• Becca Dzombak

So That's Neat! Go ahead and anthropomorphize that science. (Maybe not for kids.)

I may be an earth scientist now, but back in the day, I was a Communication Studies major. In my socks-n-'stocks and flannel, I definitely stood out among the Comms young women, but I liked it: I took a class on satire, several on politics and the media, and a handful related to gender and the media. The one that stands out most in my memory–well, aside from getting to watch The Office in the satire class–is the environmental communication course I took, where we analyzed different types of science communication and discussed their efficacy. While I never did end up doing a senior thesis in Comms (I was planning some vague project based on drone imagery of industrial agriculture that never came to fruition), I've maintained an interest in scicomm research throughout grad school. For an as-yet unpublished side project, I methodically combed through academic departments and twitter, bylines in top science news desks and science writing compilations, gathering (apparent) gender and race demographic data on who was out there, doing science writing. (Spoiler: it's white women.)


Anyway, I subscribe to a couple Tables of Contents for scicomm journals, and I recently spotted this title: Stop avoiding the inevitable: The effects of anthropomorphism in science writing for non-experts.


My first thought was, anthropomorphism is inevitable? I had to find out.

Yep, it's right there in the second paragraph's topic sentence, cited to a 1991 paper with the catchy title, "Active verbs with inanimate subjects in scientific prose." Apparently, when we feeble-minded humans have trouble understanding some external thing or experience, we fall back on what we know: ourselves. In that context, and the context of science writing, the claim 'anthropomorphism is inevitable' makes sense. We're always trying to communicate obscure or new pieces of information that, for most people, are only loosely related to their day-to-day experience. So we connect what's relevant, whether it's a location they might be familiar with, a more basic scientific concept they've heard of, or–here it is–some experience we might assume the reader shares with others. We're all just trying to make connections, after all. And we're good at it; one study in the mid-1900s found that people even anthropomorphize geometric shapes moving around on a screen. We want to understand and be understood.


Anthropomorphism in science writing has been both criticized and defended in the past. As scientists, we're always pushed to be more academic, less accessible, more specific; anthropomorphizing is unacceptable in an academic journal and is therefore frowned upon even when we move into a public sphere where we're communicating with a lay audience. Proponents make the argument that, as I mentioned above, it helps people connect to new ideas and remember things; because it may ultimately stem from how we interact with other people, it can increase empathy and a moral connection to an issue. Opponents just don't want us to think our dogs are geniuses. (Kidding–though some arguments, like this study on kids' picture books, are more about giving children a realistic, factual view of the world.)


There's anthropomorphism and then there's anthropomorphism, as it turns out.


In a 2004 Nature article dramatically titled 'The perils of anthropomorphism,' the difference between "naive" and "critical" anthropomorphism is brought up. The former, it says, is a child wanting to talk with the family dog; the latter is the (ostensibly more harmful or serious) assumption that animals have consciousness, thought, and behavior in the same way that people do (in contrast with a more basic 'stimulus-response' existence). Based on my own experience, most anthropomorphic popular science writing falls in the former camp, utilizing anthropomorphism more as figurative language (a plant being "happiest" in the sun, like the ozone layer is a "blanket") than truly ascribing thoughts or feelings to animals or inanimate objects.


So is that harmful or misleading, or helpful?


The new study, published in February in Public Understanding of Science, didn't try to communicate complex findings or add levity to an academic paper. For a sample of anthropomorphic writing, they used Diary of a Space Zucchini which, as the name may hint, is meant for popular consumption. Astrophysicists are not referencing this particular piece of literature. The comms researchers re-wrote the account in scientific terms, had subjects read one or the other and answer some questions, and then compared subjects' knowledge and understanding of several plant biology topics. In short, they found that people who had the anthropomorphic story didn't have poorer factual understanding of the topics–but they didn't have a better understanding, either. (Other studies have found anthropomorphism to increase factual recall.)


The two studies– zucchini tales and the animal books–can't really be directly compared, of course, because one is about kids' picture books and another is about adults' responses to a 1400-word essay. The authors even concede that anthropomorphism may be more confusing for kids who can't tell the difference between figurative and literal speech; they also suggest making it explicit that anthropomorphic features are not meant to be taken literally, rather than leaving the reader to their own devices. But overall, for those of us who write about science for adults, including anthropomorphic features could help our narratives flow, our readers connect, and our main points be more memorable. For environmental or conservation efforts, employing anthropomorphism could help spur people to action.


"Human language inevitably depicts the world from a human point of view," as one paper puts it. As long as we're aware of that bias and cognizant of our audience, we should be fine.


More reading:

Anthropomorphism with family dogs: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.2752/089279307780216650

Motivations to anthropomorphize: https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/soco.2008.26.2.143

Anthr. in preschool: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09669760902982331




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