Communicating science

Don’t fake it: five steps to beat imposter syndrome in science communication

SketchplanationsImage: Sketchplanations

Does this image ring any bells?

If so, welcome to the club. You, too, may be experiencing imposter syndrome, a key barrier to effective science communication.

And, if so, you’re in very good company.


On 1 October 1861 – two years after he published On the Origin of Species, and by now world-famous – Charles Darwin wrote in a letter to his friend, Charles Lyell:   Charles-robert-darwin-62911_1280



But I am very poorly today + very stupid + hate everybody + everything. One lives only to make blunders. — I am going to write a little Book for Murray on orchids & today I hate them worse than everything so farewell & in a sweet frame of mind, I am | Ever yours | C. Darwin.



Darwin displays three qualities that are regularly associated with imposter syndrome.   

  • A feeling of never being competent or knowledgeable enough
  • Consistent critical self-talk
  • An excessive focus on failures and mistakes

But his letter lacks one element essential to imposterism, which didn’t appear until 1978.

In that year, two psychologists – Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes – published a paper entitled The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women. The 150-plus women they studied all reported symptoms similar to Darwin’s, with one crucial addition.

They said that they felt like frauds. Untitled

According to Clance and Imes, they were particularly prone to “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness” and lived in perpetual fear that “some significant person will discover that they are indeed intellectual impostors.”


Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes

image via

By 1982, a journalist in Vogue was referring to “the ‘impostor’ syndrome” – a phrase Clance and Imes disliked and never used. In 2011, Valerie Young published her bestseller, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women; since then, the topic has generated over 3,500 papers and a heap of self-help books.

(Incidentally, ‘impostor’ and ‘imposter’ seem to be more or less interchangeable spellings. If you’re interested, check out this article. I shall continue to favour ‘imposter’ in this post, except when I quote other writers.)

Whatever it is – phenomenon or syndrome – imposterism seems to be widespread. One much-repeated statistic, apparently originating in a 2007 article by John Gravois, suggests that 70% of us – men and women – experience imposter syndrome at some point. I took the Clance Test while researching this post. I scored 61 out of 100, indicating that I ‘frequently have Impostor feelings’. Which seems reasonable.


According to Sandeep Ravindram, imposterism “seems especially common in competitive and creative fields, and those where evaluations are subjective. […] The feeling of being a fraud is also common in fast-changing fields such as technology or medicine.”

What about academia? As May Merino points out in a revealing post for The Oxford Scientist, measures of success in the post-grad, post-doc arena are much more nuanced than in undergraduate education, where grades and test scores offer seemingly clearer metrics of achievement. “The shift to being surrounded by scientists at the top of their game can be a challenging one,” Merino continues, and can “even evoke feelings of not deserving a seat at their table.”

Imposterism also thrives on feelings of isolation. After all, as Merino says, “every researcher’s path is unique.” The problems you face on that path – failed experiments, ambiguous survey results – “will not,” she says, “exactly mirror those that others face.” When things go wrong, you may feel trapped, ashamed as much by the sense of failure as by the prospect of giving it all up.

Stressed scientistimage by jcomp on Freepik

All of these feelings might be amplified in a competitive, ‘publish or perish’ culture, dominated by grant applications, citation scores and high impact factors. Heaven forbid that your peers might engage in back-biting or bullying to promote their own research…

In a recent article, Kate Munley writes: "the prevalence of imposter syndrome may be grossly underestimated in academia, particularly because mental health is considered a social stigma in higher education."

Now put science communication into the mix.

Is it possible that, in a research-intensive environment, showing an interest in public understanding of science might mark you out as a not-entirely serious researcher? That getting involved in science outreach or science engagement makes you feel somehow unworthy to be a scientist?

Well: I’ll assume that you’re willing to counter such negative thoughts. After all, you’re planning to make a presentation. Good for you. So: what to do?


Let’s focus, just for now, on the presentation itself.

  1. Observe your feelings.

Whatever they are, those feelings are not you. They’ve appeared from somewhere else and have chosen to visit. Bid them welcome.

It’s not so easy to view these thoughts objectively if you’re nervous. So take a few moments to breathe deeply – 7-11 breathing is a great technique here – and then let these feelings in through the door.

Write a few calling cards for them: one card for each feeling. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Who do you think you are?” “They'll find you out." (Use the word ‘you’ – not ‘I’.) There they are, sitting on the desk in front of you. Don’t tear them up. Take a look. Say ‘hi’. And be kind to them.

Flat 750x 075 f-pad 750x1000 f8f8f8image via Redbubble

  1. Ask yourself what you can learn.

These feelings are a sign that you’re challenging yourself to do something new. You’re stretching yourself, taking a risk, stepping outside your comfort zone. And that’s good. Who wants to do the same thing day in, day out, for the rest of their life?

Nerves are a sign that you care. That you want to do a good job in this presentation.

So, what can you learn from the experience? How can you use it to become a better speaker, to explain your ideas more clearly, to construct more effective arguments?

Set some clear goals for yourself. And then think about what you can do to achieve them.

  1. Focus on your audience.

Next, set some goals for the presentation itself.

I’ll guess that your focus so far has been almost entirely on your material. You’ve spent hours on the slides. You’ve tried your utmost to cover every base, every angle. You feel that you need to include everything. You don’t want to be found out, right?


Now change your focus. Think about your audience. Think about how you want to influence them. How do you want them to leave your presentation?

  • What do you want them to think (or know, or have an opinion about)?
  • What do you want them to feel?
  • And what do you want them to do?

All three goals matter. But the dynamic between them will shift, depending on your audience.

  • At a conference, you might want your audience to know a lot but not necessarily do anything.
  • If you’re presenting to policy-makers or government officials, you might want them to take specific actions.
  • If you’re talking to young people at a science festival, influencing their feelings might come to the fore.

Now you need to decide how to achieve these goals. So:

  1. Find the narrative.

Your goals for the presentation describe where you want your audience to be at the end of the presentation.

Now think about where they are at the start.

What do they already know and feel? If you’re not sure, then make a reasonable guess: what are they likely to be thinking about and feeling in relation to this topic?

Your presentation needs to take them on a journey from where they are to where you want them to be. That journey is the narrative of the presentation.

There are lots of ways of creating this narrative. You might want to tell a story. But stories are only one kind of narrative. Two narrative structures that I find consistently helpful are the And, But, Therefore structure, and something called Monroe’s Motivated Sequence.

(Image Source)

By this point, you’ll probably realise that you need to reorganise your material. Go ahead.

  1. Practise and get detailed feedback.

Rehearse. In real time. With a real audience, if you can possibly do so.

Choose someone whose opinion your trust: preferably not a close colleague or someone who’s familiar with your research. Ask for specific, detailed feedback. What did they understand? Where did they get lost? How are you coming across?

Use this feedback to identify your strengths as a presenter. Build on those skills. Don’t worry about eliminating your faults. They’re probably not faults, anyway.


It is possible that impostor syndrome is not actually a Thing. Or rather, it could be as much the result of external factors as of mental activity. Increasingly, researchers are looking for the roots of this experience in social structures, systemic inequalities and what historian Christy Pichichero has called discriminatory gaslighting. All of which deserves another blog post.

Meanwhile, one final thought. It’s not mine; it comes from Professor Jessica Collett.

“Impostorism,” she writes, “is most often found among extremely talented and capable individuals, not people who are true impostors.”

So, if you do feel assailed by imposter syndrome, it’s probably because you are extremely knowledgeable and competent. If you were a real imposter, you wouldn’t feel like one.

If you want to read more about preparing a great science presentation, check out these three posts on my blog.

So what? The conundrum of science communication

Whats your message? Finding-the-foundation-of-a-great-science-presentation

Presenting science: finding the structure

Seven ways to make science zing

BrScFestAn inspirational day last week at the British Science Association, working with the winners of this year’s BSA Award Lectures.  The BSA has presented these lectures since 1990; notable past winners include Professor Brian Cox (2006), Maggie Aderin-Pocock (2008) and Richard Wiseman (2002).  This year’s speakers are absolutely in that league.

The lectures embody the BSA’s vision of a world where science is at the heart of society and culture.  They recognise and promote the work of early-career scientists in the UK.  Each one aims to engage a broad audience, without at any point diluting the seriousness or complexity of its material.  Somewhere in the tension between those two imperatives is born the sense of wonder that makes a lecture zing. 

Here are seven ideas that I took away from the day, and that any science presenter might find useful.

Let the material find its own shape.  Every theme, every topic, every message, demands its own structure.  But we can lay down three broad principles. 

  • First, the structures that succeed are always dynamic: they arouse expectations, and then fulfil them.  Many scientific presentations are static: they’re all fulfilment.  (‘Make your point, then give the evidence.’).  Instead, look for the points of arousal – the moments of mystery, choice, uncertainty, conflict – and arrange your structure around these turning points.  (Charles Crawford calls them ‘hinges’.)
  • Second, narrative isn’t everything.  Sure, standard narrative structures can help. (Cue the Freytag Triangle; ‘SPQR’; and Monroe’s Motivated Sequence.)   But explanations can generate points of arousal, too (‘Why did that happen?’ ‘How does that arise?’).  And if you’re bold enough to make an argumentative claim, then that will almost certainly arouse your audience. 
  • Third, let your intuition help you.  Caroline Goyder suggests factoring in dream time.  Create a loose framework “as soon as the invitation goes in the diary.” “Once you have that frame,” she says, “your unconscious will get to work and the idea will grow, even while you’re doing other things.”  I’d also suggest talking your material through with a (preferably non-scientific) friend.  Where do their eyes light up?  What fascinates them?  Those moments are potential hinges.

Create a mystery.  The more intriguing, the better.  It doesn’t have to be a burning controversy.  A life cycle with intriguing gaps; a manufacturing process that remains a mystery to this very day; a mismatch between theory and findings; all of these can give you the narrative hook that will capture your audience’s attention.  You might find the suspense you’re looking for in the gap between hypothesis and results in your own research. 

Give us meaning, not just information.  Your audience will appreciate simple explanatory models – either physical or mental.  We’re not very good at appreciating statistics (how big is a trillion?).  We are extremely good at deriving meaning from examples – even if they’re not exactly representative.  Analogies and metaphors are useful.  Another powerful technique is to talk about physical elements as if they’re characters in a story.  “The particles get really hot and want to get as far from each other as they can.” 

Involve your audience in the research.  The speakers in the group were brilliant at this.  They had dozens of ideas for creating mini-experiments in the hall: asking the audience to stand and asking a sequence of questions that filtered out sub-groups as respondents sat; using mobiles to conduct polls; offering a choice of experimental paths and asking the audience to choose one; asking the audience to explain surprising findings.  Test out these procedures, if you can, before the big day.  And give them lots of time.

Make it relevant.  Of course, you may want to show the social, economic or political effects of your research.  But imagination is just as relevant as utilitarian outcomes.  If you can make your audience feel awe, or wonder, or intrigue, you’ve strengthened their bond to the natural world, to their fellow humans or to the scientific project.  No bad thing.  

One very obvious way to do that, of course, is to –

Kids-Company-BSW-2-low-resInvoke the ‘wow’ factor.  Every subject will offer its own ‘wow’ opportunities.  It might be a spectacular demonstration, a dramatic visual analogy or a mind-blowing statistic (“for a few moments, this is the hottest place on the entire planet.”)  Potential applications for an untried or forgotten technology will often create a tingle.  The point about ‘wow’ moments is that they make us see things differently.  If you can shift people’s perceptions in some way, the shift in their thinking will follow.

Embrace controversy.  This is the toughest one.  Some issues are inherently controversial; others may provoke unanticipated emotional responses. 

We had powerful conversations in our group about how public expectations of scientists can frustrate their plans to communicate their ideas.  We (lay members of the public, like me) want scientists to give us definite answers; and we distrust them when they try to do so.  We want scientists to solve moral and ethical issues for us, and then criticise them if they dare to do so.   

The best thing you can do is show that you, too, are a human being.  Demonstrate the implications of your research, good and bad.  Point out how far the science can go, and where morality or law must take over.  Don’t be afraid to take a stand, if you believe in it and can justify it.  Above all, show us why your material fascinates you.  Excitement is contagious.

Here are the 2015 winners and their respective awards.

  • Katherine Woolf, from University College London, is the Charles Darwin Award Lecture winner for agriculture, biological and medical sciences.
  • Jill Stuart, from London School of Economics and Political Science, is the Margaret Mead Award Lecture winner for social sciences.
  • Julie Wertz, from University of Glasgow, is the Jacob Bronowski Award Lecture winner for science and the arts.
  • Hazel Gibson, from Plymouth University, is the Charles Lyell Award Lecture winner for environmental sciences.
  • Alex McLean, from University of Leeds, is the Daphne Oram Award Lecture winner for digital innovation.
  • Radu Sporea, from the Advanced Technology Institute, University of Surrey is the Isambard Kingdom Brunel Award Lecture winner for engineering, technology and industry, supported by Siemens.
  • Ian Chapman, from the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, is the Rosalind Franklin Award Lecture winner for physical sciences and mathematics, supported by Siemens.

Each winner will give a talk at the British Science Festival in September in Bradford.  You can find out more about their lectures here

Finding our voices


This is a joint post by me (in handsome Georgia) and Imogen Barker (in elegant Trebuchet). 

Amsterdam in autumn.  A lone heron keeps watch over the Herengracht from a car roof.  At the Rijksmuseum, a soprano sax sends Bach skirling up into the arches.  And behind the welcoming doors of de Burcht, speechwriters from 11 countries meet to discuss their craft. 

The ESN conference is now firmly established as the go-to European speechwriting event.  And it has always welcomed delegates from other continents.  This year, 70 of the brightest and best met to inspire and be inspired. 

As usual, the day before the conference was devoted to masterclasses.  Delegates were able to choose from CreativityWorks (Martin Shovel and Martha Leyton), Rob Friedman and Denise Graveline.


(If you have blogged about any of these seminars, send me an email:

[email protected]

I'll link to your post here.)

I attended a session run by Denise Graveline, a Washington DC-based speaker coach.  She also runs the excellent blog The Eloquent Woman, writing about women’s public speaking, and is collating an index of women’s speeches

So she's the perfect person to lead a training session about women and public speaking. 

What was lovely was hearing the experiences of other delegates – both men and women – on this topic.  We were from diverse backgrounds and all at different points in our careers, and the session was a safe space in which to discuss our experiences.


We started by discussing women’s voices in the public sphere.  We spoke about Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who spoke out about girls’ education and was shot in the head by the Taliban. 

More recently, Anita Sarkeesian, a media critic and blogger, cancelled a speech at Utah State University after death threats.  

In both cases, the violence was directly related to the women speaking out.  The fear of a girl with a mouth. 

There seems to be an unconscious bias against women’s public voice, from both men and women, although we also agreed that there is a conscious bias against women’s speech too. 

Women are far less likely to ask for salary negotiations or agree to give keynote speeches, and we discussed the reasons for this.  Female speakers have always been the “other”.  Although women are now more likely to be accepted as public speakers, they still have to deal with the likability-and-competence conundrum.  For a speaker to be accepted, they have to be both likable (approachable and engaging) and competent (showing expertise and authority). 

Women, it appears, cannot have both.

A real eye-opener came when Denise handed out the ‘Female Conference Speaker bingo sheet’, a tongue-in-cheek but pertinent review of some real reasons men have given for not inviting women to speak at conferences.  For example:

  • Women need to act more like men
  • Trying to get more female speakers is sexist
  • You have to be bold; people aren’t just going to invite you to present

So what practical steps can women take? 

Firstly: what doesn’t work. 

Denise, who has spent hours reading research and so-called “self-help” books on the topic, has found that tips like ‘dress more like a man’ or ‘lower your voice’ don't work, either for the speaker or the attendees.  One delegate, a high-ranking EU policy director, had actually been told to wear fake glasses so that she would look more intellectual.

Denise directed us to TEDtalks like Amy Cuddy’s Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.


She also introduced us to the Message Wardrobe, a way of introducing yourself when speaking or networking.  Academic qualifications are actually the least important thing when introducing yourself; what matters is the thing that makes you interesting and authoritative in your area.  Your Message Wardrobe is a short paragraph that can be deployed on all occasions.  You'll never be caught short again. 

We also spoke more generally about the structure of speeches, including Monroe’s motivated sequence and the power of storytelling. 

The only thing that would have bettered the training session would have been to make it longer!  We had a full day, but we only scratched the surface.  And we all left more knowledgable, informed and empowered.

Amsterdam_-_de_burcht_-_foto_arjan_bronkhorst_(1)De Burcht, the oldest trade union building in the Netherlands, stands newly renovated in the Plantage, an area of museums and parks to the east of the city.  At the end of the street, gibbons hoot from Artis, Amsterdam's zoo. 

This was once the city’s Jewish quarter: a decommissioned synagogue around the corner houses the Dutch Resistance Museum; at the tram stop, the Hollandsche Schouwburg stands as the national memorial to the 104,000 Jews murdered in the Second World War. 

Henri Polak, longtime president of the Diamond Workers’ Union – owners of de Burcht – was himself arrested by the Nazis but died before he could be deported.  He’s remembered around the building, in the name of the street, and even in the wifi passcode. 

The warmth of international friendship seems even more precious in this place.

JuliaDeClerck-SachsseDr. Julia De Clerck-Sachsse wants to find a new way to explain the EU to the world.  Screwing up the text of her prepared speech, she launched into the story of her mother’s birth amid the ruins of Europe, her grandmother’s life almost certainly saved by an unknown British soldier. 


Today, with antisemitism again on the rise, and people drowning as they struggle to get in, how can speechwriters help to demonstrate that Europe’s values are universal? 

It will be hard to find a compelling narrative if we’re not convinced ourselves.

[Julia's speech is available as a podcast here.]

Ryan Heath took the conversation beyond Europe – where he still works – and into the Cloud.  Speeches live both in the room and outside it.  Soundbites will be tweeted even as they’re spoken.   How do we adapt?

RyanTwitter, Ryan suggested, is like a gym for speechwriters, promoting critical and focussed thinking.  We should specialise less and offer more: our speeches can feed letters, videos, and the PR machine, television and radio – as well as YouTube and Instagram.  Awareness of the new media makes us work harder.  And nobody knows what will trend next.  We need somehow to stay alert and use as many of the new channels as possible, without going insane. 

[Ryan's speech as a podcast here.]

One thing I really like about ESN is its openness to different forms of public communication.  Dr Lucy Rogers, for example, is no policy wonk.  In fact, I suspect that her most burning ambition is to go to Mars.  In the meantime, she turns science into plain English.

At the heart of her breakout session, Lucy offered four key principles.

  • Lucy AstronautYour facts don’t have to be 100% accurate.  (But don’t mislead.) 
  • All audiences are intelligent but they probably have different knowledge bases.  (And different values, probably, too.)
  • Use imagery.  (How would you picture the force of 10 Newtons?)
  • Tell a story.  Involve, not just the head, but also the heart.  (And even the loins, if you can manage it.)

Alexei Kapterev did what he does best: putting the Russian cat among the pigeons.  Alexei actually likes PowerPoint slides.  Even the ones with words.  In fact, especially the ones with words.  But they need to be well structured.  Too much text with no visual structure is a no-no. 



Alexei fires off ideas with the trigger-happy enthusiasm of a student in Chekhov.  We need, he explained excitably, to consider four things when we design our slides:


  • the size of the audience;
  • the proficiency of the audience;
  • the audience’s need for handouts; and
  • how much preparation time we have.

And yes, his slides were magnificent.  (You can see one of his brilliant presentations here.)Newman

[Alexei's speech as a podcast here.]

Two of our speakers explored that other visual element of any speech: body language.  Richard Newman reminded us that our words need a speaker.  He had us leaping up and down like demented jack-in-a-boxes in his eagerness to find a middle way between the denial position –









and the vigorous fight position –







A good solution is the BBC Presenter Position:










It’s not a matter of finding a single style, Richard told us.  The key is congruency: when words, body and voice align, everything resonates – and the much-misquoted Mehrabian statistics become irrelevant.  (He’s written a good piece in the Huffington Post on all this.)

[Richard's speech as a podcast here.]

Andreas Kluth took this part of the conversation still further.  His talk was a real high point for me, so I'm going to blog about it separately.

“The magical decree is implicit in all language,” wrote Kenneth Burke.  Marcus Webb, in his inspiring keynote speech, asked how that magic works.

Marcus-OCT-2013Marcus, TEDMED’s Chief Storytelling Officer, began by reciting the openings of some famous speeches, including Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech.  He went on to explain that what's important is the electric connections between speaker and audience, the collective memory and shared experience that binds audience to speaker. 

This connection is deep.  Lincoln called it the ‘mystic chords of memory’. 

Most people in a close relationship know this bond, and between audience and speaker there is a kind of collective tuning-in.  The good news is that human beings are wired from emotional connection and empathy.  

A speaker’s task, said Marcus, is not to convince but to intrigue.  He disagreed with Peggy Noonan, who believed that a speaker must give an argument that respects the audience’s intelligence.  Not so.  Instead, a speech should be the journey of a story. 

A story works on the unconscious, and a memory of something in the speech may bubble up days, weeks or even months after it was spoken.  This doesn't mean inserting one or two maudlin anecdotes; a speech can have a narrative even if it contains no story.  King’s famous speech, for example, includes no stories but does have a narrative arc.  It's in three acts, running from past, to present, to future:

  • A promise was made ‘five score years ago’;
  • 100 years later that promise has been broken;
  • ‘One day,’ we must redeem that promise.

Marcus used the pertinent musical metaphor of the symphony to describe a speech in four acts: 

Nielsen-scheherazade1.  Main theme, excitement (the issue)
2.  Variations on the theme (list of facts)
3.  Battle or storm (intense, short, a promise of action)
4.  Reprise the main theme: triumph (take us to the future)

And a coda: affection for and confidence in the audience.

[Appropriately, Marcus illustrated his points with Rimsky's music about that great storyteller, Sheherezade.]

A speaker’s task is to encourage, using the root of the word coeur meaning 'heart' in French.  This requires radical vulnerability: it takes time and can be a painful process.  We have to show sides of ourselves that are unpleasant, opening ourselves up to judgment and criticism.  

But we owe it to our audience to do that.  People appreciate honesty, on a public or personal level.  Marcus’ own story about winning a speechwriting competition as a teenager by writing an emotionally wrought but hollow speech - and his subsequent juvenile smugness - was a brilliant example of radical vulnerability without sentimentality.  It was honest, funny and sensitive. 

He directed us to another speech: Peter Attia’s TEDMED speech about obesity and diabetes, in which he reveals that, as a young surgeon, he felt contempt for a diabetes patient.  This funny and subversive speech shows again how radical vulnerability needn’t be a saccharine recipe for disaster.


[Marcus's speech as a podcast here.]

Where, then, do we find our true voice?  And the authentic voice of the speaker for whom we write?  We wandered out into the leafy streets of Amsterdam, thinking back to the very first presentation of the day. 


Jan Sonneveld had told us how speechwriting had transformed his cynicism into hope.  He assured us that we can transcend cheap opinions, quick anger and fear.  (Read the full text of his inspirational speech here.  The podcast is here.)

Jan directed our attention to the building in which we were sitting. 

"We too can make it happen," he said, "if our words, as the Dutch poet Henriëtte Roland Holst wrote on the walls of this room (beside her husband’s murals), ‘…bear the hope in our hearts / that makes the dark world light’.


Find out more about the European Speechwriter Network here.

The roots of compulsion

RivetedRiveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One With the Universe 

Jim Davies

Palgrave Macmillan, 2014

ISBN: 9781137279019

£14.44 (Amazon)

Kindle edition £9.94 (Amazon)

Gazing at a beautiful view from a log cabin; hearing a ghost story; finding yourself glued to pictures of a pile-up on the motorway; reciting the Lord’s Prayer... 

Are these experiences in any way alike? 

According to Jim Davies, they are.  “Strange as it may seem, compelling things share many similarities.”  In this book, Davies claims to do “something that has never been done before”: to show that “the qualities that are common to all these things fit like a key in a lock with our psychological proclivities.”  Generalise hypothetically from this commonality and – hey presto – we have a theory.

He calls it the compellingness foundations theory.  (The italics are his.)

1239177_10100579883092241_2012323786_oNothing as useful as a good theory, I always say.  So how useful is this one?  Well: quite a lot.  Davies – a professor at the Institute of Cognitive Science of Carleton University – posits six foundations for compellingness. 

I’ll buy four of them.

The first is social compellingness theory.  We tend to think that all patterns have something to do with social meaning, intention and agency; and we tend to believe social explanations that we hear from other people.  We look for reasons, not causes.  Faced with a mysterious or random catastrophe, for example, we assume conscious intent.  (Which explains conspiracy theories.)  We’re obsessed by status and gossip.  We have an unquenchable appetite for stories.  (Davies is good on stories, though not quite so good, perhaps, at telling them.)

Secondly, we tend to believe the things we fear or hope are true.  Believing in what we fear to be true has evolutionary advantages:  it’s safer to believe that the shape in the corner is a man-eater rather than a heap of old clothes.  Hope is a little more curious: “one of the ultimate reasons we do anything is so that we will have beliefs that make us happy.”  Thus, we prefer landscapes to abstract art; and we find gambling more compelling than regular work because “intermittent reward reinforces behaviour even more strongly than reliable reward”.   

Third, “we love patterns and repetition.”  We prefer patterns that are easy to understand.  And “we are more likely to like and even believe things that we find easy to understand.”   This fact triggers some interesting thoughts on music, and especially language:  quotations and idioms will stick if they are patterned simply.  

And fourth, we are compelled by incongruity, the flip side of pattern-recognition.  Incongruity triggers the desire to understand.  In fact, “sometimes people like things because they are confusing and hard to understand.  To explain this I created the concept of idea effort justification.” 

Davies's method in these chapters is breathless and excitable.  The connectivity sometimes suffers.  He plays the absent-minded professor, tumbling ideas onto the page, disconcertingly switching back and forth between subjects (“Returning to computer game addictions...”; “ let’s get back to miracles...”; “back to the subject...”).  With no obvious narrative arc or developing argument, he must rush us from one instant wonder to another to keep us hooked; the result is a kind of attention deficit disorder as we hurry to keep up. 

Shutterstock_59584435BuddhaWEB-ONLY-676x450“Meditation sounds relaxing,” pants Davies as we swerve into Buddhism, “but some, this author included, find it more like taking your brain to the gym.  It’s hard work.”  I can believe it.  Nonetheless, those four chapters do provide interesting and useful material.  I found myself almost immediately using some of it in my own training work.  And Davies is never less than entertaining, despite the helter-skelter approach.  

But then his thinking gets worryingly untethered.  Where previously he’s tied his account more or less to specific loci of attention – social relationships, fear, hope, patterns and surprises – he now starts to drift around the human body, and to clock up the psychological biases without which no popular account of brain activity seems to be complete.  There’s plenty of interest here – we are more likely to give to charity after riding up an escalator than after riding down one, for example – but the links to compellingness are sometimes tenuous.  And when it comes to sex – surely the most compelling of all human activities – Davies’s account is oddly dull.

“What I have presented here,” we read at the end of his book, “is not a knock-down set of experiments showing us that all things we love are compelling for the same reasons.”  Well: for most of the book, I’d say that’s exactly what he has presented. 

Video-undefined-21FB080000000578-671_636x358By the time I hit the last chapter, I was beginning to wonder whether perhaps Davies’s definition of compellingness was a bit baggy.  His theory, after all, is essentially a theory of attention.   Some forms of attention are momentary; others have the quality of a lifelong trance.  How can we consider, say, the compulsion to watch a fight in the street, and a lifelong devotion to a religion, to be experiences of the same kind

The theory would need to include some mechanism that links instant focus to permanent belief. 

Perhaps the availability cascade can help.  Take the news, for example, which worries Davies a good deal.  We believe stories rather than statistics; as a result, we believe that the events portrayed in the news are more common than they are, which makes us think that they are important, which fuels our desire to know more about them, which drives further media attention...

HistogramInterestingly, Davies suggests that something similar goes on in science.  A researcher will submit a paper with unusual findings and suppress the less interesting results (this is the ‘file drawer problem’); and journals prefer to publish ‘significant’ results rather than results backing up previous results.  Consequently, compelling scientific findings sometimes win out over accurate ones.

(Which triggers a question about the robustness of Davies’s own hypotheses.  If he claims his book to be ‘super lumpy’ – to be principally about what humans have in common rather than how individuals differ – then how many of the very many papers he cites explain common human preferences?  How many are survivors of the file drawer problem?)

This last chapter lurches into a completely different register.  From explanation, Davies turns to argumentation, engaging in a lengthy quarrel with himself about why religions are so persistently compelling.  It's a dangerous rhetorical move and it threatens to destabilise the book completely.

Part of the argument is to compare religion with science.  As usual, Davies looks for shared features.  “Science and religion,” claims Davies, “have two things in common.”  First, both generate beliefs that people endorse or reject.  Secondly, both have methods for generating those beliefs: in other words, they have different epistemologies. Science, he concludes, beats religion as a body of knowledge because its epistemology has a built-in self-correcting mechanism that religion lacks.  But if you’re looking for beliefs that will help hold a society together, science, by his own admission, has not been so successful.

“Beautiful ideas are not always true,” Davies warns us, “and when we encounter a compelling idea, we must take extra care.”  He wants us to “use knowledge of what makes ideas compelling to help us make decisions about what to believe.”  It’s a big ask.  How do we start? 

I think we'd do well to stick to Davies's four really strong ideas.

“Be wary of compelling ideas that are framed in terms of people and relationships, are easy to understand, present an intriguing puzzle, or play to our hope and fears.” 

Ok.  I’ll try.




What shall we do?

Closing the mind gap

Closing the Mind Gap

Ted Cadsby

BPS Books, 2014

ISBN 978 1 927483 78 7





China Miéville sets one of his novels, The City & the City, in two cities occupying the same physical space.  Citizens of each city, partly through choice and partly through political coercion, have trained themselves to ‘unsee’ the other city: to recognize the buildings and inhabitants of the other city without seeing them.  Crossing the cognitive divide, even by accident, is regarded as ‘breaching’ – a terrible crime invoking unspeakable punishments.

Ted Cadsby, in his ambitious and enjoyable new book, similarly invokes two coterminous worlds.  We live in both, but usually recognise only one.  The consequences of ignoring the other can be profoundly damaging.

World #1 is, in his description, ‘straightforward’.  In World #1, we easily differentiate meaningful signals from noise; patterns are consistent across different situations; feedback is direct, timely and clear.  In World #1, learning is easy and prediction is reliable.  World #1 is the world “in which countless generations of our ancestors lived and in which we continue to spend much of our time.” 

Fractal19World #2 is ‘complex’.  In World #2, signals are buried in noise; patterns vary across situations because each situation is unique; feedback on our actions is indirect, delayed and ambiguous.  World #2 has, Cadsby suggests, “snuck up on us”, principally in the evolutionary blink of an eye that witnessed the Industrial and Information Revolutions. 

The farmers of World #1 could reliably expect their predictions to turn out correctly (except, presumably, when they didn’t); the knowledge workers of World #2, in contrast, “cannot rely on simple cues and timely feedback to make decisions.”

Cadsby argues that our brains have evolved to navigate World #1 and are unprepared for World #2.   In fact, we have, figuratively, two brains: the ‘old’ brain, which operates unconsciously, and the ‘new’ brain, which has evolved over the past 100,000 years and which we think of as conscious.  We think automatically with the ‘old’ brain, and effortfully with the ‘new’ one.  But the partnership is unequal:  the ‘new’ brain has limited access to the ‘old’ one.  As a result of this ‘brain-brain’ gap, the way we think is not always matched to our modern world, and so we face the second challenge of a ‘brain-world’ gap. 

The challenge is to close the gaps.

Cadsby’s book works with an explanatory narrative of human cognition that has developed Old brain, new brainrapidly over the past decade or two.   The ‘left-brain-right-brain’ narrative of the 70s and 80s has gradually given way to an ‘intuition-and-rationality’ narrative, under the influence of psychology, complexity science, evolutionary anthropology, cognitive science and what’s loosely referred to as neuroscience.  Paul MacLean's model of the triune brain helped get the narrative going; Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, Stephen Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Mind and Chris Frith's Making Up the Mind have all made interesting contributions.  

Like its predecessor, the ‘intuition/rationality’ narrative relies on a satisfyingly simple dichotomy.  Where the earlier explanation concentrated on a lateral division between left and right brain, the new one emphasizes a vertical division, the ‘new’ brain (represented by the neocortex) sitting on top of the ‘old’, intuitive, emotional brain (represented mostly by the hippocampus and the amygdala). 

This new narrative has considerable explanatory power.  Cadsby argues that “our minds are meaning-making machines”: we predict the nature of reality by intuitively pattern-matching to pre-existing mental models, some inherited (like the ability to recognize a face), some learned (like the ability to ride a bike).  ‘Constructive realism’ is useful in World #1 because in this world the pattern-matches are usually more or less accurate; but in World #2, constructive realism falls prey to “greedy reductionism”: we oversimplify complexity and conclude overconfidently.   

Type 1 thinking, intuitive and automatic, will help us solve straightforward problems, but not complex ones.  It will help us read a novel but not write one; eat a meal but not cook it; watch tennis but not play it.  If we want to understand complexity more effectively, we need to invoke Type 2 thinking.

The catch is that Type 2 thinking requires concentration.  Where Type 1 is quick, Type 2 must be slow; where Type 1 operates in parallel, Type 2 can operate only one task at a time.  Much of the book is devoted to the strategies necessary to develop Type 2 thinking: study the problem landscape more carefully; pursue missing information; analyse causal relationships; and so on.  Cadsby suggests that we need to develop two types of Type 2 thinking:  Type 2.1, which helps us model complexity more accurately; and Type 2.2, thinking about thinking, which “brings us as thinking agents into the process of thinking”.  Cadsby calls Type 2.2 ‘metacognition’ and, with a Buddhist inflection, ‘mindfulness’. 

Bigstock-Are-You-Sure-45817090But we’re not inclined to do either.  We prefer Type 1 thinking.  For one thing, effortful thinking requires – well – effort, and we need to conserve cognitive energy.  Worse still, we’re addicted to certainty: we need to know, we need to be in control, and we’re desperate to enjoy the calm, pleasurable (intuitive) feeling of knowing that we have figured something out.  Ambiguity and doubt create too much discomfort.

Closing the Mind Gap develops this thesis in great detail.  Cadsby synthesises huge quantities of information and explains it elegantly.  This may not be quite a popular science book and it may not be quite a management book; but it's certainly a page-turner.  Cadsby is much influenced by Daniel Kahnemann (Thinking Fast and Slow), although he also cites the work of Robin Hogarth, Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Keith Stanovich, along with a host of experimental evidence to support his argument.  Along the way, he offers excellent accounts of theory of mind, the workings of the emotions, Bayesian probability theory and much more.  For anybody interested in understanding why we so often fail to think as well as we can, this book will be useful (though I wish his endnotes indicated his sources more precisely). 

And yet, and yet.  Something bothers me. 

To begin with, I’m not sure about these two worlds.  How do we distinguish #1 from #2?  Are they not both simply mental constructs?  After all, as Cadsby himself says:  “our earliest forms of conscious awareness enabled language, culture and innovation, and we began to create a new world for ourselves.”  We find ourselves paradoxically limited in our ability to understand the cognitive complexity that we ourselves have generated. 

DecisionsAnd then, understanding complexity is never the whole story.  The primary function of a brain is to enable an organism to move.  If “all life is problem solving” – as Karl Popper suggested – then, as Cadsby points out, “the brain interprets its environment so it can motivate actions that are conducive to thriving.”  Or, to quote José Ortega y Gasset:  “Living is a constant process of deciding what we are going to do.”  The truth, however complex, matters less than the solution, which is not an answer but an intervention in the world.

Cadsby touches on decision-making.  He discusses the Taylor-Russell diagram; and he acknowledges, entertainingly, the provisional quality of all decisions.  But his advice on how to decide better is somewhat negative: we should qualify our conclusions with ‘probably not’, ‘could be’ or ‘it appears to me that...’  I’d like more emphasis on how to choose what to do, and how to manage risk. 

Perhaps Cadsby has picked up Kahnemann’s pessimism, along with the undoubted insights of behavioural economics.  It seems that that the best we can do is overcome – effortfully – our inevitable cognitive shortcomings.  For example, we read a lot about confirmation bias, availability bias and myside bias, but nothing about optimism bias: the tendency to assume that everything will turn out ok, which becomes a useful learning tool when surprised by failure or the unexpected.  (I’d like to see more in the book about learning.)  Rather than celebrating our successes in combining Type #1 and Type #2 thinking – in collaborative research, artistic production, business and diplomacy – Cadsby invokes the quietism of Stoicism and Buddhism to help us outmanoeuvre Type 1 thinking and the depressing negativity bias of our emotions.  (“The marginal value of eating and sex declines rapidly once we have had our fill, but the marginal value of avoiding danger never declines.”  Hm. ) 

What’s missing?

The clue may be in the ‘cultural big bang’ that Cadsby describes early in the book.  It’s a critical part of the narrative.  This was the moment, perhaps 50,000 years ago, when human LW109mithen2consciousness seemed to take a sudden leap forward, “fuelled by the ... ability to communicate complex ideas and generalize learning by applying insight from one task to different ones.”   Something happened to our thinking; something that allowed us to transcend the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 thinking and combine them; something that offered us the opportunity, not merely to generalise, but to create wholly new ideas.  Cadsby acknowledges that this cognitive leap expanded our working memories and enabled us to speculate about the past and the future.  But there’s a more radically significant element in this new ‘cathedral of the mind’, as Stephen Mithen has called it.  And Cadsby, I can’t help feeling, has missed it.

That element is metaphorical thinking.   

“The metaphor,” said José Ortega y Gasset, “is probably the most fertile power possessed by man.”  Metaphorical thinking has generated the massive potential for creativity that continues to drive our cognitive development.  Where, I wonder, might metaphor might fit into Ted Cadsby’s splendidly articulated argument?

Framing for wonks (and others)


Photo by mnadi

A very good blogpost by Athene Donald set me thinking the other day, about writing policy papers, position papers, committee papers, and other kinds of persuasive document.  She was responding to this article by Stian Westlake on the Guardian Political Science blog.

Both pieces concentrate on matters stylistic.  Athene Donald quotes three key suggestions from Westlake’s piece.

  • Neither glibness nor prolixity make for useful advice.

(I think it should be ‘makes’ – but let that pass.)

  • Clarity, brevity and a sense of narrative are all important parts of good advice.

“It takes an eagle eye,” comments Professor Donald wisely, “to remove unnecessary circumlocutions and hesitancies.”

  • Good advice is not just a matter of providing information, or summarising research. It also involves making a judgment about the balance of facts, helping frame the issue, and communicating in a way that the person you’re counselling will understand and act on.

To which she adds:  “Scientists aren’t always familiar with the idea of framing, or at least that is my personal experience.”

An important point is lurking here, which needs to be dragged out for scrutiny.

Westlake quotes Alan Clark, who once wrote a paper advocating deep cuts in military spending. Clark crows:


...not only was my paper first in, it was only five pages long. All this stuff [civil servants are] sending up now is ten, twenty pages per memo. On-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand balls. No one will bother, and in any case all will be read in the context of my argument.  Julian told me that the Treasury had commented that mine was 'the first decently written paper' they had seen for thirty years.


Ignore, if you can, the schoolboyish glee.  Clark’s success, I suggest, wasn’t principally due to style.  Clark got his way, as Westlake notes nearby, “by force of argument and cunning.”

Scientists are often frustrated by the irrationality of non-scientists.  Creationists ignore the overwhelming success of evolution as an explanatory theory.  Climate change sceptics scoff at sophisticated meteorological analysis.  Nigerian citizens refuse to inoculate their children against polio because they believe, against all the evidence, that the vaccine causes infertility.

Why do people resist good arguments so often and so persistently?

Because argument doesn’t operate by reason alone.  At least, most arguments don’t.  To succeed, an argument has to be framed to fit the assumptions, values and beliefs of the audience. 

Frames are the mental models through which we perceive and make sense of the world.  Some frames seem to be genetically imprinted; most are learned and reinforced through experience.  The choices we make, the decisions we take, and the arguments we believe, are determined by the frames we use. 

The idea of framing has been around for some decades.  The great rhetorician Kenneth Burke talked about ‘terministic screens’; Gregory Bateson and Ervin Goffmann developed the idea further in the 1970s.  More recently, framing has become seriously trendy through the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann on ‘cognitive biases’.

In the field Toulminof informal logic, framing serves to establish what Stephen Toulmin calls an argument’s warrant.  A warrant is a generally held assumption, value or belief that justifies (or warrants) the word ‘because’ as a link between claim and reason.  We’ll be convinced by an argument if, and only if, we accept the warrant underlying it. 

Imagine a nutritionist making this case to a five-year-old.

Eat your vegetables because they’re good for you.

What chance of success here?  The warrant is the unstated assumption that ‘we should eat what’s good for us’.  Show me a five-year-old who holds that truth to be self-evident.  They don’t buy it.  The argument is unwarranted.  Failure of helpless nutritionist.

Of course, there are other methods of persuasion.  We could use force, social proof (‘your best friend Sam eats his vegetables’), or any of Robert Cialdini’s other patterns of influence. 

We could hire Brian Cox or Dara Ó Briain to do the job; but that’s not reason.  That’s charisma: a version of what Aristotle called ethos.

Now look at what Alan Clark was doing.  As Timothy Johnson points out in his comment to Westlake’s piece, Clark was preaching to the converted: trying to convince the Treasury to make spending cuts.  Perfect framing.  When does the Treasury ever not want to make spending cuts?  That warrant – ‘spending cuts are goooooooooood’ – pretty well acts as the Treasury’s motto.

Hardly deep; but definitely cunning.

According to political communication researcher Jim Kuyper, frames operate in four ways:

  • they define problems;
  • they diagnose causes;
  • they make moral judgments; and
  • they suggest remedies.

When we’re constructing an argument, then, we could usefully ask four questions about our audience.

  • How do they define the problem?
  • What do they think the cause is?
  • What’s their moral view of the problem?
  • What kind of remedy are they looking for?

We then have to frame our argument to address the answers to those four questions.

Now, I can see that this might be a horrifying suggestion for many scientists.  After all:

  • How do they define the problem?  As a hypothesis.
  • What do they think the cause is? Whatever the research tells them; and the causes may be complex and various.
  • What’s their moral view of the problem? Whatever can’t be falsified is likely to be true.
  • What kind of remedy are they looking for? One that respects the complexity of the truth uncovered by the research.

That’s the frame through which (I hope) they view reality.  Which is fine if their audience for their argument frames in the same way.  But if they don’t – as many politicians, journalists, activists, members of faith communities or ordinary folk so often don’t – then the argument will fail.

Framing, it seems to me, is a powerful tool for constructing more effective arguments.  Anyone arguing across intellectual, social or political boundaries will find it helpful.  Not just policy wonks.

(Thanks also to Timothy Johnson for pointing us to this article, which takes the conversation still further...)

It all makes sense with hindsight

Thinking Fast and SlowDaniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow 

Penguin Books, 2012  £8.99

ISBN: 978 0 141 03357 0




Daniel Kahneman is a behavioural economist.  He’s spent decades studying the effects of social, cognitive and emotional factors on the decisions we make – economic and otherwise.  In Thinking, Fast and Slow, he shares some of the insights of his work in decision science: to stimulate, as he says, “watercooler conversations” so that we can better understand the systemic errors of judgement and choice that humans are prone to.

What has all this to do with rhetoric?  Aristotle tells us that rhetoric concerns “things about which we deliberate but for which we have no systematic rules”.  Decision science deals in the same matters.  It offers evidence-based theories about how we choose in the face of uncertain outcomes: when we face risk, when a situation is incomprehensibly complicated, or when information is scarce. 



Kahneman explains his findings by invoking the fiction of two ‘systems’.  System 1 is intuitive, associative and fast; System 2 is rational, logical, slow and lazy.  System 1 prefers plausibility to probability; it craves coherent meaning and will do everything it takes to construct it from any scrap of information.  It cannot deal with statistics; it prefers causal explanations every time.  It hates doubt.  System 2 does its best to understand the truth in all its fullness; but it can only work with what System 1 gives it, and it’s lazy:  without conscious attention and effort, System 2 will simply ratify the decisions of System 1.


Rhetoric exploits the relationship between these two systems – for good or ill.  Almost every one of Kahneman’s examples has rhetorical implications.  Here’s an obvious one:  your audience will accept a message more easily if it’s repeated or primed  (if you’ve just seen the word EAT, you’re more likely to interpret SO_P as ‘soup’ than ‘soap’).  They will also accept it more easily if they feel good.  Physical actions prime their emotional correlates: for example, if the audience all grasp pencils in their mouths while listening to you, they’re forced to smile – which will make them feel happier and make them more receptive to your message.  (Go on: try it.)







As so often with discussions based on experimental social science, I found myself mildly irritated that experiments seemed merely to confirm what most of us know by experience already.  But that, of course, is precisely Kahneman’s point: experience is not an infallible guide to truth. “Everything,” he says, “makes sense in hindsight.”  The illusion that we understand the past fosters overconfidence in our ability to predict the future.

The penny, for me, dropped with a resounding crash in Chapter 20.  At one point, Kahneman and his colleague, Amos Tversky, worked with a group of investment advisers, looking for evidence of skill in their ability to predict movements in stock prices. 

They found none.  The results of every single adviser, over time, were no better than blind betting. 

As someone who coaches analysts who write advisory reports for investors, this confirmed what I’d always suspected: the only real power of persuasion available to these professionals is rhetorical.  In efficient markets, stocks can never be definitively judged to be wrongly priced.  The highly sophisticated skills of evaluating a business aren't sufficient; an analyst needs to know whether information about a firm is already incorporated into the stock price.  Kahneman's research proved conclusively that the advisors he examined lacked that skill.  The conclusion is inescapable: the livelihoods and self-esteem of thousands of financial professionals depend entirely on their rhetorical skills.

Kahneman delivers over 400 pages of material showing how incapable we are of understanding statistics, how brilliant we are at ignoring our ignorance, how we regularly substitute easy questions for hard ones in decision-making, and other cognitive biases.  Getting through the book can be hard work, not least because Kahneman is broadly pessimistic about our ability to manage our illusions.  True, he claims that ‘our thoughts and actions are routinely guided by System 1and are generally on the mark’; but his book is overwhelmingly more concerned with the flaws of intuition than its marvels.  Above all, he seems to ignore one aspect of System 1 that provides some of the most powerful illusions driving progress.  Look in the index, and you will find no entry for imagination.

Nonetheless, Thinking, Fast and Slow contributes hugely to the conversation about intuition and reason.  It’s in the borderland between the two that rhetoric lives and feeds; this book, and others in its field, offers vast potential for reinvigorating rhetoric, both as knowledge and practice.

Don't Be Such A Scientist #5: Be the Voice of Science

Be the voice of science.

Scientists who communicate well can often be unpopular with other scientists.  Olson tells the tale of Carl Sagan and his failure to be admitted to the National Academy of Carl Sagan 008
Sciences.  In fact, Olson suggests that about one third of scientists will express dislike of anyone who tries to communicate directly with the general public.

I think that this dislike may be a symptom of a deeper set of assumptions about the nature of science: assumptions about science in its relationship to truth, about truth in its relationship to certainty, and truth as a single objective reality. 

But I cannot help feeling that there is a sometimes a good dose of jealousy involved.  That jealousy may be simple, no-nonsense jealousy of success and fame and royalties and media attention.  If it exists, it would be entirely understandable.  But a scientist’s jealousy may also derive from an insecurity about their own inability to communicate well.  And it may on occasions derive from a certain immaturity in managing human relationships that is the understandable consequence of being holed up in a laboratory for a third of your life.

I have no evidence to support any of these speculations.  If you are a scientist, I invite to you to consider them in relation to your own experience.

Anyway, Olson believes fervently that the only real distinction between competent communicators and incompetent ones – and he means communicators with non-scientists – is that the competent ones simply believe in the power of communication.  So, if you are looking for a scientist who will communicate well with non-scientists, find someone who appreciates the importance of communication.

In my limited experience (in a large, world-class museum in London), scientists tend to fall into three groups.


The believers

As described above, they believe that communicating well is important, and so they tend to be good communicators – even if they are not brilliant presenters.


The non-believers

They decry the very idea of speaking to the great unwashed.  In my experience at the museum in London, I have met perhaps two such people.  But even they are probably just extreme versions of:


The potential converts

These scientists want to communicate with ordinary people but are nervous about doing so.  They may throw up smokescreens of hostility or cynicism, though they often do not.  They are keen to improve their skills but are very hesitant about having a go.  As a result, they may come across as distant, shy, withdrawn, extremely quiet.

So how do you cultivate ‘the voice of science’?


Liberate yourself from an addiction to the truth

Well, the first step – according to Olson – is to try to liberate yourself from an addiction to the truth.  Truth, for scientists as for all of us, stands uncomfortably somewhere between data, facts and certainty.  We have seen recently just how perilous is the scientist’s reputation with society when it comes to fudging the facts: Climategate, with all its distortions of what may or may not have happened in a senior scientist’s email account, demonstrates that any scientist found tampering with facts will be consigned to outer darkness.  But there is a risk also of embracing certainty about the facts, so that they provide evidence for some idea that we come to call – for want of a better word – the truth.  Addiction to the truth becomes an addiction to certainty.  (Maybe all science is a quest for certainty rather than truth.)

In a trailer for a forthcoming series about scientists on BBC TV, Jocelyn Bell – the discoverer of pulsars – says words to the effect that no scientist should ever say that anything is absolutely true.  In another interview, she is quoted directly to the same effect:


… scientists must not treat the public as stupid. We must help them to understand JocelynBell what science is saying and what science is not saying. To be in charge and to say that something is absolutely sure is a nonsense, and also giving doubts is giving information.



What is the difference between being untruthful and being inaccurate?  Somewhere in the space between those two words, perhaps, lies the voice of science that a general audience needs.



Find your voice

That voice will be individual. It will be yours alone.  It will be most convincing when it sounds like you, rather than a machine (with the deepest respect to Professor Hawking, who miraculously manages to make a mechanical voice sound entertaining and individual).  It will speak in the first person.  “There is nothing more powerful than the first-person narrative.” (Olson) 

It will use the active voice:  ‘I/We collected samples’ rather than ‘samples were collected’.

Your voice will also need to be bilingual.  Scientists have two audiences: other scientists, and the general public.  Olson summarizes these audiences in a table. (I’ve altered some of the language here.)




Broad audience

Academic audience

Information channel


Mode of response



Sex appeal?

Prearoused for science?


Narrative (story-based)


Definitely helps

All the time

If at all possible


Audio and visual



Not necessary

Treats with suspicion

Potentially disastrous


But perhaps the most important task for scientists – for any experts in any field – is to learn that truths are multiple, that human beings experience truth in different ways, and that the most important objective for any public presentation of science is to promote more responsible human activity.

Don't Be Such A Scientist #4: Be More Likeable

Be more likeable. Scientist


Somewhere in his book, Randy Olson muses on whether science naturally selects for antisocial traits in scientists, or merely serves to reinforce them.  It can seem that some scientists go into the profession so that they can spend all their time locked away in a laboratory, as far away from people as possible.


Communicating with others, as a result, can become something of a challenge.


Communicating with peers can be less problematic.  Scientists' addiction to truth, to information, and to accuracy, is so great, that they will cheerfully ignore personal characteristics that, to any other audience, would be an insuperable barrier. 


Olson describes a well respected scientist who dresses like a tramp, never shaves his beard and picks his nose continuously while presenting.  His conference audiences – pre-aroused and alert only to his ideas – simply accept him as he is. 


Members of the general public would probably never get past the initial disgust.


Because of their preference for information rather than people, scientists can sometimes display interpersonal behaviour that would leave the average moody adolescent gasping with horror.  Olson gives examples, ranging from his reading of science blogs – where scientists can use “the foulest, crudest, and most hate-filled language imaginable” with little fear of the consequences – to a party he filmed for Flock of Dodos, in which a game of gentlemanly poker among a group of his friends descends into a bitch session about intelligent design. Abuse in blogs and bitching at parties are examples of what Olson calls ‘rising above’.  So the first step in being more likeable is:


Don’t ‘rise above’.


The urge to correct errors can be almost overwhelming.  This is especially the case with scientists, because inaccuracy is probably the greatest sin any scientist can commit, and because the scientific method is built on the principle of negation. 


Olson: "Science is a process not of affirming ideas but of attempting to falsify ideas in the search for truth.  This is what a hypothesis is - an idea that can be tested and possibly falsified and rejected."


(Incidentally, that's why intelligent design is not science.  The idea that organisms are so complicated that they must have been intelligently designed doesn't count as a scientific hypothesis.  We could never prove that an eye, for example, could not have been designed.  The hypothesis cannot be disproved.)


The problem is that correcting someone, or criticizing something they have said or done, very easily becomes rising above them.


To ‘rise above’ is to condescend, talk down to, be arrogant, act superior. I would relate this behaviour to the idea of raising or lowering status. 


Status is always relative. Raising my status in relation to you will inevitably mean lowering your status.  Lowering my status inevitably raises yours.  (And vice versa in both cases: raising your status lowers mine, and lowering yours raises mine.)  So raising your status in relation to another person inevitably means lowering their status.



It’s very easy to do.  And sometimes very hard to resist.  I know.  I rose above someone only the other day:  a complete stranger sitting next to me in a cinema.  I knew I had done it because I could sense her anger at being put down. And I promptly hated myself for doing it.


The good news is that status has another key characteristic: it is always temporary.  We can change the status relationship.  So, if it goes wrong, we can work to put it right.

Unfortunately, it's easier to do status damage than to repair it.


So resist doing the damage if you possibly can. 


Nobody likes to be put down.  And because nobody likes being put down, we tend to find it unpleasant to watch another person being put down. An audience is highly sensitive to insulting behaviour; one moment of it may alienate them permanently.


Do nothing to rise above the other person in an interview or a disagreement. 


How can we stop ourselves from rising above?  Well, before we open our mouths to speak, we could:



The ability to listen is the central element to improv acting. And it is often remarked as one of the most important problems facing scientists in conversation.  They simply do not pick up on what the other person is saying and respond to it.  (Their intellects are far too busy dealing with all the stuff they know and want to say.)


How to listen better?

  • Pay attention to the other person.  Look at them. Stop thinking your own thoughts.
  • Treat the other person as an equal.
  • Cultivate ease.  Relax and try to get the other person to relax.
  • Encourage the other person to say what they want to say.
  • Ask questions.
  • Ration information.
  • Give positive feedback.

If you do only a few of these things when being interviewed or asked a question by a member of the public, you will be able to engage in the conversation more effectively.


Avoid both ends of the spectrum.

Olson suggests that two particular qualities tend to militate against likeability: sloppiness and cynicism. Both tendencies that experts are vulnerable to.

Science, like any other endeavour, is a mix of creativity and discipline.  Intuition and rationality. Idea generation and critical thinking. These two qualities lie on a spectrum. At either end, says Olson, lies darkness.

At the creativity end of the spectrum lies the darkness of sloppiness, incoherence and ineptitude.  At this end of the spectrum lives the absent-minded professor.  His office looks like this.

Messy office

His presentation slides look like this.


It's funny for a while.  But when he tries to communicate, he becomes sad, depressing and dysfunctional.

At the other end of the spectrum lives the nay-sayer.  Critical thinking becomes cynicism, the state of mind that finds fault with everything and sees the potential in nothing.  This force of negativity, says Olson, is the handicap that dogs the world of science when it comes to mass communication.

The trick is to find a place that sits more or less comfortably between these two extremes.  We do enjoy absent-mindedness; we can find bitchy criticism amusing. But both are dangerous, and we should avoid projecting either of them too much.


And what else?

Well, likablility is of course subjective.  But Olson suggests that it "is inextricably linked to ... humour, emotion, passion."

To a great extent, your passion for your subject will do a lot to make you likeable. Fun helps.  If you can create a sense of fun, people will certainly like you.  (What's the difference between fun and humour? Discuss.) 



Work at being more likeable.

Liking someone probably does more to influence how we respond to them than anything else.  If we like someone, we believe what they say.  We trust them.  We buy from them.  We vote for them.


And the main reason is that, if we like someone, we feel that they are like us.  So we accept them into our ‘mental tribe’.  And then, whatever they say or do, we are more likely to accept.


(Liking is one of Robert Cialdini's six patterns of influence. You can find out more here.  Cialdini's own site is here.)


I think that scientists sometimes feel an instinctive desire to be unlikeable.  Perhaps being unlikeable is a kind of protection from the stupidities of mere human beings.  You may have to work at trying to be likeable.  But it’s worth it.


Don't Be Such A Scientist #3: Tell stories

Storytelling extends the 'arouse and fulfil' principle explored in the last posting. 

Randy Olson: "With good storytelling you end up both arousing and fulfilling at the same time, which allows you to sustain interest over much larger amounts of material."

Olson suggests that successful stories rely on two elements:

  • the structure of the story (objectively analysable); and
  • the characters in the story (more subjective, but also deeper, more memorable).

Although character is powerful and memorable, the true magic of a story is in its structure.

So, here are three ideas for transforming your material into a story.

  1. Explore the structure.
  2. Find the myth.
  3. Focus on specifics.


1.  Explore the structure.

The core of a good story is the source of tension or conflict.  Every story follows the same basic dynamic structure (it’s a structure because it has a shape; it’s dynamic because that shape can alter to adapt to different circumstances).

  1. Set up the situation.
  2. Create a problem within the situation: something that complicates the situation interestingly – it creates tension or the potential for conflict.
  3. Explore ways of releasing the tension/resolving the conflict/removing or solving the problem.  Make success uncertain.
  4. Present the solution to release the tension, resolve the conflict and solve the problem.

I use the old Roman motto, SPQR, as a mnemonic for this structure.

  1. Situation
  2. Problem
  3. Question
  4. Response or ResolutionSPQR

This structure is also known as Freytag's Triangle.




And you can find out more (including who Freytag was)  hereor here.

A scientific example of this structure might go like this:

  1. Situation: set up the subject.
  2. Problem: give the situation a twist.
  3. Question: explore ways to untwist it and reveal a possible solution.
  4. Response: weave it all together to show that the solution works.

Olson's own example goes like this.

"[Situation]I study a starfish on the California coast: [Problem]the only species that spawns in the dead of winter.  [Question]I thought it might be due to predators of the eggs being less common at that time of year, then |I thought it was due to the best timing for the spring algae bloom, but now it looks like [Response] it probably has something to do with a seasonal migration of the starfish, which is what I now study - the way that spawning season might be related to adult movements of starfish."


2.  Find the myth

The most effective stories are mythic.  They simplify action into a structure that resonates with the audience because it touches something deeply shared within us.  Part of the skill in telling scientific stories is finding some core structure that resonates with the audience.

Olson: "Audiences have a set number of stories that they like to hear and that they want storytellers to tell.  If you can lock onto one of those set stories, all of a sudden everyone can really start to have fun."

According to Christopher Booker, there are Seven Basic Plots:
  • overcoming the monster;
  • rags to riches;
  • the quest;
  • voyage and return;
  • comedy;
  • tragedy; and
  • rebirth.
Maybe.  I don't know Booker's book, but I'll happily start with those seven.  Find out more about the seven plots here.


Try turning the material into one of those plots and see what happens.


Focus on specifics

The power of good storytelling rests in the specifics. Everything you say should be tied to specific, concrete instances.  Use concrete nouns and good, simple, strong, vivid verbs.

No generalizations, no nominalizations, no abstractions. (No words ending in -ion!)


A digression

Tying storytelling back to arousing attention, I read a letter in New Scientist while I was writing this posting, which relates stories - and indeed all art - to the idea of seeking attention.  The letter refers to Brian Boyd's book, On the Origin of Stories.



From the Harvard University Press page about the book: "The need to hold an audience’s attention, Boyd underscores, is the fundamental problem facing all storytellers."








Being accurate and being boring

The two great dangers of storytelling are becoming inaccurate, and becoming boring.  To a scientist, nothing is worse than inaccuracy. The problem is that too much accuracy becomes boring.  And to an audience, nothing is worse than boredom.

So every act of scientific storytelling has to balance the conflicting imperatives of being accurate and interesting. Ideally, of course, your story will be both. But being accurate doesn't have to mean being exhaustively and exhaustingly comprehensive; and being interesting doesn't have to mean 'dumbing down' or becoming simplistic.

'Dumbing down' means watering down or removing information on the assumption that your audience is too stupid to understand it. It's closely related to the arch-sin of 'rising above', which means condescending to the audience and results from the same assumption. (I actually saw a scientist at a recent public presentation put up a slide and say: "Now, you're not going to understand this.")  We'll look at 'rising above' in more detail in the next posting.

'Being concise', in contrast, means conveying your information in the fewest possible steps or elements, on the assumption that less detail will result in a thing of elegance and beauty.

Olson:  "It is a basic conversational skill to be able to listen while talking so you can recognize when you're boring your audience. A lot of intellectuals, once again preconditioned for too many years of lecturing to prearoused students, have lost this ability to self-edit."

PS Olson mentions in his storytelling chapter an interesting paper by Peter Medawar called 'Is the scientific paper a fraud?'  It relates only tangentially to Olson's theme in the chapter, but Medawar's thesis is entertaining and provocative.  Medawar: "The scientific paper in its orthodox form does embody a totally mistaken conception, even a travesty, of the nature of scientific thought."

Don't Be Such A Scientist #2: Be more imaginative

Be more imaginative.

Randy Olson suggests that scientists tend to harbour three unhelpful dreams about communicating with a non-scientific audience.


Dream #1: Just say it.

Communicating with a mass audience is as easy as “blurting out what you have to say”.  Put together a message; say it; and the audience will immediately get it.

Maybe this dream derives from the myth that all information is objective.  No need to worry about how the communicator encodes it, or how an audience decodes it.

In fact, says Olson, “there is a spectrum for any given piece of information, stretching from the boringly blunt to the incomprehensibly elusive.”

To wake from this dream, he says, find a way to present information that is “intriguing and familiar.”


Dream #2: Just argue louder. 

If they don’t get it the first time, just up the volume. Repeat and repeat.  Go for the jugular.

But, says Olson, “there is no jugular to go for.  If there were, someone would have managed to sever it long ago.”

To wake from this dream, he says, think about the different ways in which you can engage your audience other than explaining or arguing.  Where is the appeal to the heart, the gut and – the naughty bits?


Dream #3: Information will make change happen. 

The facts speak for themselves.  Once people know the facts, they will change their behaviour. 

But, says Olson, people may not see the facts.  We all suffer from information overload; every fact needs PR to help it get seen.

To wake from this dream, says  Olson, we need to find a way of selling an idea.


All very good stuff. 

What do these three dreams have in common?  A blind faith in information. All three dreams ignore the key to any act of communication: what happens between people when we communicate.

In particular, the dreams ignore the need to imagine how other people view information of different kinds.

Information is never objective. (This is a profound heresy for some scientists.)

Information is the shape of our thinking.  We view reality through mental models: representations of reality that we use to understand it.  If a piece of information fails to fit into one of our mental models, we will reject it – or simply fail to see it.

(More on mental models here and here.  The phrase became particularly popular through the work of Peter Senge: take a look here for more.)





Many of our mental models operate on the level of intuition, which Jung called ‘perception using the unconscious’.  




We accept as facts mainly what our intuition tells us to accept. 

It’s intuitive that the earth is flat.

It’s intuitive to many people that the Apollo moon landings must have been faked.

It’s intuitive to some that the human eye is too complex an organ to have evolved incrementally.  (This is the ‘irreducible complexity’ hypothesis.)

So, if you want to communicate some information or an idea, you have to consider the mental models that your audience will be using to understand it.

One of the most powerful of Olson’s principles appears at this point: he calls it:


Arouse and fulfil


We notice only what we notice.  So the first thing to do is get your audience to take notice.

First, arouse attention. 

What attracts our attention?  At the most basic level, gestures attract our attention. A gesture is a single, isolated, unusual or surprising movement.  It might be physical – like pointing; vocal – like suddenly shouting; or verbal – like uttering a proverb or breaking into rhyming verse.

There is probably a good evolutionary reason for being interested in gestures: whatever is surprising and sudden is probably dangerous. (‘Dangerous’ here could mean ‘uncertain, incomplete, unfinished’ as well as ‘threatening, unpleasant, risky’.) 

Many animals gesture to each other, physically and vocally.  But humans are the only animals to gesture to each other about something else.  It’s called ‘declarative pointing’: arousing someone’s interest in something external to either of us because it is of common interest.


Attracting your audience’s attention means doing something like declarative pointing.  ‘Look at this!  This is interesting!’

Some ways of doing that, all based on the idea of making a gesture:


·         Tease. 

·         Withhold information. 

·         Ask a question. 

·         Make an outrageous claim. 

·         Promise something down the line. 

·         Make an accusation. 

·         Raise the emotional temperature. 

·         Change direction.


Arousing attention creates expectations in the audience.  Your next task is to fulfil those expectations.


“When it comes to mass communication, it’s as simple as two things: arouse and fulfil.  You need to first arouse your audience and get them interested in what you have to say; then you need to fulfil their expectations.”


Tom Hollihan


Arouse and fulfil.  The two go together. 

An audience will feel terrible if you arouse them and then fail to fulfil.  (It’s what a bad Hollywood movie does: all arousal, no substantial payoff.)

But audiences will also feel uncomfortable if you fulfil without arousing.  And that is what many scientists do (and academics, and experts of different kinds).  They cut straight to the fulfilment: facts and details, details and facts.  No arousal; no expectations in the audience’s mind.  Result: confusion; boredom; hostility.

We can play out the ‘arouse and fulfil’ principle in lots of different ways. For example:


Ask a question and seek to find an answer.

Set up a problem and try to solve it.

Present a contradiction and try to resolve it.

Make a promise and try to keep it.  (The more challenging the promise, the greater the expectations.)

Make a claim and promise to convince your audience by the end. (Again, the more outrageous the better.)


One of the important points, I think, about ‘arouse and fulfil’ is that you should arouse expectations about one thing at a time.  Think of it as a strictly linear process.  Don’t set up more than one quest at a time; and don’t let your audience lose sight of the goal.

Look at the way science documentaries on television seek to arouse the audience’s attention – and then re-arouse it.  The first few minutes of a film may set up a mystery, or a conundrum. 

Recent examples from the BBC series 'Horizon' include:



What on earth is wrong with gravity?

How long is a piece of string?

Is infinity a number?

Why do we sleep?





The success of the film as entertainment often depends on how tightly focused the question is.  The more specific the question, the more likely that you will arouse adn maintain attention.  And the more specific the question, the easier to maintain a single line from beginning to end of the film.

Maintaining attention is as important as capturing it at the start.  The documentary maker will often structure the material into a number of ‘movements’ or segments.  The connections between segments will often be signaled by lines in the script such as:

“… but what they found was completely surprising.”

“… and with one experiment, he changed the way we think for ever.”

“… and the consequences for this discovery were more extraordinary than anyone could have imagined.”


Using analogies and metaphors

Another approach to being more imaginative is to explain your information or idea in terms of something else.  What is the internal structure of a star like? Is a heart like a pump? Is the brain like a computer, or a computer like a brain?  The urge, when an explanation becomes sticky, to reach for a metaphor, is a key sign that we can only understand new information in terms of something already familiar. 

Scientists can sometimes feel embarrassed about using metaphors.  They may feel that a metaphor misrepresents what they are trying to explain. (Here’s an interesting article on that subject.)



If a metaphor increases your audience’s understanding of something, is it not valuable?

Which is more important: being accurate, or arousing your audience’s interest?

Or, as Randy Olson puts it:

Which is worse: communicating inaccurately, or not communicating at all?