Alex recounts his disappointment and confusion at the lack of passion and engagement he witnessed during talks at his first scientific conference as a PhD student. He questions why researchers feel the need to make their presentations so clear and devoid of emotion that they become boring and unengaging. He suggests that including a complex narrative could make scientific communication more interesting and suspenseful without sacrificing clarity, particularly when presenting to a general audience. Alex also notes that the culture of obsessive clarity in scientific communication distances researchers from the public and reinforces negative stereotypes about scientists. He argues that passion and character are essential to good science and that researchers should not be afraid to include them in their presentations.

I was just about to attend my first conference as a 1st year PhD student. Finally, after years of waiting, I would get to see the hum of activity of a scientific conference. I was excited to be a part of the deep conversations about each other’s work, the exchanging of ideas, maybe even possible future collaborations. But most of all, I was looking forward to the talks. The life’s work of eminent scientists on a stage, the platform for scientists to show the fruits of their gruelling labour. I was expecting passion, engagement, life. I was expecting to get everything science had meant to me since I was a wee nipper.

I got fear. I got dull, monotone dregs of character. There were a couple of sparks amidst the darkness, but they remained unnoticed to most – without even a nugatory raise of an eyebrow.

I became a combination of dejected and bitterly confused. What was the point of the conference? If the main focus is to recite facts at each other, with no attempt to engage the intellect, pique interest, convey enthusiasm, then surely a perfunctory email with the text from the talks attached would suffice? Through every presentation, I continually had to put energy into listening, trying to resist the urge to simply let the droning words float over my head and sit in blissful ignorance. But by Jove were they all clear. They were as clear as day.

As researchers, we have an obsession with clarity. I am well aware of why. Research concepts are inherently complicated. In order to communicate these ideas, simplicity and clarity is key. However, somewhere along the line, this became entangled in the process of giving a talk.

We stand bolt upright. Our arms stiffly by our sides.

We ensure our speech is slow and methodical, without inflection.

We make sure each slide has separate content, with only the most tenuous (or non-existent) links between any two.

We have somehow made the most interesting topics on earth, fantastically boring.

Why do we do this? In the art world, performances constantly capture our attention for hours on end. And opposite to causing stress, they give us energy. One of the first things many of us do after a long, stressful day at work is switch on the television. These artistic performances seem to reinvigorate us. Why is this so?

Narrative complexity. Twists. Shows and performances pull us through delightful suspense, making us ask ourselves: what will come next? Sometimes, we want to know the next piece of information so badly we remain fixed in our seat, the urge to fall asleep a whisper in the back of our minds (Netflix binge anyone?).

A simple storyline could not produce such suspense. Each bit of new information would be predictable and obvious to the audience. We would always be one step ahead of the writer. I have found this to be the case in most scientific communication. Heck, a lot of talks have a contents slide telling you what is about to come next!

This begs the question, could we communicate science using a complex narrative without making the scientific concepts less clear? Indeed, I don’t think this is an easy task. I will concede that research papers should maintain a very high level of clarity and including complex narratives can easily make the paper difficult to read. But it does not mean talks should be the same, especially to the general public.

In our daily lives as scientists, we are constantly being thrown curveballs. By the time we obtain a result worthy of a conference talk or publication, we have lived through more plot twists than a soap opera. And yet these stories seem to be cast to the wayside. There are few mentions of “we looked for ‘x’ but to our surprise found that ‘y’ happened…”. Perhaps this is where the real problem lies. It seems to me that within the scientific community any mention of even an inkling of a perceived mistake means that there is something wrong with you as a researcher.

This is very silly. I have yet to meet a scientist who has not made mistakes all the time, and we are all supposedly the cleverest people in the world – most of our conversations revolve around our mistakes and how to correct them.

I believe a greater problem lies at the heart of our culture of obsessive clarity. We become the experts the general population feels uneasy with. In every monotoned explanation, in every emotionally ignorant judgement, we distance ourselves from the voters who elect the governments that supply our funding. 

The life breathed into us as children by enthusiastic educators (Brian Cox, Carl Sagan etc.), T.V. programs (Horizon etc.) and films (The Theory of Everything, Interstellar etc.) is sucked out when we reach graduate school. Neil deGrasse Tyson describes how it did just that. Death by silence. Any sort of oral communication that is not clear and strictly on-topic is critiqued to the edge of possibility. Every sign of emotion or clever narrative is ignored, or worse, receives the dreaded blank stare. Moreover, a lack of attempt to include the most basic narrative is rarely critiqued.

A belief starts to arise within the Grad student that a good researcher must be passionless and cold (which is not true). The general public starts to see us as hermits or machines, bereft of character. Does this describe you?

Because, to me, science without a soul is no science at all.