Last week one of my posts received some friendly corrections in the comments section.

Are literary devices allowed?

Every point PhysioProf made is absolutely true - in a technical sense. But when explaining science to laypeople, you often use imprecise terms and not-quite-right analogies. As a physician, I frequently have to describe the embryologic development of the kidney to parents using my hands and whatever I can sketch on a paper towel. My fists become the collections of cells destined to become kidney (left hand) and ureter (right hand) while I talk about signals back and forth between my two fists. The digits of each hand represent the multitude of molecular cross-talk between cell masses, and they leave the fist and poke the other hand as needed. These signals get crossed up on one side or the other, and a whole variety of abnormalities can result. The parents I am talking with do not need (or want) to know all of the molecules involved! They want to know why I got a bunch of xrays of the "normal" parts of their child's urinary tract. They want to know why their child is not normal and what impact these abnormalities will have on their lives.

In my errant post, I stated the following:

Cells are bags of fluid surrounded by membranes. These membranes have transporters that let stuff in and out. Almost every membrane in the body is freely permeable to water.

Water moves back and forth across these membranes to maintain osmolar balance. Osmolality is the total number of molecules in fluid. It does not matter what the molecule might be; our cells just want the amount of molecules relative to water to be the same everywhere in the body, even if the molecule is K inside the cell and Na outside.

It is true that membranes would not be freely permeable to water without aquaporins which form water channels; however, most membranes in the body contain sufficient water channels to allow water to move freely through them and maintain osmotic equilibrium throughout the body. Yes, I skipped some information in there, but it hardly changes the original point in explaining the issue.  I described the concept of osmotic equilibrium as the cells wanting the amount of molecules relative to water to be the same. Now, I seriously doubt that any cell in my body, individually, "wants" anything (although certain areas of my brain are desirous of shoes and electronic gizmos, but I digress). No, the cells are passive participants in this process; the whole body is geared toward osmotic equilibrium. But my parents would not understand the "real" explanation, and my dad has a PhD (French History- that's how I got my first name). They can grasp the concept that this concentration of stuff in water should be the same inside and outside the cell. Yes, I committed the sin of anthropomorphism of the body's cells, but this approach can be effective as a teaching tool and a literary device.

Hard-Wired for Pictures & Stories

As scientists, we need to better communicate facts to the general public. However, most folks are not ready for science-speak. That's why we need to learn more of the art of crafting and telling stories. Think about the earliest human communications we know- ancient pre-verbal humans left pictures on cave walls of animals and the hunt. We can only guess the exact motivation now; but we can still see and feel the story.

I blogged in January about a book addressing this issue, Don’t Be Such a Scientist by Randy Olson, a scientist-turned-filmmaker. One excerpt from that post:

A number of scientists with good communication skills kvetch about the public’s lack of literacy. Most seem focused on educational policy and getting “the facts” out there in an accessible way. If we provide the data, the public will “get it.”

Dr. Olson debunks this attitude almost immediately. Through amusing stories of his experiences in acting and film classes, as well as life under the Hollywood sign, he illustrates a major problem: most of the public engages in issues through feelings, not through thought

Now, a true media star (Sorry, Randy- he trumps you) has made this problem a mission. As detailed in on August 5, Alan Alda initiated The Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. America's favorite fictional surgeon and the host of Scientific American Frontiers says:

"The affect, facial expression body language -- these are things that you wouldn't think are part of a scientific presentation," he says. "Emotion is so important. In scientific communication emotion is probably trained out of us, but there's no reason why it can't be included. Science is a great detective story, especially when you're talking to the public. You want them to get involved in this interesting, emotional tangle."

The article in The (by Daniel Grushkin) includes a YouTube video of improvisation exercises used in a one-day workshop put on by this group. At the beginning of the workshop, participants have to explain their research to a lay-audience - often with unsatisfying results. The final exam? Explaining your research to an imaginary audience. Oh, and the group then should be able to guess who that audience might be:

At the session's conclusion the students re-explain their research. This time they pretend to have an imaginary audience -- for example, one explains his science to a make-believe child, another stands before an invisible congressional committee. The rest of the group guesses the identity of the audience, and gets it right every time. It's a remarkable transformation.

Read more:  Try acting like a scientist - The Scientist - Magazine of the Life Sciences

When we blog, anyone with an internet connection may find our words and be part of our audience. Every time I interact with my patients and their families, I try to find better ways to tell the story that they need to hear, be it why their condition happened, what the future may hold, or why some 16-year-old kid should straighten up and take his blood pressure medications. Just as one never learns everything in science and medicine, in part because every minute brings a new discovery to light, one never knows the correct way to explain something to everyone. I keep trying in my office. And I will keep trying here.

Oh, and please feel free to comment both to increase the Sci-Q of my posts (thank you, PhysioProf) and to let me know if I need to try and tell the tale again. Because I am happy to keep writing and talking and gesturing until I get it right for you!

Images courtesy of

17 responses so far

  • Jack says:

    Let's use models, not fairy tales.

  • Pascale says:

    There is a reason fairy tales, fables, and parables are still told today - they work!
    Telling people not to lie because it will diminish their believability when they need it won't work nearly as well as "Don't cry wolf!"

    • Jack says:

      Are you saying everything being told today works/is correct? Cause that's obviously not the case. Is there any data showing that "the boy who cried wolf" actually works better than rational argument in teaching kids to be honest? (Or is it just true because you told it and it is today?)

      Fun fact: Wikipedia says no and quotes a source saying "In fact, after hearing the story, kids lied even a little more than usual."

    • Jack says:

      Also, I'm not saying fairy tales or other fiction literature works are without use. Just not for (medical) science, like when informing patients or relatives.

  • Pascale says:

    And I'm not saying we tell them fairy tales- just that an analogy that may not be the whole, unvarnished scientific truth may stick with them better than getting too technical. Most people do react with their gut, not their head. We need to pay attention to emotional engagement if we want to make our messages stick!

  • physioprof says:

    Just to be clear, I wasn't commenting to "correct" you, but to expand the scope of your already interesting post so that it would provide some molecular and cellular details.

    In scientific communication emotion is probably trained out of us, but there’s no reason why it can’t be included.

    This is a load of fucken shit. I spend a fuckton of time trying to teach my trainees to incorporate *more* emotion--mostly passion and excitement--into their presentations. And these are presentations to expert scientific audiences, not lay audiences. I can't remember a single time I have ever had to suggest that a trainee "tone down" a presentation.

    Every scientist knows that there is nothing worse than sitting there listening to a talk delivered in an emotionless monotone. And no scientists are masochistic enough to affirmatively teach their trainees to give talks this way.

    Now, none of that means that failure to use emotion in scientific talks isn't a problem. It is. But it's a problem because it's fucken difficult to do effectively, not because people are being affirmatively trained not to do it.

    • Pascale says:

      Certainly, I took no offense at your expansion on my last post. But between that and the story about Alan Alda showing up in my in-box, I got to thinking. And my thoughts led me to this post.

      I don't know that anyone trains the emotions out of us intentionally, although I know some PIs who require that all trainee presentations be scripted and memorized (which results in zombie-speak). But science-speak is certainly stilted and zaps a lot of passion anyway. However, it's not our scientist-to-scientist communication that's problematic; it's when we talk to others, whatever the media! Waaaay too many science-types do not believe that it is important to communicate outside of the ivory tower. "If I can convince reviewers of grants and papers that I'm right, why do I care whether laypeople know what I do?"

      Anyway, it's a problem that interests me. I'm glad we have a discussion going.

    • rknop says:

      I think we are being trained not to do it.

      There are a lot of grey beards in science, and the spend a lot of time waggling. Somebody shows up and shows too much emotion, and it becomes "unprofessional". I've observed this happen on multiple occasions. I'm sure that students hear this too, and realize they shouldn't take any risks.

      Plus, they see the talks that are given by the elders in their field, and we're modelling for them non-emotional behavior in talks.

  • mcshanahan says:

    Any time we explain a scientific idea (especially to a non-specialist audience) we use a model (and analogies are a type of model), and no model is a perfect replication of the idea or concept. There is a significant amount of science education literature dedicated to understanding the impact of different types of models and those that are most effective for communicating different types of concepts (if interested Gilbert & Boulter's book "Developing models in science education" is a great place to start).
    It's not really my area but I worked with a colleague on one of her studies looking at different ways of explaining (through models and analogies) the particle nature of matter to 10-11 year old students. One interesting thing that we found was that when the model was obviously different from the target concept (e.g., using literary analogies, cartoons, toys, etc.) students were very adept at picking out the ways that that models helped them learn and the elements that were obviously not true (such as membranes wanting things). I thought it was really interesting though that the models that were closer to reality (computer simulations that we used) were a lot more difficult for the students to decipher. They learned the target concepts but also picked up a lot of misconceptions along the way. Unlike what we saw with the more creative analogies, the students were convinced that these models showed them only 100% true pictures of reality and were resistant to thinking about the weaknesses of those models.
    I guess my point is that deciding what is actually going to best communicate an idea isn't always simply about what is most true. Even aside from the emotional factors, the cognitive side is also more complicated than it may seem on the surface.
    PS - I also agree that hands are a remarkable modelling tool. They can be almost anything!

    • Pascale says:

      I saw that a few minutes ago! It's hard to get too creative or emotional in those NIH components, but they are important and available to the public.

  • Mr. Gunn says:

    All due respect, PP, (and that's a lot) - I was told by my PI to not sound like I was talking to someone on TV about my science. In his lab, and in others I've seen, people are in fact affirmatively trained not to do it. He didn't like enthusiasm or simple analogies or anything other than standard, dry, technical jargon-filled presentations.

  • rknop says:

    and my dad has a PhD (French History- that’s how I got my first name)


    Huh. Guess I know even less French than I thought I did.

  • Horrible Clarity says:

    I think a big problem in this area (and it came up in the original post but you haven't mentioned it here) is that of teleological explanations for biological actions.

    They are a great tool for learning and help make complicated physiological processes easier to remember and seem more logical but describing cells, organs or processes as 'wanting' things can lead to a lot of confusion in the long run.

    i.e. It's easier to explain to a bunch of undergrads that the human body 'wants' to maintain a temperature of 37C and uses methods like vasodilation and contracting muscles to cool off and heat up as needed and then slowly build upon this to incorporate autonomic regulation through the hypothalamus (or however its done, I did basic physiology a long time ago). But care must be taken to stress that this is a metaphor to aid explanation and not an acutal description of the process.

    See also... Infinity -1 poor explanations of natural selection implying nature wants the fittest to survive and the weak to die.

    • Pascale says:

      The human body does "want" to maintain its operating temperature, and it has many systems to maintain this important homeostatic parameter. If our bodies did not "want" (desire, need) to maintain certain parameters for optimal function, they wouldn't waste resources maintaining them.
      I'm not certain what other word you would use without deteriorating into science-speak and losing any lay-audience...

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