Mathew Lowry

A recent edition of The Infinite Monkey Cage, BBC Radio4’s brilliant chat show combining science and comedy, got me thinking again about the parallels between science communications and EU communications.

The episode (“A Balanced Programme on Balance“) covered the often tortured relationship between:

  • the media, for whom ‘balance’ means getting two opposing views onto a programme and treating them equally;
  • and scientists, for whom ‘balance’ means respecting the data: if 5000 scientists conclude that 2+2 = 4 then on balance it probably is, until evidence comes along to convince enough scientists to re-open the question, as all scientific knowledge is provisional (cue: Godel and his incompleteness theorems).

As guest Prof Steve Jones (author, among other things, of Review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science) pointed out, scientists venturing into the realms of media and politics remain scientists. If they depart from the science rulebook, they will lose their reputation for scientific credibility.

But then the media rolls out someone to provide a ‘balancing’ view, because that’s part of the media’s rulebook: it makes for better programmes.

So every time a radio producer invites a climate scientist to represent the considered view of thousands of scientists who have exhaustively studied and modelled the data and checked each other’s work through peer review, the producer will also invite a climate sceptic who represents a political party and/or economic interests (they’re usually the same) and who wants to convince you that 2+2=5.

But this invitee doesn’t play by the rules of science – he plays by the rules of media & politics (again, two things difficult to disentangle).

Unfortunately for our scientist, our radio producer understands the rules of media better than those of science, and above all wants an entertaining programme. As a result, the listeners come away with the impression that:

“2+2 may equal 4, or it may equal 5. On balance it’s probably closer to 4, but the debate goes on.”

The last thing the media want is for any debate to end.

Technocratic communications

So what’s this got to do with EU communications?

Well, as pointed out earlier, there are many parallels between science communications and EU communications (“Science writing is about explaining a field which is important, very complex and full of jargon, to people without the specialised training.”).

The problems our scientist, above, faces when entering the worlds of media and politics are akin to the problems EU communicators face as well. And this is because the EU is pretty much a technocratic construction these days. Its roots may be in the horrors of the first half of the 20th century, but today the EU is about Adding Value in areas where neighbouring countries are better off cooperating rather than competing … as long as everyone plays by the rules (cue: Nash and his game theories, applied to international relations).

So while the scientist in the radio studio defends the scientific community’s findings, derived through exhaustive experimentation, verification and peer review, our EU communicator represents technocrats who have spent years analysing EU-wide cooperation in technical areas as diverse as research, agriculture and employment regulation.

And across the table from both sits the person brought in to provide ‘balance’, who knows more about soundbites than anything else (cue: Nigel Farage).

And such communicators certainly have the wind in their sails – technocrats are not exactly popular these days. Decrying the EU as an undemocratic technocracy used to be the rallying cry of the loony end of the Eurosceptic movement … until credit agencies and EU Councils started removing democratically elected leaders and installing never-elected technocrats as Prime Ministers to implement austerity programmes devised in Brussels, France and Berlin.

I actually don’t have an opinion on whether they have any choice – I’m no economist. The perception, however, is indisputable: unelected technocrats, primarily in the financial world, now provide absolutely no wriggle room for democratic choice. So while most of the EU Institutions spend most of their time adding value in technocratic, bread-and-butter fields (managing natural resources, pooling R&D resources), only those specialised in the bread or the butter care enough to even look. To everyone else, everything the EU does is tarred with the same, very negative brush.

Enter the storytellers?

The advantage of drawing parallels between EU and science communications is that one can then go hunting for solutions from science communicators. Those unfamiliar with science communications may be surprised how developed this world is (cue: Richard Dawkins, leading scientist and bestselling author).

Anyway, in The case for narrative: why scientists need to tell a better story, Laura Shields points out:

“Scientists and journalists are often at loggerheads because their respective professions emphasise completely different skill sets. Scientists stress the importance of facts by amassing large amounts of evidence with which to support (or not) theories via painstaking experiment and replication. This is an anathema to the journalist who prefers the big picture, generalisations, snappy quotes, one or two facts, anecdotes and emotion.”

Just substitute ‘EU’ for science, and ‘EU technocrats’ for ‘scientists’, and you see my point. Shields points to research suggesting that:

“storytelling is a powerful tool not only for making core messages memorable but also for persuading people to do things that scientific data alone can’t. And by storytelling, I really do mean a narrative sequence of events with a clear beginning, middle and end.”

So why do we not see such techniques in EU communications? I’ve certainly tried this with some of my clients, but I hit a brick wall every time. It’s simply not in scientists’ or technocrats’ nature to “tell stories”, which sounds (to them) an insultingly fluffy way to communicate their scientifically-derived facts, and their carefully-weighed analyses.

Both suffer, of course, from groupthink. After all, everyone they know understands them. So why, oh why, can’t everybody else?

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Comments

  1. Thoughtful piece, Matthew. But are eurocrats dealing reality and with real figures? They may collect statistics, and they may or may not be accurate. But in the end it is the politicians who make the decision. They are usually based on ideologies and therefore have no scientific basis. As someone working in science journalism (hard science, physics, telecomunications) for many years, I was struck by Robert Schuman’s insistence that the European Community was a scientific experiment. That does not mean that politicians can do whatever they want. They should test the theory. It means that they should first understand what supranational democracy is. It means democratic, open institutions both for party and non party citizens and a free choice of representation. They should test and publish.

    The politicians seem to have no idea about the theory and want to bury everything about it — as witnessed by the total lack of information about the European Community when it reached its 60th anniversary in 2010 and when it had a big debate about the scientific principles that lay at its basis and were discussed at the first intergovernmental conference in June 1951. Story-telling will not cover the fact that Councils are not democratic if they close the doors, there is no nonparty political democracy, organised civil society does not participate as Schuman and the Founding Fathers said it should etc.

    You reminded me of Dawkins’s performance in Brussels recently. The audience laughed at him when he tried to convince the audience that bats had developed their highly sophisticated sonar system by random genetic changes over many generations flying in a dark cave. Presumably they were crashing against the walls and killing themselves while they bred. Bats make tiny bursts of very loud shrieks and at the same time cut off their hearing for extremely short periods so not to deafen themselves. Then they switch on their hearing for extremely brief fractioons of a second to hear the very faint echo. There was no evidence presented. There should have been untold caves-full (or universes) of unsuccessful splattered bats for each one that succeeded. Dawkins was telling a fairy tale.

    The EU leaders think they can do what they want and tell fairy stories. They ignore the evidence. They will also crash against the wall if they do not get real.

  2. Many thanks, David, for your comment. Our conversation risks veering off into the wonderful world of ‘physics envy’, where biologists insist they are doing science despite the fact that reproducible experiments are difficult when one is modelling entire worlds over aeons.

    Now I studied theoretical physics and maths, so you’d probably assume I’d side with you, sneering from the sidelines at biologists like Dawkins. But I don’t. Your view of science is simplistic. It is possible to build scientific theories in the natural sciences without “rerunning Planet Earth” in multiple double-blind trials in a variety of laboratories.

    Whether this scientific debate translates usefully into the politics of the EU is, of course, debatable. As @ronpatz pointed out in his response post (Communicating EU technocracy and science: Is it the same?), the parallels I drew, above, are not always valid. But I would say that while the EU is a long way from being scientific, there are many decisions which are based on rational analyses as much as political idealogy, and that rational decision-making is possible despite the impossibility of rerunning the EU experiment.

    PS What’s your explanation for how bats developed sonar? Intelligent design?

  3. Avoiding switch off of EU institutions: Citizen Initiatives ‘pipeline’

    Two thoughts while reading David’s analogy and your triggering post:

    – what is the sonar the EU is using? Seems to switch off quite often, a few weeks or months after any major event that could trigger a real rethink, or at last adaptation of communication
    – actually, bat systems are chiefly are about caching flies, not jsut about flying in the dark. There are clouds of them, one needs to be targeted, to avoid chasing ‘too many rabbits’

    Back to serious EU politics….: to avoid moving on prematurely from an opinion trend one way is to transform it into a policy process, from idea to stakeholders to proposal to decision.

    This is what European Citizen Initiatives (ECI) are about doing. Starting on 1 April, and so far not taken seriously enough, even in this town, unlike many other Treaty clauses.

    One piece of ‘sonar’ for ECIs is here, just starting: http://www.initiative.eu

  4. Matthew I am not trying to draw your topic into biology — which has made great strides in the recent decades. Any theory that does not work should be junked, as happens all the time in science. That does not mean that another is immediately available off the shelf in some simplistic way, as we learn from the super-luminary experiments at CERN.

    Predictability is a key part of science. That is why the EU qualifies as Schuman said as a great scientific experiment. (Placing birds or fruit flies (which breed very fast) in the dark for a few thousand generations will not produce a sonar system like the bat’s. Hence I described the idea as a fairy tale based on no evidence.)

    Even with facts, politicians go astray. Ideology, whether in science or politics, is by definition partial — partially wrong — because it is a view based on past ‘fact’ a partial view of truth. It is bound to be out of date. That is what Schuman argued very cogently. Everything has to be tested. A realistic scientific method is based not just on the falsification of one experiment and its repetition but the consistency of multiple experiments and other investigations in different directions that provide consistency and hence confidence in the solidity of the result. Quantum Mechanics is one example. It now accounts for a major part of the economy today including all the IT sector. It works although its premises are poorly established and are even contradictory.

    The EU communications are based on PR, usually one way, from the centre. The proper line on communication should be networked — as Schuman wrote in his paper to the United Nations about how they should organise their system. The EU has refused consistently to do this because the leaders have devalued the institutions from their democratic roles.

    @Christophe the Citizen’s Initiative fails as a fair and just method because the centre (“Brussels”) retains the option to deal with a petition or not and in the way that it feels will protect its own interests. The Community system has been frozen out as it provides for a citizens’ initiative and also for NGOs’ initiative (Organised civil society). It also provides for a national initiative without being nationalistic to create European policy. (Instead we have national presidencies vaunting themselves every six-months still.)

    The present EU leadership has been wary of the Community method because such initiatives are essentially both non-party political and cannot be controlled by a cartel of 2 or 3 party chiefs. Hence communications are directed at trying to convince ‘the public’ that 27 +1 people meeting in secret possess the sum total of all knowledge and furthermore have the wisdom to know what 500 million Europeans want and how they would individually achieve their goals. Closed door systems in politics are a recipe for disaster … and we are no living the consequences of such arrogance.

  5. While I find David’s grasp of evolutonary biology very questionable (evolution can only take a creature to a local fitness maxima, so flies may never develop sonar, just as squid will never outpace a tuna), and I doubt politics can ever be scientific, I find myself siding with him when it comes to the ECIs.

    I think I was the first to point out how ECIs may be actually a negative from both a communications and a politics perspective, precisely because they are so tightly linked, and disappointment in one will drive disappointment in the other.

    Still, I do look forward to seeing how it will pan out, and wish EurActiv’s latest baby as much success as the one we’re having this conversation on.

    As for David’s entire last paragraph and EU comms as “PR from the centre”, I’d hope my position on that was pretty plain from many of the other posts on this blog (e.g., see previous post)! David, I think you’d enjoy the conversation Ron and I had on his blog, referenced earlier, regarding the impact the lack of EU transparency has on the EU’s image.

  6. It was not my intention to get into a discussion about evolution theory but rather the facts. I used bats as an example of the lack of scientific method. Scientific method is about Predictability.

    People use a powerful image, quite often full of hidden errors, to communicate. In the case of the EU it is the (a) lack of serious study of what a supranational Community is and its huge advantages over the sort of politics that applied over the previous two thousand years (b) the use of a counterfeit such as the Monnet myth (see my comment on the BBC at Monnet9 on my democracy commentaries at blogactiv or schuman.info/news.htm )

    I deplore the attitude of so-called scientists as much as I do politicians who misuse facts and become fairy story tellers. Bats arose some 50 or 60 million years ago according to the record but they were practically identical with modern bats. Then as now there were also insect eating rodents with a sonic radar system plus very special wings able to perform intricate aerial manoeuvres in the dark to catch masses of tiny fast moving insects to live on. Mice can’t do this sort of thing. There is no evidence of anything before this period as bat ancestors. Obviously. They would be long dead of starvation, with no offspring because they lacked the vast quantities of insects necessary for survival. A non-developed bat would not survive as he waited for cosmic radiation to strike his reproductive genes — randomly. Almost all genetic changes are deleterious and lethal.

    Bats have not only NOT changed much but there is no evolution today. They are not developing better eyesight. They do not go out in the day time. etc. Thus no past ‘evolution’ of bats, no future evolution of bats and no facts about intermediate species to support any of the wild claims. Astounding but true.

    With the European Community massive qualitative changes were made for the benefit of Europeans and the world. They were predicted before the Declaration and after it by Schuman. True scienfic prediction. He did not live to see how he was vindicated by facts. Most other think tanks that I have seen in 1950 predicted continuous war and decline. There is no period of history were Europe had peace for more than a generation or so. They were safe to predict this.

    We have peace today. Wars are all around the EU but not in the Community system. Yet politicians do not like to face reality. They have developed for example the Monnet myth which allows they to have ‘business as usual’ — Greek style politics, corrupt monetary policy etc.

    The problem, Matthew, is not only how to communicate but WHAT to communicate. The ‘public’ is a little smarter than politicians give credit. This is the reason that Schuman made the recommendations to the UN that he did.

  7. Wait, David, are you saying that every biologist in the world is only a “so-called” scientist because they don’t meet your personal criteria?

    I tried to find out about your scientific experience on your website, but it defeated me ( and I recommend that everyone reading this comment should visit your website immediately to see what I mean).

  8. The answer to your question is No, Matthew. That’s not what I said. I never made the remark you have falsely attributed to me. I never said “every biologist is a so-called scientist”. Check. Science involves predictability and theories do not apply without fact or if they have been falsified as a theory. Scientists should not present personal opinion as science, whether about bats when the facts contradict it or anything else. The concept of science as factual, not opinion-based, with the need to prove predictable outcomes is not only my opinion but what is generally taught.

    If you read my remarks you will see that I mentioned the great scientific strides made in biology. Science is about an impartial look at evidence. I hope you will look at the evidence impartially and not make personal reflections. My personal background is not relevant for the discussion — which I thought was about EU communications.

    Thanks for encouraging people to visit the schuman.info website but I can tell them in advance the purpose is what it says — European Democracy — and to provide factual information about the EU, not personal information. You will also find some commentaries about the lacks of EU research policies there and on eurdemocracy sites.

  9. Check? OK. You said “Scientific method is about Predictability”. Although this is generally taught, it is not all that is taught.

    In fact, it is a massive simplification, and falls squarely into the “physics envy” discussion I referenced at the beginning of this discussion, as it implies that biologists cannot be scientists because they cannot “rerun Planet Earth” in multiple double-blind trials in a variety of laboratories.

    And sorry, but I do think any scientific training you have is relevant to a discussion about science. You say that scientists should not present personal opinion as science. It would be better to say: when they present personal opinion, they’re not doing science.

    But just because you don’t agree with evolution doesn’t make you a scientist. Moreover, your arguments above are, frankly, spurious (flies don’t develop sonar because they have eyes, for god’s sake).

    I suggest we end this discussion here. It’s off-topic.

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