How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

One Cheer for Sexy Soundbite Scicomm

Ecologist Manu Saunders (who helpfully poked holes in the “insect apocalypse” narrative) now asks: “How damaging is sexy soundbite scicomm?

Wait: first, what is “sexy soundbite scicomm”? As best I can tell from Saunders’ post, it’s comms or reporting that

  1. Hypes Big Data as the master key to all problems;
  2. Lionizes individual researchers; and/or
  3. Promotes single-study findings (like the insect apocalypse or the “we’ve lost 3 billion birds in North America” ones) over what she terms “scientific context.”

Sexy soundbite scicomm, Saunders argues, is toxic — not just for public understanding of what science actually is (not glamorous, not hero-based, not about sudden discoveries); but also for early career researchers who think they have to strive for stardom rather than just do good research.

And she’s quick to absolve scientists from blame. Science communicators are the ones leading science (and scientists) astray.

It’s a compelling essay, and it’s gotten some attention. Here’s what I think:

  • I think Saunders is right when she attacks scicomm and media exaggeration of scientific findings, as well as the fawning over Big Data as the uber-solution to everything.
  • I think Saunders is wrong when she wraps all this up as “sexy soundbite scicomm,” because there’s nothing wrong with a sexy soundbite if you can back it up, especially if it flows from your expertise instead of a single set of findings.
  • And I think Saunders is wrong to absolve individual scientists for the misdeeds of scicomm.

On that last point: I think Saunders thinks Saunders is wrong, too.

That’s because Saunders wrote last year about how many article submissions she sees as an editor with framing narratives that don’t match their findings. She calls this mismatch “over-framing” and says it both a) “runs the risk of overcommitting the study, which can lead down a path of flawed logic when discussing results,” and b) may lead to overhyped science communication and media representations of the findings.

Translation: Sexy soundbite scicomm starts with the study, and the drive by authors to push its messaging beyond what the findings can bear.

This post — “How to choose a framing narrative of scientific papers” — gives some excellent tips on how to avoid overframing your paper.

But the problem isn’t “sexy soundbite scicomm.”

It’s frames that don’t match findings. And an industry called science that increasingly incentivizes that mismatch.

Takeaway: If you want your research-driven organization to resist the lure of overframing, you’ll probably have to mandate that explicitly, perhaps even through a values statement.