we need to do better.


*I’m not going to link it. ‘The ecologist who wants to map everything’, Nature, 20 September 2019


© Manu Saunders 2019

10 thoughts on “How damaging is sexy soundbite scicomm?

  1. sleather2012 September 23, 2019 / 4:30 PM

    Excellent post – fits in well with the post I have just written about ‘novelty’

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Finola September 24, 2019 / 1:24 AM

    Excellent piece. I think our desperation for answers makes us particularly susceptible to the lure of the promising soundbite, combined with some journalists’ need to present a black and white story wrapped up in a neat conclusion. It’s happening in every branch of research, hard and soft, but science reporting is the biggest trap.

    Liked by 2 people

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