Friday, October 26, 2007

Framing science: gossip trumps facts

What's the best way to figure out whether someone is likely to cheat you? Look at facts on their past behavior? Or listen to what others are saying about the other person?

A new study says people rely on gossip more than facts. Why does this surprise anyone? Facts never speak for themselves, and a good story will always trump a set of facts.

What's the value of a good story? A good story provides everything people need to make sense of information, including a relevant context for facts. Facts become the illustration that verifies the story. Naked facts are less useful since they require interpretation and analysis, which is a slow and uncertain process at best.

This adds to the debate over how best to communicate science. Since even questionable gossip trumps a set of facts, this study warns us about the futility of relying on "just the facts" type arguments. In competition with a good story, naked facts will probably be neglected or even ignored.

The study's authors were a bit disturbed that gossip can outweigh facts. But they shouldn't be upset or surprised.

Let's look a little deeper at gossip. What is gossip? Tittering junior high girls talking about clothes and boyfriends? Yes. But gossip is also important communication that builds trust networks and clarifies social behavior rules. In other words, gossip can convey important information. In some cases, failure to gossip can be viewed as a problem in social groups, because important information is withheld from those who need it.

This study reminds us that context is important for facts. A good story can trump a set of facts, so beware of relying on a set of facts alone. In fact, why not build important facts into a story? Embedding facts into a compelling narrative works with normal communication styles rather than fighting against them.

Will this study help? I don't think any of this will matter to a "just the facts" person. Why? Because the messy world of social communication has probably always mystified the type of people who find a safe refuge in the world of facts.

"We all know people who are not calibrated to the social world at all, who if they participated in gossip sessions would learn a whole lot of stuff they need to know and can't learn anywhere else, like how reliable people are, how trustworthy," said Sarah Wert, a psychologist at Yale. "Not participating in gossip at some level can be unhealthy, and abnormal."

The social context of communication matters, and this includes scientific communication. Of course data matters, along with analysis and conclusions. But also important are social factors such as the reputations of the scientists who publish a paper.

Is this surprising? No, scientists are people, often irascible people, and why would anyone expect them to avoid jealousies, rivalries, and stubborness? Do these social factors dominate? No, but they do matter.

So the next time you want to communicate a set of facts, try building them into an interesting narrative and see whether it works better than plain facts. Who knows, you may notice your audiences getting smarter.

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