Beauty contest or masonry

A lighthearted post about whether or not it is right to market your scientific output—a topic I am neutral about because there are great arguments on both sides, canceling each other. So, my inner dialogue could go like:

Hey! Did you see César Hidalgo tweeting that storytelling is an American thing? Isn’t it anthropology 101 that storytelling is fundamentally human, like language itself?

Chill out . . He probably has some good reasons. By the way, didn’t you just yesterday mention a slideshow by Mason Porter saying that writing applied math papers requires storytelling? You should stop dissing it and catch up.

Nah. I’m a scientist. You are talking about a beauty contest. A scientific paper should simply report the findings of scientific research. You can’t make an article better than its scientific content. Well, if you try making it look better than it is by crafting a beguiling story, or calling p = 0.06 “a considerable trend toward significance,” it is pretty apparent. It will just come back and bite you in the end.

Of course, nobody said we should mislead our readers. It is about making them engaged. To capture their short attention span so that they will actually understand our cool research. Scientists are human too. It’s not like we take some masochistic pleasure in reading the dullest of systematic reviews. It is also about being seen in today’s daily flood of papers. Just pragmatically, if nobody notices your publications, then what good is your research?

You have a point, but still. Why should scientists waste time on such adornments? I am not trained in it, and I never wanted to. If I wanted to be a storyteller, there are professions for that.

Educational programs don’t need to give the entire skill set of a profession. Do they ever? I think storytelling and other ways of marketing your research are taught, but rather in workshops, kick-off meetings, and whatnot.

If you teach how to do science to benefit your career, where do you draw the line to outright misconduct?

There are laws.

Come on, the reputation of science needs us to stand much higher, morally, than some legal twilight zone. Anyway, it is unfair to steal attention from those who produce good scientific knowledge but don’t have the talent to write a captivating story. Imagine how much better academic science would be if we spent the time on actual research and not this useless beauty contest.

I think many people are drawn to academic science precisely because they like crafting compelling texts and pictures. Our job is very diverse, and that’s a boon. Many scientists are multitalented. Nobody benefits from stopping them let their talents out. Didn’t you just the other day say you found such an appropriate gothic color scheme for the heatmaps in your perspective piece on human-dolphin communication?

Yes, but if you argue like that, isn’t restraint the mother of creativity? Aren’t you the Dogme-95 fan here? We are already at a point where the wealthy labs hire ghostwriters and let graphics designers embellish their figures. It’s not just a waste of time, but money as well.

Sure, universities have PR departments making press releases, etc. It’s a part of public outreach, not some institutionalized click-baiting.

Besides, this isn’t an issue in all of science. “I proved the Riemann hypothesis, but I’m holding on to writing a paper in search of a narrative.”

Dude, that story was written long before the paper.

Still, if scientists of a discipline want to hear stories rather than facts, what does that tell you about the discipline? State your hypothesis. Give me your p-value. Your paper might be just a dull brick, but stuck together with others, science becomes the spectacular building it is.

Now, who is coming up with contrived allegories to make his point? Don’t say making stories isn’t human nature.

Stories are not contrived allegories.


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