A Lesson in Communication from Laurel, Yanny, and #BadStockPhotosOfMyJob.

I was on the podcast Mission Log not that long ago, and one question that came up was “would you like science to be more accurate in the movies?” I said no, because as much as science in the movies is generally dreck, movies would turn to shit if the science was accurate. What, ten years of research on a random metalloprotein to see if it’s useful for fighting a disease just to find out that it’s hepatotoxic by the time you get to human trials? Months of testing followed by having to re-do your entire experiment because your lab software was re-set and you need the response levels to be consistent on your GCMS? And all the goddamn paperwork? You don’t want scientific accuracy in your movies. You want the eureka moment, and that’s just fine. I don’t go to a movie to feel like I’m at work, and most of us don’t. Except maybe Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

But how inaccurate can the media be with science before science fiction becomes ‘science’ in the mind of the general public? 

A few weeks ago on twitter, a stock photo depicting a scientist came across my feed. It was of a scientist staring at dry ice, which… isn’t a thing that happens. I’m quite used to seeing bad stock photos of science. It’s almost always scientists cackling madly, giant syringes filled with mysterious science liquid, and of course, the fish combined with a tomato, because that’s how GMOs work. So as a response, this happened:  

And it became a thing on twitter. Which has been kinda neat to watch. Normally my job involves making people angry online, so this was a fun change of pace. It raised a few thoughts for me about scicomm and how people view science, but first, let’s have a look at goofy pictures.

So many #ScientistsLookingAtBlueLiquid!

I promise you, all of the liquids in science aren’t blue. I analyzed pee at one lab I worked at. Even the pee isn’t always pee colored. 

Aah, pointing at green bubbling liquid. That’s what they teach you in year two of scientist school; the nuclear liquid is green, bubbling optional.

It’s normal to be irrationally angry at a picture of a pipette being held incorrectly, right? #justchemistthings

That’s how I look on a good hair day, tbh.

Do not lick the science. 

Whatever they were going for with this, nailed it.

Minutes later, a velociraptor/t-rex hybrid emerged from her office. 

Please do not take medical advice from stock photos.

Shocking.

How would we have known otherwise?

Of course, over time the hashtag spread outside of the science world:

I’ve asked my friends in IT, they’ve confirmed that stethoscopes are used to diagnose computers. Along with seances, magic crystals, and eventually throwing it out the window if you don’t find someone who knows what they’re doing.

I am quite frankly worried for the woman in this box. Mainly because she works with a strange photographer.

Safety first, kids. Nobody swipes right for burnt hair. 

I’m not going to judge you for whatever kinky shit you’re into, doc.

I’m starting to think that stock photos are just photographers thinking “what’s the worst possible stereotype of this field? Let’s ramp that up to an 11.” 

This is how I handle all tire wrench transactions. Was I doing it wrong?

The New Technology Ban of 1932 has made life very trying for reporters, but smokestacks have been helpful when our carrier pigeons get tired.

I guess cybersecurity means living in the matrix. 

Maybe she’s… chicken? 
(I never promised no groaners). 

Is there anything to be preened from this other than that stock photos are often silly? Somewhat. This week another kinda silly thing happened in the universe of silly internet things. An audio clip came out that has spurned much debate about whether it‘s a blue and black or white and gold dress says Yanny or Laurel. Punchline: it says laurel, but go listen to the clip if you haven’t yet to see what your ears do with you. I have friends who swear that it says Yanny and cannot get their ears to hear ‘Laurel.’ They know it’s saying Laurel, but they can’t hear it. 

To me, this raises an important question for skeptics. How do you trust something from a second-hand source when you can’t trust your own ears to interpret information correctly all the time? And when people source their ideas about the world, however misguided, from images around them, how do you fight it? 

I looked for “GMO stock photo.” Here’s what came up: 

 

Toxin injection in orange with syringe. Genetically modified food (GMO
Toxic gmo vegetables modification syringe blue background

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The captions on the images are the captions they came with in google. Toxins and GMOS, hand in hand. It’s on the internet so it must be true. Do I think this is what everyone thinks goes into the process of making a GMO? No, but if you can’t even trust information coming directly from an audio clip into your ears, surely someone is misinterpreting a photo. I’ve done a quick demo of making a GMO before, and zero syringes were involved:

Gloves. Test tubes. A little bit of stirring. No cackling (well maybe a little for comedic effect?). 

You can say you think these pictures don’t do anything, but have you heard of the tale of the Fishmatto, a distant cousin of the Tomacco? 

Of course, this all started out of a nasty rumor that they were injecting fish genes into your tomatoes. There’s no truth to it, as there has never been a tomato modified with fish genes on the market. It’s a great scare tactic, and because of that, the fact that false to it doesn’t stop people from perpetuating it around the internet: 

*sigh*

I would cut off my pinkie toe without anesthesia to see this rumor die.* Is that just the power of pictures or is the Fishmatto something a little bigger? It’s hard to tell at this point, but look back up at the pictures of scientists. If you’ve never known a scientist very well and Marvel movies were your only point of reference, would you think it was so far fetched?

On the other hand, one unexpected thing I’ve seen come in the wake of this is the National Institute of General Medical Sciences suggest another hashtag, #RealSciencePhotos: 

Real science is rarely neat, fancy, or done under perfect lighting conditions with every last strand of hair finessed into place. It’s not all beautiful pictures of the universe from a billion dollar telescope. It’s not neatly measured demonstrations of two chemicals combining to form the controlled reaction. Someone pounding their fist on a desk and saying “I ordered those tests to be rushed” will only hurt their fists, not make equipment work faster. It comes with unexplained odors (until we explain them). Science is a lot of time, thinking, and asking questions to try to make the human condition better. It’s often smelly, tiring, and eventually worth it. It’s a lot of things you will not capture from a photoshoot. 

You’re lucky if a eureka moment shows up once in your career.

If I could go back on Mission Log, I wouldn’t change my answer. There’s a place for a fictionalized version of science, and that’s in the movies. When there’s a robot/alien/space ship smashing the Golden Gate Bridge in every movie and it’s perfectly reconstructed again just to be smashed in the sequel, feel free to get a little fast and loose with the word ‘quantum.’  Likewise, most people take stock photos with a grain of salt. But even if I know all those visuals were intended to be a comedic rendering, we often trust our interpretation of reality without fact checking. You know some people who are still arguing about a goddamn recording of laurel blue and black dress. Our perception of reality is sometimes more influenced by media than fact, more influenced by a subjective interpretations than objective truth, and it can just take one picture of a tomato with gills to turn science fiction into science reality. 

I’m looking forward to seeing #RealSciencePhotos trending on twitter next.

 

-SciBabe

*= I will be keeping my pinkie toe, danke. 

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About SciBabe 77 Articles
Yvette d'Entremont, aka SciBabe, is a chemist and writer living in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and their pets. With her addiction to crocheting and baking she's sure she would have made a great housewife if it wasn't for her potty mouth.

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