January 21, 2012
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.
(Note: this post got a “Brexit update” in July 2016 over on Medium)
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.
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?Mathew Lowry