This week, we discussed why effective communication in science is so important.
Charles Darwin, as we all know, was the famous scientist/naturalist who came up with the theory of natural selection, which changed the world of biology. But while Darwin was on the HMS Beagle exploring the world and solidifying his theories, another person- Alfred Russell Wallace– was also working on a similar theory. Darwin and Wallace were co-authors of the paper: “On the Tendency of species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection.”
So why is Darwin so well known today compared to Wallace? We were told that it was because Darwin was a better communicator, and I decided to do some research. I found that Darwin’s big break was not the scientific paper mentioned earlier, but his book On the Origin of Species. Although Darwin was already well-known in the scientific community before the publishing of the book, he became a household name after the publication. His theories were both based on evidence and against the common assumptions of how organisms came to be. A prevailing assumption was creationism– that life originated from specific acts of divine creation. Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) theory opposed the beliefs of Creationists, and this created some controversy (although less than Darwin had imagined).
Darwin was frequently ill and unable to participate in public debates, which was an important form of communication, but some of his colleagues and supporters were fierce protectors of his theory.
After seeing the evidence, I am unable to say for sure why Darwin is so much more famous now, but my guess would be a combination of factors, including Wallace respecting Darwin, Darwin’s book and the controversy surrounding it, and Darwin’s colleagues and followers sticking up for him, not just because Darwin was a better communicator.
A more recent case
If Darwin was clearly a better communicator, I could’ve easily said “and that’s why communication is so important!”. This was not the case, and I am even going to argue that communication for scientists is much more important now than in the 19th century. This is because information can spread all over the world in one day, and if you say something that is not well-received, there is nowhere to hide.
Tim Hunt, nobel laureate, said this during the World Conference of Journalists in Seoul, June 2015:
Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry!
Tim Hunt, Biochemist, Nobel Laureate. Taken from The Guardian, 2015.
He received massive criticism from this comment, losing many positions, including his Honorary professor role at University College London (UCL). And he has probably received many death threats because of his statement. This all goes to show how one single statement can change the perception of the world on one person, just like a great speech can change the lives of many.
It is difficult, because although you want to be careful what you say to the media, you also want to speak your thoughts and crack some jokes from time to time- and even then, what you perceive as something that will be well-received may not be, and vice versa. Although I can type, I don’t think of myself as a good communicator (for example, I have to work on my confidence, body language, etc.), but I think with practice I can avoid being a bad communicator.
Below are some of my thoughts on what Tim Hunt said and the responses he got- this may be controversial, so feel free to skip this part.
What he said was likely an exaggeration of a snippet of real life for him- if he has worked in labs in his whole life, then he will have personal experiences of him falling in love with girls and girls falling in love with him. A girl may have cried when criticised by him too- these statements are not factually incorrect. What I think he did wrong was he took perhaps the most notable three parts of his years of experience working with women in labs, and omitted the other parts. He defined them based on these parts of his experience, and this is stereotyping. I do not agree with stereotyping in this case, because it is not an accurate depiction of women in labs.
And what did many people do wrong? Many others read the statement, took it out of context, and used that one statement to define Tim as a person. Those people also stereotyped. Their view of Tim is based on their reaction to the statement, and it shouldn’t be. This would be judging Tim based on one of his worst comments in his 72 years alive, while disregarding the other good things he has done for others in all his life. For example, Tim has fought for years to get day nurseries established at some universities, and this has been successful in the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. Does that balance out your views of him somewhat?
It seems like humans are very good at forming judgments based on the information we’ve been given, and once this first impression is formed, it is difficult to change. In this case, most of the public have been fed scarce information, only covering a small part of who Tim Hunt is, and it is easy to form a strong negative impression of this person in an instant.
In controversies like this, I think many people like to choose a side because they like certainty, but I also think it is a good idea to wait and consider both (or more) sides of a discussion before choosing a side. I choose to stay neutral in this case because this means I avoid any conflicts :D.
Thank you for reading!