That fam­ous quote: ana­lys­ing com­edy is like dis­sect­ing a frog – nobody laughs and the frog dies. Absolutely true, but you still learn a lot about the frog. It’s a good way of work­ing out what makes a frog jump, if you’re try­ing to make your own one. If you are Frankenstein try­ing to build a frog, dis­sect­ing one is a good place to start. This ana­logy won’t sus­tain itself for much longer.”

In the spirit of killing frogs, is it pos­sible to pick up a chal­lenge from the Biofortified blog and use memes to get across keys sci­entific points? Or…


I think the answers are maybe and why? Or, if you’re a nor­mal per­son, What the hell is a meme?

Wikipedia has a humour­less dis­cus­sion of what a meme is. Simply put, inter­net memes are clichés that get mod­i­fied to form Samuel Goldfish-pleasing new clichés that usu­ally fol­low cer­tain pat­terns, a bit like knock-knock jokes as MemeMolly says in the video above. In the case above I’ve mod­i­fied X all the Y to sum­mar­ise Anastasia Bodnar’s post.

There are prob­lems with memes. For a start it’s unfair to say that Anastasia Bodnar has said all sci­ence should be presen­ted as memes. It’s just that there lim­its within the trope. Many memes fol­low simple pat­terns in primary col­ours like X all the Y. They’re made to be shared and diges­ted quickly. If the inter­net is a school disco then alter­ing a meme for accur­acy is like releas­ing a 40-year-old geo­graphy teacher on the dance floor.


Each image has its own trope and because the mes­sages are so simple subtle mean­ings can be lost. For example you might think your image looks like this:

Success Kid.

Photo: Laney Griner.

…but in this case Success Kid can only have suc­cess. You’d have to have good sci­ence news like “Predicted an earth­quake // LIVES SAVED”. An altern­at­ive like “Debunked crank doom­mon­ger // FLUKE EARTHQUAKE HAPPENED” would be a mis­use of Success Kid and make you look like a Socially Awkward Penguin.


Photo: George F. Mobley.

There are some sci­ence memes like Chemistry Cat and Troll Science but there are lim­its to what you can do with them.

Where I think there is room for some excel­lent sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion is with viral images. For example I like this from the same Biofortified post:


It’s a strik­ing image. It doesn’t have all the facts. For example was this a typ­ical plot of land, or was it infes­ted with boll­worm? As it hap­pens it was typ­ical. Connecting the image to more inform­a­tion isn’t a simple prob­lem. But while it doesn’t tell me everything about Bt cot­ton, it at least shows me why I should care. Ultimately for pub­lic out­reach is the aim that the pub­lic should be com­pet­ent in know­ing what gene expres­sion is and how to per­form exper­i­ments to determ­ine the value of cer­tain crops? Or it is simply to show them why they should be bothered at all?

In her post Anastasia Bodnar laments that these kind of images don’t spread among sci­ence blog­gers. I can think of a couple of reas­ons for that. One is cred­it­ing and copy­right. In this case there was the mat­ter of ask­ing for per­mis­sion to modify the image and redis­trib­ute it. Open Access papers would be a way round this but this approach with proper (and jus­ti­fi­able) cred­it­ing is counter to how memes spread. They’re fre­quently contextless.

To see this in action, Facebook and Google+ are both sources of images that are repro­duced with no credit to the ori­ginal cre­ator or con­text. It might not be fair to the per­son who’s put the work in, but if you want the image to spread you have to equip it to spread in a zero-context envir­on­ment. Context is key to the best sci­ence blog­gers so this is one reason why sci­ence memes don’t break out from sci­ence blogs.

The other prob­lem is that humour helps some­thing go viral and much import­ant sci­ence is earn­est. Imagine you’ve sub­mit­ted a paper about global warm­ing and its effect on trees. After ardu­ous work in forests that involved being bit­ten by every insect in nature, you’ve found increased car­bon diox­ide levels and a reduc­tion in rain­fall are dam­aging trees. You’ve worked hard on the text. You’ve hammered out a paper you can put your name to after work­ing through every­one else in the lab. Then you’ve gone through review and made cor­rec­tions. You’ve added more illus­tra­tions, you’ve proof-read the paper and made more cor­rec­tions that have slipped in. You’ve then seen some­thing sim­ilar to your worked trashed by a rival at a con­fer­ence. You’ve received a hate cam­paign from some smug blog­gers who think your fifteen-year-old Volvo is a sign of the mil­lions you’re paid to pro­mote cli­mate change. Your paper finally comes out and then the people you think should be on your side sum­mar­ise it with a Philosoraptor.

Philosoraptor, rarely credited to Sam Smith

Philosoraptor, rarely cred­ited to Sam Smith. Based (very VERY loosely) on this paper in PLOS One.

If you’re sci­ent­ist with Facebophobia, you’re going to be under­stand­ably miffed. Being told “You should be flattered by the atten­tion” isn’t going to help. In this case it’s a response to the old claim that more car­bon diox­ide is good for plants. This paper refutes that and explains why it’s not true. It’s good but requires an effort. Philosoraptor dis­tills that “more to eat isn’t always good” mes­sage. If it could be hooked into the ‘source’ paper you have a quick response and data to back it up.

If you’re not going to use humour then the other way to spread is by invok­ing awe. Science can pro­duce some images that fill you with awe, and some dia­grams that are just awful. Like humour, awe is a per­sonal thing and it’s hard to know what will click with a large num­ber of people. It’s prob­ably built-in that if you’re try­ing to spread images vir­ally you have to accept large num­bers of good and thought­ful attempts will fail and some will suc­ceed for inex­plic­able reasons.

Thinking about what sci­ence memes can do, I think there’s some­thing inter­est­ing in the Biofortified post. I don’t think you can trans­mit Science by meme. It’s too messy. But you can hope to trans­mit some sci­ence appre­ci­ation, or pos­sibly high­light some sci­entific prob­lems with viral images and memes. That’s valu­able tar­get and a dif­fi­cult one. It forces you to think “Why should I care about this research?” which is always a use­ful question.

For people who don’t like that, there’s always Grumpy Cat.

Grumpy Cat

Photo: Bryan Bundesen.

Alun Salt. ORCID 0000-0002-1261-4283

When he's not the web developer for AoB Blog, Alun Salt researches something that could be mistaken for the archaeology of science. His current research is about whether there's such a thing as scientific heritage and if there is how would you recognise it?

4 Responses

  1. Mary says:

    Yay! Very cool thoughts you have there.

    It’s hard, and it’s really excru­ci­at­ing when we know how import­ant credit and source info is. And leav­ing out con­text is dis­com­fort­ing. But you have to accept the short time frame you have for atten­tion and work with that.

    One of my favor­ites that I did was in response to the issue that some people have with hybrids. They assume that they are some kind of BigAg plot to cre­ate serfs. They’ve even tried to ban them in some cases. So I did this one:

    And it links back to the maize gen­ome pro­ject. So it was an attempt to edu­cate, responsibly.

    Maybe it’s not per­fect, and not funny enough, but someday someone will con­nect with that memory poten­tially. I’d be delighted to work­shop these more–take sug­ges­tions for text and design. I’m not very clever about sharp dialog.

  2. Anastasia says:

    I love the meme that cites me :)

    You’re totally right — not all sci­ence lends itself eas­ily to memes. Your post has cla­ri­fied an ideas that I’ve been mulling — there really are two types of images that we need here.

    1) gen­eral sci­ence pro­mo­tion, which are more like actual memes. I think the @RtAVM pro vac­cin­a­tion memes are a great example. They are catchy, snarky, and com­mu­nic­ate sci­ence in an awe­some way!

    2) tar­geted sci­ence, such as an image that illus­trates a spe­cific concept or journal art­icle. These are meme-like but less catchy. I was think­ing that using these “sum­mary images” might help bring atten­tion to blog posts if attached to shares on social media. Some ideas can’t be summed up in one quote or sen­tence with an image, but so many can. Would such images draw people in to look a blog posts they might oth­er­wise click on? According to Mary’s anec­dote (as described here) it works at least once :)

  3. Michael Adkisson says:

    I star­ted mak­ing sev­eral memes as things got heated over the Prop 37 GMO labeling issue here. I found people who don’t want to hear an oppos­ing view tune you out by your 2nd sen­tence. They almost can’t help pro­cessing memes at least to some extent.

    Here’s one of my favor­ites