American football, cheerleaders, and science communication

Recently I heard someone compare science communication to a sport. I didn’t catch which sport he meant, but he was fairly drunk, so it probably doesn’t matter. Maybe it was a dumb idea anyway, but there’s no law against metaphors. A metaphor is a way of saying one thing when you are thinking about something else, such as when you’re talking to your wife about the shopping list but your mind is actually entirely focused on your Facebook page. There are good metaphors and bad metaphors. For example, the upcoming visit of your mother-in-law could be compared to an inspection by a human rights organization, an invasion of kudsu, or a hostile takeover on Wall Street; one of these will fit your particular situation better than the others.

I do remember that the general topic of the conversation was differences between the way Americans and people from other countries communicate science. Now some people attribute this to the fact that a lot of American universities offer their scientists courses and workshops in writing and giving presentations. But the reality is, at an early stage in development, kids started playing different kinds of football. That causes fundamental changes in the way their neurons are wired. Then when you play football, you kill some neurons off again. But you kill off different ones. These changes in brain architecture spill over into other types of behavior, such as science communication.

American football is simple. One team has the ball, and it lines up against the other team. Then they crash into each other. When the dust clears, you look for the ball. Wherever it is, that’s where the teams line up to do it all over again. The goal is to carry it the ball over the goal line, but you have to be upright when you get there. So if the ball comes your way, look out, because everybody on the other team will try to break your legs.

If you make it to the End Zone, your team gets six points. I don’t know how they arrived at this number. One point ought to be fine, unless the total reflects some sort of risk factor. It’s true, for example, that your chances of reaching the End Zone alive are about one in six. But that wouldn’t explain why a shot in tennis can be worth 15 points, or the absurd scores you get for throwing a dart in a pub, unless there are a lot of dart fatalities they aren’t telling us about.

Anyway, American football teams have a sort of mascot called a coach, a combination of army drill sergeant and evangelist preacher who speaks in tongues, a genetic cross between a pit bull and a Neandertal, whose vocabulary consists of 100 words of which 90 are profanities, who has to be kept on a leash at games. Otherwise he will assault the referees, people in the stands, cameramen, or players from either team, sometimes biting them. This individual is usually a former football star who has been hit on the head so many times that he believes he is preparing troops for the invasion of Normandy, the defense of Stalingrad, or some other situation involving the fascist pursuit of world domination.

On your first day of practice, this coach takes you down to one end of the field and shows you where to stand. Then he puts his face 1cm from yours and gives you a whiff of breath that would permit you, if your football field is equipped with a mass spectrometer, to conduct a precise analysis of his diet and the metabolic status of various internal organs. But you wouldn’t have time because he immediately begins shouting in your face.

“You, scumbag!” he shouts.

“Yessir!” you scream.

“You see that goal down there?” he shouts.

“Yessir!”

“That there is our goal, and this here behind you is their goal.”

“Yessir!”

“You stand here and wait until the ball comes flying through the air. You catch it and you run straight for our goal, you hear?”

“Yessir!”

“If something gets in your way, just run over it! No matter what it is! If it’s somebody from the other team, run over him! If your grandma comes onto the field, run over her! If a 7-Tesla MRI scanner weighing about 6 tons suddenly drops out of the sky, just run over it!”

“Yessir!” you scream.

This all sounds simple enough. So you stand there a while and sure enough, here comes the ball. You catch it and all hell breaks lose. You run toward the goal and half the people on the field are trying to break your legs, whereas your teammates are trying to break the legs of the other team before they get to you. Beginners sometimes get disoriented and start running the wrong way. Then things really go wild: your own team starts chasing you while the other team tries to knock them down. If you switch and run backwards and forwards a few times in a row, the result is total anarchy. It’s like mixing up willy-nilly a bunch of promoters and inhibitors and glopping them onto cells. Both football players and biochemical pathways will get confused, sometimes at the same time, respectively. This state of chaos has one benefit: the person with the ball might slip through unnoticed. In some ways this resembles the way cancer cells evade the immune system, and in other ways it doesn’t. That’s completely irrelevant here, but I just thought I’d mention it.

Eventually an American football player gets hit on the head so many times that he forgets about the option of running backwards. It’s at this point that American football might be used as a metaphor for science communication. Just in case the topic ever comes up, for example in a bar.

Say you’re standing in front of an audience with some sort of scientific result in your hands. If we consider this information the ball, then the goal is to run it straight to the End Zone (into the minds of the audience), along the most direct route possible. If your path is blocked by some nuisance, like contradictory results, or mean comments from a reviewer, or a Coke can somebody put in your electron microscope, just push it out of the way, using brute force, a control experiment, or some sort of complicated explanation. Whatever happens, keep heading for the End Zone, and try not to get your legs broken along the way.

Now earlier I mentioned that there are good metaphors and bad metaphors. In Europe they play a different form of football, which ignorant people call soccer. A lot of people apparently use this game as a model for communicating science, which leads to a lot of games with no score.
I admit that I don’t completely understand the sport, but I’ve observed it a few times. It mainly involves a lot of guys standing around kicking a ball. They kick it forward and back, and left and right, unless a person from the other team is in the way, and then they kick him. This sort of aimless kicking usually goes on for about 20 or 30 minutes. At that point a member of your team says, Hey, look down there at the other end of the field. Somebody’s put up a net. I wonder if you could hit that with the ball? What would happen? Somebody tries it, and the whole stadium goes nuts.

I don’t know how many scientific talks you’ve been to, but I often feel like the speaker starts out in the backfield kicking a ball over here, and over there, sometimes getting in a few kicks on his competitors. If you get lucky, at some point the speaker discovers that there’s some sort of goal to aim for. If he hits it, usually by accident, everybody goes crazy.
Another reason European football isn’t a very apt metaphor is that there’s no good scientific equivalent for rowdy fanatics who get drunk, rush onto the field, and tear down the goalposts, unless you count behavior at scientific conferences. Incidentally, that’s the only context in which scientists typically switch jerseys. When you wake up in the hotel room of another person attending the conference, you might grab the wrong clothes.

This behavior is a little less common in American football. We have other nuisances to distract people from the game, but even they have parallels in science: cheerleaders (the reviewers who accepted your paper), marching bands (animated graphics in PowerPoint presentations), advertisements (funding from the pharmaceutical industry), and the emergency rescue teams that rush in to scrape people off the field (acknowledgements). Impact points clearly have a significance in American football. In that sport you do actually kick the ball sometimes, to get an extra point, which is like supplemental data. So it’s a complex metaphor. I’m not sure how helmets and faceguards fit in yet, but I’m working on it.

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