Sunday, 3 August 2014

The art of distraction

Much of the effort that goes in to talking about science to young people, or engaging a wider audience with scientific issues in general for that matter, seems to be directed towards distraction. I don't wish to be too critical of this approach because we have all used it, and it does have some value. This aim of this short essay is simply to argue that distraction should be only a small part of what we do - not the main focus.

First I need to be clear about what I mean by 'distraction'. In an ideal world you would want everybody to interested in what you were saying. As an opening gambit you might do something, or say something that is spectacular, or loud, or controversial, or impressive just to 'hook' everyone's attention. Maybe you don't open with the hook, if you are clever you might just hint at the nature of the hook and build up to it placing it at a critical point in the presentation.

The hook, or the promise of a hook, is designed to keep the audience interested for long enough to get your message over, and to get you the required amount of applause at the end. Hooks have their uses, as I have said, but their over-use, and the competitive drive to develop 'better' ones, is ultimately pathological. In most cases their function is simply to distract the audience from the fact that they are not interested in what you are saying. They have seen so many hooks they are just waiting for the next one. They have become interested only in the art of distraction.

This wouldn't be such a bad situation if it were not for two things. First, most of science comes entirely without hooks. And second, many of the audience don't need or want them. Many of the audience are interested in you, and what you have to say and find the constant recourse to the shocking or spectacular unsatisfying.

Saying 'much of science comes entirely without hooks' doesn't mean that much of science isn't interesting, it simply means that it cannot be understood or appreciated in terms of scene-bites. (A 'scene-bite' is the presentational equivalent to the interview sound-bite - I just made that up!) Are you frustrated by the effect that the obsession with the sound-bite has had on the way politicians handle interviews? Scene-bite fixation is in danger of doing the same damage to the art of science communication. Everything around the distraction is forgotten and, by the insistence that the distraction is necessary, everything around it is also devalued.

It is increasingly the case that young people (particularly, but not exclusively) think that science is just a sequence of spectacular or cool events because that is all they ever see presented as science - or at least it is all they remember. As a result you don't get invited to speak unless you are bringing something spectacular or cool. 'Interesting' doesn't get a look in, and as a result the kids who are interested are badly served.

Science distraction is the opposite of science engagement. It keeps a few uninterested bottoms on a few seats for a short time, but creates a shadow that obscures the really interesting stuff and hides you from those members of the audience you stood the best chance of reaching.

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