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May 5, 2011 / kategap

The Book of Forbidden Knowledge

…or how to use science communication to your advantage!

By Kate Gaplevskaja

My first introduction to the field of “incredible science” started with a post from Southern Fried Scientist “Blood and Brains – can vampires survive a zombie apocalypse?” and I was shocked. [1]
This “scientific paper” talks about the outcomes of a zombie outbreak. Despite the obviously unbelievable topic I had to stop myself from googling whether any real research was ever done on zombie populations.

So what techniques did the author use to make a scenario out of a horror movie sound so credible? After analysing some classic “incredible science” articles from the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) I came up with a few techniques.

1. Make sure your credentials are solid

State what institution you represent. Your institution name should preferably be well known or if it doesn’t exist shouldn’t sound too fake.

Apples and Oranges — A Comparison

by Scott A. Sandford, NASA Ames Research Center, Mountain View, California [2]

2. Present a clear structured argument in a format used in science journals

Make sure that your argument is logical and well-organised. Most of the classical articles from the AIR  followed the traditional science article structure: [2],[3],[4],[5]

  1. Introduction
  2. Materials and Methods
  3. Results
  4. Discussion
  5. Conclusion

3. Reference well

Even if these papers you refer to do not exist a casual reader will not check them, but having them there will add greatly to the perceived credibility.

For example, an in-text citation:

 Fortunately, Munz et al. (2009) have done the math for us, and the outcome does not look good.[1]

And in the reference section:

Munz P, Hudea I, Imad J, and Smith? RJ (2009). WHEN ZOMBIES ATTACK!: MATHEMATICAL MODELLING OF AN OUTBREAK OF ZOMBIE INFECTION Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress, 133-150 [1]

4. Use science writing style and jargon

Scientists use a different style of writing to normal everyday written communication. Examples of this are longer sentences, the use of passive voice, use of jargon, etc. All of the AIR articles tended to put that to good use.[2],[3],[4],[5]

5. Use figures: images, numbers

Professional looking figures and a few numbers here and there usually add to the perceived credibility. [1],[2],[4],[5]

Conclusion

When I first started this assignment I was a bit unsure why this topic was chosen. After all, we as science communicators should be doing the opposite – report credible science! We don’t need these techniques! However having done this I realised how important this assignment actually was. After all we are responsible for choosing credible sources for our writing. The above techniques and articles just emphasise how easy it is to be deceived. These articles use blatantly unrealistic topics like zombies and vampires, but what if they didn’t and it wasn’t so easy to determine, whether the article is real or not. What if the article was produced with an intent to misinform? We have to be aware of this possibility and research not just the topic, but also the sources.

The list is of course non-exhaustive and I would welcome any contribution and any of your opinions on the matter.

References

[1] Southern Fried Scientist. (30/10/2009). Blood and Brains – can vampires survive a zombie apocalypse?. In Southern Fried Science. Retrieved 02/05/2011, from http://www.southernfriedscience.com/?p=2528.

[2] Sandford, S. (1995). Apples and Oranges — A Comparison . The Annals of Improbable Research, 1:3.  Retrieved 05/05/2011, from http://improbable.com/airchives/paperair/volume1/v1i3/air-1-3-apples.html.

[3] Theriot, E., Bogan, A.,  Spamer, E. (1995). The Taxonomy of Barney: Evidence of Convergence in Hominid Evolution.  The Annals of Improbable Research, 1:1. Retrieved 05/05/2011, from http://improbable.com/airchives/paperair/volume1/v1i1/barney.htm.

[4] Schultz, D. (1998). Does It Rain More Often on Weekends?  The Annals of Improbable Research, 4:2. Retrieved 05/05/2011, from http://improbable.com/airchives/paperair/volume4/v4i2/rainmore.htm.

[5]  Fonstad, M., Pugatch, W., Vogt, B. (2003) Kansas Is Flatter Than a Pancake. The Annals of Improbable Research, 9:3. Retrieved 05/05/2011,  from http://improbable.com/airchives/paperair/volume9/v9i3/kansas.html.

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6 Comments

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  1. ankevaneekelen / May 12 2011 2:27 pm

    Hi Kate,

    What an interesting topic to blog on. I share your thoughts and feelings of ambiguity in your conclusion. You are absolutely right that science communicators should be aware of reporting on credible information as well as using credible sources. I always thought that in research, it would be even harder to fabricate a fraudulent study and submit it for publication than to actually perform the study for real. With a peer-review system in place you would have to follow all your suggestion in great detail, so as not to be caught. A few have tried in the past with dreadful consequences for the rest of their career, as such an act among academics is considered extremely unethical.

    Possibly in science communication (not its research) with less stringent control over what gets out in press or online, there may be more opportunities for false information to be provided. And we have seen in the our last tutorial on Wikipedia how easily information, added to your track record after your death, can become part of circulated knowledge through mere cutting and pasting by professionals without further confirmation of accuracy. Let’s hope your somewhat ironic list of advice on how to foul others will not be misused, not even for the the fun of it.

    Well done, I enjoyed reading your story.
    Anke

  2. kategap / May 12 2011 3:18 pm

    Dear Anke,
    Thank you for such a kind comment. I agree that with peer review false information is unlikely, that’s why we are encouraged to use journal citations. However you will often find pdf files of individual articles all over the internet. How would you know whether a random pdf you found is actually reliable? When I was researching my website I found quite a few. One, for example, was from JAMA. What is JAMA for god’s sake? I only allowed myself to use it after I researched what JAMA stood for (Journal of the American Medical Association) and found the article on PubMed. Otherwise I would not have put it in, since it could have been a hoax, just like the Wikipedia quote you mentioned.
    Regards,
    Kate

  3. Ben Currell / May 19 2011 10:07 am

    Hi Kate,

    I thought this was really a really intersting topic which you described well. It is important for us as science communicators to be competent at picking credible topics and science to write about, and to avoid information which intends to mislead.

    However I think that articles like “Blood and Brains – can vampires survive a zombie apocalypse?” have the potential to reach an audience that they might not otherwise reach.

    If I googled zombies, I would not expect to find myself reading an article that while incredible, incorporates real scientific concepts and language (such as population dynamics and epidemiology in this case). If I was a member of the public who had little to no scientific background this may be the perfect way to pique my interest nd draw me into a scientific discussion.

    While articles like this may not increase understanding of science, they certainly increase awareness of science.

    Any thoughts?

    Ben

  4. kategap / May 19 2011 11:35 am

    Hi Ben,

    Thanks for your comment. I appreciate that you went out of your way to research the topic.

    I have mixed feelings about this type of articles promoting science. It seems to me that unless you are already into science you are unlikely to find pleasure in reading or maybe even to understand the article. For example, you probably found the use of “population dynamics” interesting and amusing mostly, because you have a rough idea of what it is. Imagine a person that is not into science at all and hasn’t read anything science-related since they left school reading the zombie vs. vampire story. The amount of jargon there would make the story pure gibberish to them and the reader would lose interest after the first few sentences. So I think that stories like those published in AIR are mostly written by real scientists for scientists like themselves for pure amusement.

    How do you think they could promote science? I was thinking along the lines of just showing that scientists do actually have a sense of humour and can have a good laugh at themselves.

    Kate

  5. Yvette Leong / May 26 2011 7:02 am

    Hi Kate!

    Thank you for your fascinating and very insightful post. I learnt a lot from what you found, and appreciate the fact that you looked up more articles to compile some generalised tips on increasing the credibility of an article.

    I thought Ben’s idea that this kind of article might help generate interest in scientific ideas/concepts was interesting. I could imagine that such articles could be useful as teaching tools for students of science – either as an introductory interest-fuelling activity, or as something that comes after formal teaching (of e.g. epidemiology) to help consolidate what they have learnt by applying it to a purely fictitious scenario such as in the case of the zombies and vampires.

    For example, reading the Blood and Brains article actually helped me link what I read with what I had learnt about epidemiology during my summer work attachment at the School of Population Health. Research has shown that linking prior knowledge with something new has the effect of deepening information processing in the brain and leads to increased transfer of information to long-term memory.

    However, I agree with you that the main purpose of such articles is for the amusement of fellow scientists who understand the concepts being communicated. I myself enjoy “nerdy humour” now and then. Satires of scientific concepts, language, and presentation (e.g. journal formatting, graphs, stats, referencing) not only serve to entertain like-minded scientists, but also (as you have shown very well in your post), remind us of the importance of the key elements of a good scientific writing piece (e.g. credibility, language, objectivity).

    Cheers,
    Yvette

  6. piyasd01 / Jun 5 2011 5:55 am

    Hi all,

    This is a well written blog. You made some good points on what to include in an article in order to make it look credible.

    With regards to the actual article (“Blood and Brains – can vampires survive a zombie apocalypse?”): I really enjoyed reading this article because it provided a different perspective when exploring scientific concepts. For example, the article says,

    “Both zombie and vampire population growth is directly proportional to food consumed. In both cases the food is us.”

    We humans, are the source of their food. I think the idea behind the zombie apocalypse can be used to explain nature’s basic food web. For example, in the biological world; plants (which are primary producers) are consumed by herbivores (only eat plants). They are then consumed by carnivores (only eat meat) and omnivores (eats plants and meat such as humans). In the article humans are the primary source of food for zombies and vampires. Therefore this article could possibly be telling us (on a very simplistic scale) what might happen if plants disappear, who will survive?

    Even though this article did not have a defined structure (an introduction, material and methods, results, etc section as you mentioned) it still referred to credible studies done by other scientists. Therefore anyone can be mislead into believing that it is reliable.

    I completely agree with the first two comments with regards to how such an article can mislead science communicators as a credible source of information. It proves to us as students that we need to make sure articles are peer-reviewed as you mentioned. It is critical to make sure you know which journal an article came from to assess its credibility. I also think that you raised a great point about the fact that this specific article was about zombies and vampires which we all believe to be non-existent, but what will happen if an article discusses something that actually exists in such a context? How will we distinguish it from a reliable source?

    Regards,
    Devinka

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