Could comedy offer a way to communicate science more effectively?

Conference to explore adapting science communication to new challenges

Dr Jessamyn Fairfield. Photograph: Steve Cross

Dr Jessamyn Fairfield. Photograph: Steve Cross

 

Sometimes when things are tough, you just have to laugh. But could comedy also offer a way of communicating science more effectively? How has Covid-19 challenged and changed how we communicate science? And what sources can we trust anyway? Those are some of the questions being asked at an upcoming conference on science communication.

“In terms of media coverage, pandemic science has pushed a lot of other science to the side,” says broadcaster Jonathan McCrea, founder and this year’s MC of SCI:COM, which will be held online in March.

“We have needed to transition to this one screen, and compete with all the other stuff that is going on there – sports and culture and politics – and the science might be considered “covered” because you talked about Covid-19. I think one of the big casualties is that important issues such as climate action are being drowned out, and also it means that it can make underserved communities in science communication even harder to reach.”

Adapt to communicate

The theme of SCI:COM this year is how to adapt in science communication, and topics include looking at how science is being communicated in the pandemic as well as the challenges of reporting science accurately and responsibly when so much misinformation and intentional disinformation washes around.

Adapting to the challenges may involve us learning new skills and doing things differently, as speaker and author Tom Vanderbilt will explore, and Mark Little from Kinzen, and formerly Storyful, will look at where and how we get our information.

Actor Alan Alda practising improv and science communication with Jonathan McCrea at SCI:COM in 2018. Photograph: Naoise Culhane
Actor Alan Alda practising improv and science communication with Jonathan McCrea at SCI:COM in 2018. Photograph: Naoise Culhane

“One of the challenges for science communicators is how underlying systems online like recommender algorithms can decide what makes the news, and we need to think about how technology can help to improve sources for articles,” McCrea says. “Part of the issue is that what people consider an authority has become quite fluid, so we want to think about how can we be proactive and stop disinformation.”

Comedy

Maybe, though, it’s also the way you tell it. At SCI:COM, Dr Jessamyn Fairfield will join experts online from around the world to discuss science, comedy and making sure the combination works.

“Comedy is about surprises and looking at things from a new perspective, and to me that is what a lot of academic research is trying to do,” says Fairfield, the founder of Bright Club Ireland, which trains researchers to develop stand-up routines about their work and present them in a variety show with established comedians and musicians.

“Comedy is also informal, accessible, subversive and challenges hierarchies, and I feel it is a way to bring people in to understanding and being part of research even though they may not sign up to come to a public lecture in a university,” she adds.

When looking to engage a broad audience, Fairfield advises to steer away from using “inside jokes” that rely on an audience having a knowledge of your scientific subject, and to avoid comedy that makes fun of people for not knowing the science that you know.

“It is not helpful to stand up and make jokes at the expense of people who think that climate change is not real. That is not science communication, and it can further polarise debates on the issue,” she says. “Instead, it can be empowering for people to learn more through comedy about the complex science of climate change, and it can help to come to terms with the scariness of it all.”

Sci:COM 21 runs online on March 9th and 10th – for details and to book tickets see scicom.ie