How Stick Figure Comics Can Contribute to Discussions of Serious Research Issues

1 Dec

I admit that I owe completing my MSc partly to online comic strips. Every morning, I would arrive in my office, go through my routine comics (PHD Comics, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, xkcd, The Oatmeal), and then have enough courage to face all the lab work and piles of data. Often times, they go beyond just humour to address serious issues in science and education, and provide educational substance. PHD Comics talks about the lives of graduate students and the research done by labs visited by the author. SMBC touches on many subjects – science, research, education, sex, God, and the meaning of life. The Oatmeal raised millions for building a Tesla museum (although mostly the Oatmeal is less about science but still really fun to read). xkcd disseminates lots of scientific content through its comics (static, interactive, or infographic style); there is even a script allowing you to draw graphs and charts in “xkcd” style (this is sooooo cool! Oh jeez I am nerdy).

But, the next case brings the contribution of xkcd-style stick figure comics to serious science discussions a whole other level.

In the November 2012 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science (which, by the way, is a legit journal and ranked among the top 10 journals in the field according to Wikipedia), the following figure was published within the article  The Nine Circles of Scientific Hell. The article was written by Neuroskeptic (the writer’s blogging pseudonym – this is a first, as explained by io9):

From the article: The nine circles of scientific hell (with apologies to Dante and xkcd)

From the article: The nine circles of scientific hell (with apologies to Dante and xkcd). Neuroskeptic Perspectives on Psychological Science 2012;7:643-644

I was pretty surprised. I mean, a stick figure comic in a serious scientific journal? This is rather unconventional. While the comic is pretty funny, is this the right place for it?

I started reading other articles within the issue, and realized what the point is. In fact, one of the focuses of this issue is the replicability in psychological science – fraud cases, public mockery, selective data reporting, lack of data sharing and reproducibility.

The editor wrote,

Those readers who need further motivation to change their research practices are referred to the illustration provided by Neuroskeptic (2012).

Then I got it. Instead of simply saying “this is bad”, using the sarcastic stick figure comic seems to be much more “in your face”. And this definitely captured much, much more attention than an 1000-word essay about this serious issue in research.

There are many ways to communicate science, or issues in science. While writing thousands of words can fill the pages, sometimes pictures and analogies are worth more than words. And my hope is that I won’t forget this in the future when I talk about science and research…


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