Wednesday, January 26, 2022

A Failure to Communicate

The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin wrote an article on prioritizing "Truth over Accuracy". He tells stories from his movies The Social Network and Being the Ricardos, of where he moves away from accuracy to get to the truth of a situation.

My friend and teacher, the late William Goldman, said of his Academy Award-winning screenplay for All the President's Men, "If I'm telling the true story of the fall of the President of the United States, the last thing I'm going to do is make anything up." I understand what he meant in context, but the fact is, as soon as he wrote "FADE IN," he'd committed to making things up. People don't speak in dialogue, and their lives don't play out in a series of scenes that form a narrative. Dramatists do that. They prioritize truth over accuracy. Paintings over photographs.

As scientists we focus on accuracy, as we should in our scientific publications. However being fully accurate can distract from the "truth", the underlying message you want to say, particularly in the title, abstract and introduction of our papers 

Even more so when we promote our research to the public. A science writer once lamented to me that scientists would focus too much on the full accuracy of the science and the names behind it, even though neither serves the reader well.

Reminds me of the recent Netflix movie Don't Look Up satirizes scientists trying to communicate an end-of-the-world event to an untrusting society. I wish it was a better movie but still worth watching just to see Leo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play scientists frustrated with their ability to communicate a true existential crisis to the government and the general public. 

So how should we as scientists try to frame our messaging to get people onboard, particularly when we say things they don't want to hear? Most importantly, how do scientists regain trust in a world where trust is in short supply. Perhaps we should paint more and photograph less.


  1. While conveying the "moral truth" as opposed to the "literal truth" is appropriate for movies. I highly doubt that people will trust scientists *more* rather than *less* if they move that direction.

    In fact, I would say it's almost the opposite. When you are talking to fellow scientists, who are knowledgeable enough to fill in gaps, and can check you up on caveats and details, it is safer to focus on the "moral truth". When you are talking to lay people, you have a bigger responsibility to be accurate.

    You also need to have a clear separation between the facts that science implies, and the policies that may be based on these facts. Policies are never simple direct corollaries of the science, and always involve judgements, on which scientists are not necessarily better qualified than other citizens.


  2. I'm sorry but the smugness of Aaron Sorkin is the last thing we need here. Let's admit that scientists could be wrong. They have been wrong on several things, especially at the early stage of the pandemic. Also why was Peter Daszak, who has obvious collision of interest, picked as the leader of the WHO investigation team? Why did Nature publish a sequence of articles setting the narrative that a lab leak is unlikely, and now many of the experts have walked back this claim? How about the science community do some soul searching first?

    1. You just can't handle the truth!

    2. For the record, the EG at 5:15PM isn't me.
      Seems like someone tries to instigate something;
      I'd assumed we are more mature than this.

    3. It is a movie quote reference.

    4. It's even a quote reference from an Aaron Sorkin movie. Extra credit Other EG.

  3. Evangelos Georgiadis6:38 AM, February 02, 2022

    Glad that this got resolved.
    But still, there's no need
    for a hash collision, better
    to use full names to avoid confusion.