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April 27, 2012 / chadabbot

Going GaGa for Science

“A pillow’s weight, it is sometimes said, can be as much as half mites and mite feces”. Think about that.

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“The top 10 life-forms living on Lady Gaga (and you)” by Rob Dunn is a fantastic article that weaves popular culture into its scientific content, creating a reading experience that is both enjoyable and informative. Even though the content in this article is frankly quite gross and confronting, the inclusion of a well-known public figure, in this case the eccentric Lady GaGa, adds a personality and hilarity to the article that communicates its message strongly to its audience.

 

Dunn describes ten different bacteria and parasites that live on or inside the human body, using a Lady GaGa song as a sub-title for each of these examples. For example, “Just Dance” is the title for a paragraph describing fungi that live on feet, whereas “Bad Romance” titles the paragraph on bacteria living in the ‘nether regions’.

 

This ‘technique’, if you could call it that, is scarcely seen in scientific writing, even though it is so effective. This would be largely due to inappropriate topics and forum. However, when used in the correct context it can work very well, as shown in this article. The magazine in which it is featured, Scientific American, is known to have an educated but not necessarily scientific-specific audience. And with the article appealing to young people, through its wry humour and GaGa references, Dunn makes it very easy for myself and students alike to relate to the article. However, it’s not just us that this article is directed at. Most if not all people in the Western world would have some small knowledge of the meat-clad princess of pop, and even this small spark of interest is beneficial to how the article comes across.

In terms of scientific content, the information itself is very interesting and eye opening (I bet you didn’t know you had bellybutton bacteria). It is very personalized, allowing the reader to reflect (I wonder if I’m in the half of the population that has forehead mites). A comment below the article argues that it’s “information density is a bit weak”, however I don’t agree. For his audience, Dunn gives great insight into a vast part of the world that is mostly unexplored, conceding that he couldn’t possibly describe all of the millions of critters living on us.

 

What he does do though, is give us enough information to spark curiosity (and fear), and I believe that’s what he was trying to do.

 

I am just amazed at how we are more preoccupied learning the lyrics to GaGa’s latest hit, than we are worrying about brain parasites, lung fungi, and colon worms.

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10 Comments

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  1. annagardiner / Apr 27 2012 3:49 am

    Wow such a great concept for an article! I honsetly don’t think I’ve ever seen such an effective mesh of science and popular culture. You’re right, it is very uncommon and I think it’s something that needs to happen more to keep science being relevant and interesting to a culture and technology crazed society.
    I loved your title and by starting with that ‘delightful’ quote, I was interested immediately.
    Probably gonna go wash my pillows now

  2. lindsayd20374453 / Apr 27 2012 4:36 am

    Nicely written post. I agree with you saying that the technique used in the article is an effective one. It adds a nice bit of structure to a blog post which is essentially just ‘here is a list of things that are gross on your body’. With that said, I don’t like the approach that the SA article takes to the facts contained within the article. For a start, all the author’s references are listed at the end of the article, making it very difficult to work out what bit he’s referencing at any given point. Also, he cites a journal which he himself admits is terrible:

    “Regardless of whether the conclusions in this article hold, I love that there is a journal called “Medical Hypotheses.” For the sake of full disclosure, it might more reasonably be called “Wild Medical Hypotheses.””

    As science communicators, if we can’t find a reputable article backing up our claims, we shouldn’t say anything at all. Deliberately citing an a low-quality article then burying a half-disclaimer at the end of a list of references is disingenuous, and pretty sneaky writing.

    Finally, the pillows thing is not even close to proven- have a look here: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2545/does-a-mattress-double-its-weight-due-to-dust-mites-and-their-debris . It’s also telling that the only source Wikipedia can cite for the claim is a Daily Mail article about a completely different subject (not that the Mail is anywhere close to accurate at the best of times): http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2006760/Pillows-breeding-grounds-pests-diseases.html . The author of the GaGa article writes that ‘it is sometimes said’ that mites make up half of a pillow’s weight. What? The fact that somebody sometimes says something doesn’t make it true. The sentence may as well read “I heard once that somebody reckons mites might make up half of a pillow’s weight”. It would have the same amount of evidence behind it, and would have the added benefit of not misleading readers by giving the claim an air of credibility. Articles on cracked.com cite more accurate references than this guy.

    I might be being overly negative, but what I’m getting at is this: It doesn’t matter how fancy or clever a communication technique is, it’s worthless if the information is inaccurate or misleading. Worse, a clever or catchy technique makes the reader less likely to question the integrity of the information in an article, when this questioning is arguably the most important part of the scientific process. The rest is just window dressing.

  3. suyinnn / Apr 27 2012 5:45 am

    Hello! Love the title! The title caught my attention immediately, and after reading this article, I really found the concept to be pretty interesting!

    I do agree with you that incorporating the use of pop culture does make the scientific facts more engaging and relatable to our daily lives. I liked how Lady Gaga is used here as a reference, as many people do find her intriguing and ‘out of this world’.

    I had a good laugh at how Lady Gaga’s songs are used as titles to describe certain parasites, it does sound really funny. At the same time, I find it easier to understand what the parasites actually do to our body, such as the ‘fungi that lives on our feet’.

    I agree and have learnt in biology classes that germs and bacteria are all around. We have to keep ourselves clean for our personal hygiene. But bellybutton bacteria? It certainly makes me feel like showering now and scrubbing myself clean!

    Good job for the post! I enjoyed reading it! 😀

  4. bonnyp / Apr 30 2012 2:28 am

    This is a good post, I love your title and the picture you used. The unusual style of Rob Dunn’s article works very well in communicating information about bacteria living on the human body. The references to Lady GaGa are witty and topical, and the use of pop culture definitely makes the article appeal to a wide audience.

    However, I do think that lindsayd20374453 has made a good point about the validity and reliability of the sources used. I agree that the scientific information presented in the article appears inaccurate and the sources he used are not credible, so I certainly wouldn’t use this article as a reference when doing a uni assignment. I think the informal style of the article has meant that Dunn tends to exaggerate figures and make generalisations. I enjoyed reading his article, but I was aware of the inaccuracy of some of the information and had to take it with a pinch of salt.

    However, as pop science the article does capture your interest in science in a fun and interesting way, which as you mentioned in your post, is exactly what it set out to do.

  5. muza2009 / Apr 30 2012 11:50 pm

    Using pop culture is a great way to target teenage audiences who are often hard to engage. Putting the inaccuracies of Dunn’s blog post aside, besides it being only suitable to audiences familiar with Lady Gaga, are there any other pitfalls of using pop culture in science writing?

  6. ashfonty / May 1 2012 8:57 am

    Firstly, I’m sure most of you would have seen it but another great Lady GaGa parody – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fl4L4M8m4d0 – its not science writing but its still fun!

    Chad, I really enjoyed your style of writing! Your blog post itself was really easy to read and understand. I thoroughly enjoyed it! I agree with your analysis of Dunn’s writing style & technique, but it’s hard to go past such a compelling reply from Lindsay!

    In response to Muza’s comment I think using pop culture in science writing can limit your audience. Only certain cultures and demographics will respond to your writing depending on what pop culture format you have chosen. This however can also be a good thing if you know exactly who you want to target! I think it can really restrict the timelessness of your writing. Pop culture changes daily, so what was popular last week, isn’t going to be popular this week and so your writing is unlikely to be relevant for a long time.

  7. shortfletch / May 4 2012 5:29 am

    First, fantastic job. I think your writting style compliment’s Dunns style quite nicely. Your are both funny, slightly sarcastic and informative while being conversational. I had a good laugh reading this (not in a mean way).

    I agree with Ash that using pop culture references does restrict timeliness. If I wrote an article trying to engage preteen girls and started gushing about POGS, Tamagotchis or Brian Littrell, they would have no idea what I was talking about and just play animal farm on facebook while listening to a Justin Beiber song.

    In some case, having a limited time frame might be fine. if you are writting about cutting edge science, then there is a possibility that your reserach will become outdate soon anyways. In this situation in might not matter if you use pop culture references.

    I think you should also be careful to keep the pop culture references semi-relavent to the topic. If your just bobarding readers with tends of pop culture references, just for the sake of being funny, it can be a bit overwhelming, especially if the all the pop culture referencesaren’t really related to each other.

    I grew up watching the American television show Gilmore Girls which is esentially one hour of very fast talking pop culture references. It takes a lot of brain power to keep up with what the actors are talking about and if you don’t understand one reference sometimes your left feeling extrememly lost. Therefore if the audience doesn’t make the connection between the reference and your topic, using pop culture may confuse your audience more. They just sit there wondering why are we talking about cats I though we were talking about music???????

  8. maria93 / May 4 2012 10:10 am

    I agree that the technique of incorporating science into pop culture is an effective one and is engaging to a wide audience.

    I really enjoyed reading your post and thought the title and picture was great, which is what led me to read the post.

    I think this technique should be used more to keep science relatable and interesting!

  9. amber0699 / May 5 2012 9:36 am

    What a fun and interesting way to appeal to the masses! You are right, most of the Western World probably has heard of Lady Gaga, yet there are places that haven’t, which limits the piece as far as outreach as Muzza suggested. And yet, for those who do know, it is a really humorous and engaging way to communicate scientific ideas! Good work on your blog post, I loved your adjectives such as “the meat-clad princess of pop,” and I agree with you that this idea is an effective way to get a message across to those who understand the references.

    However, I also agree with lindsayd20374453 and bonnyp that it does not seem very credible. I love the idea of making a scientific topic interesting this way, but if the credibility is lacking…the whole piece is kind of lacking, unfortunately.

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