The man who taught the scientists all over the world to dance

“I have a PhD in molecular biology and I still barely understand what most scientists are talking about,” US scientist John Bohannon admits with a smirk during his 2011 TEDxBrussels Talk. In it, he satirizes Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal by modestly proposing to have PowerPoint replaced by live dancers. Have you ever struggled to explain your scientific experiment to the public? Well, then you should pay attention to his ideas. As a former contributing correspondent of Science Magazine – one of the world's top academic journals – he definitely knows what he is talking about. Perhaps you'll agree with his point that to really capture the essence of your research, the fewer words you use, the better. In fact, maybe use no words at all... We are honoured that John Bohannon, the man who taught the scientists to dance, fooled millions into thinking that chocolate helps weight loss and is currently teaching machines to read and write, agreed to an interview for our university magazine.

21. 12. 2020 11.40 hod.
Od: Redakcia NU

Science must remain objective, but talking about it need not be

He is from the US but he decided to follow a girl to Oxford University. The result of that experiment? He broke up with the girl but got a PhD in molecular biology. That is just one of the many interesting facts you encounter on his personal website. He became a correspondent for Science Magazine, explored the world and wrote many stories. Besides covering various topics like medical research, mathematics, marine ecology, nanomaterials, climate change, archaeology and social sciences for years as a journalist he launched his “Gonzo Scientist” online series. No need to feel ashamed if you have no idea what “gonzo” means, we had to google it too. The word describes an unconventional style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity and relies on the reporter’s personal involvement in the story. Sounds great but you have to admit that it is – at least in our geographic location – quite an unusual way of introducing science and knowledge to the public. Why did he decide to go gonzo? “Science is a social activity. It’s an activity shared by people seeking truth together, not alone. So it felt natural to report on science in an honest way, showing my own involvement, personal thoughts and feelings. Doing so was more enjoyable for me, and that comes through in the storytelling. People enjoy reading it more,” John said for our university magazine.

Slaying monsters for science

The success of the Gonzo Scientist stories definitely got a boost from the fact that John was not afraid to introduce top scientists as people with a sense of humour. Do you want an example? “At one point, a croc charged toward an undergraduate student on our fringe. I drew my bow and squeezed off three arrows, killing it before it could reach her. The stragglers were not so lucky. Lutters, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, tried to reach the rock-art site on his own. He drifted off the road somewhere near the mountains. A pack of hyenas found him and tore him apart. That's a horrible way to die...” No, this is not the opening of a eulogy to a deceased colleague but an excerpt from John's article Slaying Monsters for Science which reports on the “first scientific conference held in Azeroth, the online universe inhabited by millions of people playing World of Warcraft”. John told us that it might well have been a dry report on current research into online game worlds. “Instead, I joined scientists to create a conference inside a game world – where everyone got killed. That’s fun. But you still learn a lot of science reading it,” he summed up. (By the way, don't worry about Lutters – the article goes on to inform you that Lutters actually enjoyed the conference in spite of his many deaths. He was in the front row at the next evening's entertainment event, a banshee concert in an underground throne room.)

Replacing PowerPoint by artists

That was one way of making science sound cool for the public. Or, one of many. But beware of bad PowerPoint presentations! In his TEDx talk John Bohannon called them – with comedic exaggeration – a serious threat to the global economy. Why? Just try to remember all those bad presentations you had to watch during scientific conferences – with their endless slides full of statistics and historical digressions hardly relevant to the main topic. Now multiply that number by the millions of people who are forced to waste their time by watching bad PowerPoint presentations every day. “PowerPoint is a tool, and like any tool it can, and will be abused,” he says in his TED talk. How? According to John, it helps you to soften up your audience, it distracts them with pretty pictures and irrelevant data, it allows you to create an illusion of competence, an illusion of simplicity and most destructively, an illusion of understanding. “But presenting your science should be theatre. Good theatre is all about connecting with your audience on a deep level. A half-hearted presenting of a pre-canned PowerPoint presentation is the worst way to connect,” he adds.

And he does not stop there. He created the “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest. What is that about? Instead of explaining their research with words, scientists have to explain it, especially the complex problems, through interpretive dance. I know it sounds crazy at first but give it a chance. You can find many videos of dancing scientists on YouTube and once you watch some of them you might admit that it actually works – and you will be surprised how it helps you understand the key outcomes of their research while really enjoying this process of learning. What was his inspiration for this brilliant idea? “Honestly, I just wanted a good dance party. But we filmed that live event, and then the internet took over!” says the author of the idea modestly about the competition which has been running for 12 years straight. (By the way, if you want to participate in the 13th edition, you have still time until 29 January, 2021 to join – for more information about joining the contest and its rules, go to: Don't forget, though, that you will be required to comply with any local COVID-19 rules like an obligation to wear a face-mask or a restriction of the size of the gathering. Safety before Salsa!)

The contest is popular all over the world but that is not its only claim for success. Because of the contest, some scientists are now working on their research directly with dancers. It is no longer “only” about changing the perspective on transmitting scientific results to other people through art; the art-science connection has the potential for a greater collaboration between artists and scientists during the research process.

Science reporting can be investigative

John Bohannon is also known for investigative science reporting. In 2013 he submitted a fake and very flawed scientific article to a large number of fee-charging open-access publishers, revealing that less than 40% were living up to their promise of rigorously peer-reviewing what is published. The spoof paper was accepted by 157 of those 255 open-access journals (61.6%) and they claimed they would review it. This, on its own, is a very disturbing result. Expecting that open-access journals learnt their lesson from this would be naive, I suppose, so I asked John, what he suggests: what necessary steps should be taken to stop this? “We should re-invest in nonprofit scientific societies and exclusively publish in their journals. Large for-profit corporate academic publishing has been destructive to science. We should publish fewer peer-reviewed papers at higher quality, all open access, and the rest should be preprints,” he thinks.

Two years later he fooled millions into believing that chocolate helps with weight loss. Under the pseudonym of Johannes Bohannon he wrote a deliberately bad study that he had designed and run to see how the media would report the “meaningless” findings. He even fabricated a press release which was swallowed, hook, line and sinker, by numerous major media outlets all over the world. According to John, this experiment showed that reporters need to be more sceptical, they have to learn how to read a scientific paper properly and most importantly, they actually need to bother to do it. When I asked him if there was anything the science community can do to help reporters and prevent this from happening, he pointed me to a website he is a big fan of, SciLine is an independent, freely available service providing timely access to trustworthy, articulate experts for journalists and other communicators producing print, broadcast, or digital stories about science-related issues. It also offers accessible summaries explaining the methods and experimental evidence behind newsworthy scientific advances, as well as insightful, on-the-record comments and context from researchers and scholars. Check it out – it is definitely worth your while.

Focused on natural language processing

These days John is back to being a scientist – he is the Director of Science at Primer, an artificial intelligence company headquartered in San Francisco which wants to “accelerate our understanding of the world”. What exactly is he working on, and how can it be useful for scientists? “My focus now is on natural language processing. I want to teach machines how to read and write,” he clarifies. In his opinion, one of the most challenging and valuable commercial applications of natural language processing is automatic text summarization. “If we can summarize scientific papers, for example by automatically generating review papers, that could help scientists,” he gives an example. The good news is that the start-up already created a machine learning system called BLANC which uses a deep learning language model to directly measure how helpful a summary is for the understanding of the target document. “With further refinement, we expect BLANC to achieve superhuman skill at judging the quality of document summaries. That will help us train machine writers which, finally, will spare humans from having to read everything themselves. That will free humans to have more time to do what we do best: be creative,” he says. So if the videos of the science-loving PhD students did not get your feet moving, this news certainly will.

Erika Hubčíková 

Zaujímavé príbehy, fakty, rozhovory a reportáže nájdete v každom čísle časopisu Naša univerzita