Stuck on repeat

Obviously, your own taste in music is impeccable. But what if it doesn’t strike a chord with everyone?

 
 Illustration by  Sarah Nagorcka

Illustration by Sarah Nagorcka

 

This is an editorial for Issue 20 of Lateral by deputy editor-in-chief Nicola McCaskill, who filed Linkin Park under ‘Mozart’ on her iPod nano out of shame.

Hands down, my favourite musician as a teenager was Delta Goodrem. It would be fair to call my love for her, and her entire piano-driven adult contemporary pop/rock discography, an obsession. I hoarded her singles (yes, the actual physical CDs with 2-3 songs on them, which seemed like a wise investment at the time), illegally downloaded all her unreleased tracks (the ones she didn’t want to be heard, but were, by 15-year-old disciples like me), and made multiple accounts on her official fan forum so I could post all my thoughts and feelings. And I had a lot. 

I don’t know what exactly made me so enamoured of Delts, as her friends and super-fans called her. Was it the soundtrack to my upbringing — the catchy, yet soulful 80s ballads that accompanied our long car trips? Was it my own interest in playing the piano? A sincere admiration for her incredibly thick and lustrous hair? The fact that I was an angsty teenager, and her earnest, heartfelt songwriting hit me right in the feels? Probably it was some combination of the above that lead me to spend my days scrawling her lyrics on my schoolbooks and sticking her posters on my wall. 

My friends, remarkably, did not share my passion for incredibly talented and effervescent Australian female singer-songwriter/pianists. My high school best friend* instead had a penchant for industrial music, which to me sounded like somebody had put a bunch of scrap metal in a blender, turned it on, and then laid some sick beats underneath. When I went to her house and she put her music on, it just sounded like noise. I couldn’t understand why someone would choose to funnel this into their eardrums. Despite this major mismatch in our sonic preferences, our friendship managed to survive. 

Just like we all have different tastes in music, we have various preferences in food, clothing, books, films, colours, hobbies, people… and the origin of our taste is usually impossible to clearly define. Do I like foreign language arthouse films because I was exposed to them growing up, or was I just born a bit of a wanker? We may never know — but arguably, it doesn’t matter. Maybe I didn’t “get” the noise my friend happily blasted into her ears, but I got that she liked it, and I was perfectly content with the dulcet tones of my preferred genres.

Once we’re old enough to know better (and that’s a wildly variable age), we seem comfortable enough with the idea that other people like different things to us. We can understand that others find different things interesting or enjoyable or worthy of their time. And we usually don’t force feed people food they don’t like, or (with the exception of my neighbours back home) blast music they can’t stand through their bedroom window for 6+ hours a night. But we still continue to grapple with the idea that not everyone is tuned in to the same ways of thinking, or methods of communication, as we are. 

Scientists and science advocates often end up in these roles because they understand a certain tone of communication, a particular pitch of logic and analysis. We get data, numbers, facts and figures; we’re engaged in the call and response of peer reviewing, and when we hear a chorus of evidence building up, we join in. It sings directly to us, it resonates, we connect. And that’s super great for us. But we would be wise to remember that, just like the musical stylings of nine-time ARIA Award winner Delta Goodrem, for whatever confusing and seemingly unjust reason, not everyone is a fan.

We need to be careful of harping on the same old tune over and over and over again. The risk is that the message becomes Muzak. When you’ve heard the same thing enough times, eventually it just becomes background noise — even if it was pretty darn cool stuff to begin with. But even worse than that is what happens when we decide to turn the volume up to 11, instead of just changing the station. 

  “And then I was like: yeah, current approaches to science communication might be doomed to fail, but I was born to try, so...”   Eva Rinaldi/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“And then I was like: yeah, current approaches to science communication might be doomed to fail, but I was born to try, so...” Eva Rinaldi/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What’s truly astounding is that the very people who are generally convinced by evidence and rationality manage to tune it out when it comes to convincing anyone else. Study after study has demonstrated that pushing facts that contradict someone’s beliefs might only entrench their beliefs more. Repeating your argument over and over isn’t going to help, either. Feelings and emotions are more powerful and polarising for some people than facts — and that, it should be stressed, is a fact, which should therefore influence the way the science world approaches communication and education. Instead, it seems easier and more instantly gratifying to regress to a bunch of angsty emo kids with our headphones in, complaining that no one else understands us.

It’s important for scientists, and science journalists and communicators, to be talking about different ways to share their messages and tell their story to people who might not normally shop in that aisle at JB. Instead, conversations and gatherings between science communicators are all too often nothing more than silent discos where the same songs get played on repeat. And look — they’re totally popping tracks and everyone there has a super awesome time and agrees that everyone else in the room has the best taste in music, but that’s it. To continue to draw out this music metaphor rather than just let it die a natural death, we’re all just jamming with each other in a self-congratulatory, broadly egotistical echo-chamber (great acoustics). That’s kind of fun, but it’s also boring, it’s exhausting, it’s a momentous waste of time, and it stops us from doing anything particularly helpful or meaningful. 

To be clear, misunderstanding or rejection of science by groups within the public is a failure of science communication. It’s not a failure of the public. People are not stupid or wrong or unworthy of our time and attention just because they don’t understand things the way we do. Maybe it feels good to show someone your favourite TV show, bake them your favourite cake, or play them your favourite song — but they might not feel the same way about it. Most of the time, that’s irrelevant. But if your job or passion is to communicate, you should be incredibly invested in finding ways to share your message with people who feel differently to you. Otherwise, much like my collection of Delta Goodrem singles from 2004–2008, it’s redundant.

I appreciate the raw honesty of country music, the aggressive passion of heavy metal, the lyrical complexity of hip hop. I can understand their origin and appeal, even if they don’t appeal directly to me. Likewise, I continue to try to understand the motivations of people who deny or grapple with science. I appreciate the fear, the anger and the confusion behind their resistance, I can see how this appeals to people. And I can see how playing those people the best song I’ve ever heard will do nothing when they’ve made it very clear they don’t care for it. Our job is to keep trying to write the song that will. 

For lots more about music and science (and nothing more about Delta Goodrem), check out the rest of Issue 20 of Lateral.

 

 

* I should point out that my hipster goth best friend did eventually do me a solid and accompanied me to a Delta Goodrem concert in 2009, at which point she concluded that yes, she actually is “super cute” and puts on a damn good performance. A win for communicators everywhere.