The Dangers of Co-opting Scientific Explanation

As non-scientists plying our trade, I believe we should be wary of justifying our practice on the basis of scientific research.

Don’t get me wrong, science intrigues me as much as it does the next layperson. But the problem for laypeople like us is that all our scientific knowledge necessarily comes predigested – usually second, third or even fourthhand. Not surprising really given that primary sources in the field of science are a closed book to us.

Many of the people who write most clearly and entertainingly about science aren’t scientists either. I’m a big fan of writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink and Rita Carter, but as far as I’m aware, they don’t hold a single science degree between them.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially when the knowledge itself is decidedly dubious. Pop scientific explanations in the field of public speaking have a tendency to go awry. A little reading turns us into experts, and soon we find ourselves making bold claims about the connection between certain behaviours and specific brain regions – claims which would make a genuine expert cringe.

What’s the problem with having a bit of harmless speculative fun, you might ask? Well, my first response is that it’s far from harmless: it begets an endless supply of half-baked pseudo scientific monstrosities that damage our professional standing and brand.

We find our professional practice polluted with “scientifically proven” ideas like 93% of communication is nonverbal; or the notion that each of us learns best according to their preferred learning style; or the contention that educational kinesiology (brain gym) is considerably more than a ragbag of pseudo scientific tosh.

The first thing that using the phrase “scientifically proven” reveals about you is that you’re not a scientist – which means that what you’re telling me should probably be taken with a giant pinch of salt.

Science doesn’t prove things. Research can strongly support a hypothesis, it can suggest relationships or causality, it can even be convincing – but it can’t prove things. It can however disprove things.

Scientists validate their research through the process of “peer review”. They submit their research papers to other experts in the field who assess their validity, their significance, their originality, and their clarity.

Experiments in various fields are being carried out all the time. But most of them aren’t peer reviewed, so we should be extremely wary of using their findings to justify what we do.

I would also argue that though science can throw light on some aspects of our professional practice, we’re not dependent on it to explain and justify what we do. Let me give you a recent example in the field of language.

Earlier this year the BBC broadcast a fascinating programme called ‘Why Reading Matters‘. In it, science writer Rita Carter told the story of how the use of brain imaging in modern neuroscience is beginning to reveal the effects of the act of reading on the brain.

In one part of the programme Shakespeare scholar, professor Philip Davis, tells the story of how he’d sought the help of neuroscientist, professor Guillaume Thierry, to explain what was happening in his brain when he responded to Shakespeare’s rhetorical inventiveness.

The rhetorical device that interested Davis was the way that Shakespeare occasionally surprises his audience by turning an adjective, or noun, into a verb. In the film he gives an example from King Lear in which the adjective ‘mad’ is transformed into the verb ‘madded’ – “A father, and a gracious aged man… have you madded.”

Davis describes the effect of this device on him as “primal”, “exciting”, “electric”, and “visceral”. And he asks the neuroscientist to use brain imaging techniques on him to see if the shapes in front of his eyes have an effect on the shapes behind his eyes – i.e. his brain.

This visceral view of language is central to our ‘Words that Move Mountains” approach to communication, but my point is that though I find the brain science intriguing, our practice does not depend on it anymore than an audience’s delight in the brilliance of Shakespeare’s language would.


  1. Great post- have RT’d.

    The danger here is not science but fake science and science done badly.

    All the best,

  2. Great post, Martin; agree entirely.

    Small world, by the way: Guillaume was my “academic chair” at Bangor while I was doing my PhD 🙂

    – Chris

  3. I’m fairly certain that many more public speaking myths arise from the personal opinions of popular personalities than from the misinterpretation of scientific results (or even poor science)

  4. Martin Shovel says

    Thanks for your comment TJ. I’m interested in what you say, and I’m wondering if you could give any specific examples of public speaking myths that have arisen from the personal opinions of popular personalities?


  5. Great post, and I agree with you entirely here – which I suppose is why I feel a slight sense of unease.

    Of course, you’re right. But there’s a flipside, there always is.

    The flipside is inertia. As a practitioner, not only is it true that you can’t prove the science, but you shouldn’t. Your job is to put it into practice.

    As a practitioner, I parse ‘scientifically proven’ as ‘probably the best we’ve got to work with at the moment but be prepared to try something else if we can’t make it work’. And I assume, perhaps wrongly, that this is what everyone else does.

    The ‘science’ provides me with rich seams of metaphor and a structure on which to hang ideas. As a practitioner, ‘science’ is a social construct rather than a theoretical one. And this is fine.

    It’s terrible and embarrassing when people tout rot like the 93% of communication is non-verbal. But it was never that convincing. And it did start a lot of conversations.

    I’m a scientist, here’s my poof and here’s the peer review.

    I’m a practitioner, here’s the science and this is how it chimes with my personal experience.

    I don’t have a problem with this, as long as it’s backed up by the practice, even if the ‘evidence’ is anecdotal. In fact, I prefer it in story-form. I have the tools and training to carry out peer reviews on stories.

    Science can be dangerous. But it doesn’t have to be. And it certainly shouldn’t be off limits to lay-people.

    (Hi Martin, at no point in your blog did you even hint that science should be off-limits. I’m just trying to highlight the flipside. ‘Hey, let’s use reiki in our PowerPoint because nothing is proveable – Shovel says so!)

  6. Just to follow-up. We all heard the various rules:

    * Use no more than X words per slides and Y bullets per slide.
    * You should never use bullet points at all
    * Always use fonts bigger than…
    * Always use photos, not clip art
    * Never use slides at all
    * PowerPoint Is Evil. Power Corrupts. PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely.

    Consider Guy Kawasaki’s 10/0/30 rule. He never intended it to be a universal rule of presentation design, but it has taken on a life of its own. Likewise, I’ve been surprised during interviews with perspective users of our software to find that people can go through unnatural contortions to (mis)apply what they learn from Presentation Zen book (pictures good, text bad) – creating presentations dominated by beautiful photography and then finding themselves embarrassed when they deliver it in their office conference room.

    While not a presentation guideline there is also the commonly held myth that fear of public speaking outranks the fear of death (not based on science at all).

    My point – people can and do pick up and misapply all kinds of “rules” based on the advice of some authority – be they authors, popular personalities, college instructors, or scientists.

  7. Martin,
    Enjoyed the post…particularly as a lapsed scientist. Here’s a plug for an organisation – government department, no less – with a reputation for conveying scientific information in an accessible way Thought you might enjoy this too, if not seen already


  8. Word to all this. A lot of science is ‘best guess’, or at least ‘successive approximation’. It’s not reasonable to expect that non-scientists have time to keep up with the science; frankly, given the proliferation of journals in recent years, it’s hard enough for scientists to keep up 😉

  9. Martin Shovel says

    Really good point –thanks Chris.

  10. Great article.
    As I often say, 85.7% of statistics are made up on the spot 🙂

  11. Martyn Ford says

    Enjoyed your post, Martin. It reminded me how TV advertising in the 60s was open season for ‘scientific endorsement’. Do you remember all those earnest-looking men in lab coats and horn-rimmed specs telling us that Nothings Acts Faster than Anadin, that Horlicks Beats Night Starvation and even ‘Smoke Craven A – for your throat’s sake’!
    Let’s not rehabilitate them by saying “Research shows…” if we’ve never read the research.

  12. It took me several days and a lot of extra reading and fulminating before I could write this comment.
    The reason is that exasperating video “Learning Styles don’t exist”, which came violently to me as a punch in the plexus.
    So here, I’m not debating the very wise idea that we should be cautious when co-opting scientific evidence.
    I personally have always been very sceptic of all the wide range of personality tests, preferences measurements, inventory tests, “profiling” models.
    I have been trained, though, and certified (at my own expense most of the time!),
    in a wide variety of these tests. (I could list them if it were not boring to hear a list of initials MBTI- TMS- SPM-HBDI-LSI etc…and the worst of all, the “root of all evils NLP…)
    As an executive coach and trainer, I found that clients (HR directors, Training Managers, CEOs etc..) were most happy when we could put their staff into “boxes”. I hate boxes.
    They were (and are still) craving for these nice looking glossy individual reports.
    And most of them are quite sound and insightful. They are an excellent start for a deeper discussion and personal analysis.
    But they hold the potential danger of over simplifying and categorizing, worse, stereotyping.
    To tell you that I don’t consider myself a naive believer and an enthusiastic so-opter of scientific explanation.
    I come from a family of scientists, psychiatrists, biologists, biochemistry researchers, who taught me to be very cautious before jumping to any conclusion, and respectful of debate and controversy.
    But I am not a scientist. I was trained in a Drama school, studied International Business and languages.
    Then went into the “full monty” of personal development sacred Graal (should write a BOOK about it and all the nonsense and crap, and charlatans, but also superb gems I found on my journey). But that’s another story.
    So, why am I so passionately reacting about learning styles?
    Am I trying to justify what I invested so many years and money to learn and to teach? Holding on to what I chose to believe and made me happy? Gullible, naive, liking “truthy explanations”?
    I found some elements of answer in Simon Bostock ‘s article, at Bunchberry & Fern

    “Fable-ous but sometimes tragic
    Learning Styles are too good to be true. But too truthy to be ignored. Learning Styles have a teachable narrative. Learning Styles are Fable-ous. At least, my version of them is.

    But when they’re institutionalised it’s a tragedy. Learning Styles don’t exist but that doesn’t stop them being a part of many practitioners’ training, which is fine, and the way their performance is assessed, which is decidedly not.”
    Learning styles, the way I integrated them, at my own very personal learning “sauce”, are indeed Fable-ous.
    They are very attractive and hold a promise of an ideal world where you could offer each child or adult learner his most appropriate intellectual nourishment.
    “Sur-mesure learning!” (opposed to fast food learning)
    Learning à la Carte!
    Slow learning for Gourmet…
    Isn’t it a dream for learners?
    Now I understand it can become a NIGHTMARE for teachers, if it’s institutionalized, like it seems to be in the UK and in the US.
    It’s absolutely not the case in France, and my reaction comes more from a personal desire to offer a maximum of choices in the examples I provide, in the methods I use, in the way I present the content, in the activities I engage my participants into, in the improvisation moments I create, in the playing and story telling.
    So, I found myself going through the 5 stages of grief. (If that is also STILL valuable and not another myth, who knows, now?)

    1. Denial and Isolation. (Sulked and didn’t speak or write about it several days)
    2. Anger.(Boiling, speaking to myself, fulminating, laughing sarcastically…)
    3. Bargaining. ( I think I’m still into bargaining!!!)
    4. Depression. (yes, I feel sad about it. Intellectually cheated. Betrayed)
    5. Acceptance. (Another step towards maturity and wisdom)
    Watching Professor Daniel T Willingham repeating calmly and softly learning styles don’t exist, without offering anything else in substitution, is indeed depressing (and exasperating!!!)
    I’d love to see another video, with someone holding prestigious recognized highest degrees in neuro science, cognitive psychology, encouraging teachers to develop their creativity and giving them some clues in how to become better teachers.
    May be Sir Ken Robinson actually is doing that? (he’s no neuro-scientist, but no charlatan either 🙂
    His TED presentation was an international success, among non academic audience. It gives hope and faith in leaning.
    And he does it with compassion and humour (which are NOT, I must confess, the qualities Prof Willingham is demonstrating in his video)

    Bon, voilà, it was a long comment. I certainly will write a post about it, and most probably will again change my mind and refine my thinking thanks to other comments and posts like this one, Martin. Thanks.

  13. Martin Shovel says


    Thanks again for yet another thoughtful and profound response. Your comment is also a fine example of how a personal story – i.e. yours – can bring a potentially dry and abstract theoretical discussion to life.

    Personally, I have always resisted the pressure to join the certification arms race, but I accept that a stance like mine becomes increasingly difficult when your competitors are continually building their ‘credibility’ through the acquisition of dubious qualifications – e.g. you can become a master practitioner of some disciplines in less than a week!

    By comparison, the road to scientific knowledge and enlightenment is long and arduous – and many of us don’t have what it takes to embark on the journey in the first place.

    Finally, just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, I have to tell you there is a darkside to the idea of learning styles too. I plan to write a blog about it soon, but put simply it’s this: learning styles encourage a kind of apartheid of the senses. She’s a visual learner, he’s auditory etc. This is destructive because it ignores the fact that our senses are connected with each other to a greater or lesser degree – in other words, we are all synaesthetes. But more on this later…


  14. Marion,

    Interesting you mention the 5 stages of grief. Now that you mention it, that one is a bit suspect… 😉

    Imagine you were a scientist who had studied grief. And that you had come to the conclusion that the 5 stages were a load of nonsense. And that you had a friend who was grieving. And that friend told you how much the 5 stages were helping them come to terms with the ‘process’.

    What would you say to your friend? Hopefully, nothing. There’s a time and a place for everything.

    I’m like Martin, suspicious of certification. And because of this, I’m susceptible to the ‘Learning Styles Don’t Exist’ meme. I’m predisposed to antipathy towards an ‘apartheid of the senses’.

    But throwing out Learning Styles doesn’t mean throwing out all the benefits they have brought (and they have brought benefits). Differentiation is a crucial concept in teaching groups. Learning Styles’ debunking doesn’t change this. Tickling the senses hasn’t stopped being effective. Visual thinking and the benefits of physical movement haven’t stopped being valid.

    Learning Styles are dead. Long live, erm, my personal style of learning.

  15. ian wooler says

    Thought provoking post. Words, meaning and understanding are important. This is what Stanford has to say on scientific explanation and theory

  16. ian wooler says
  17. Yes! I am am a neuroscientist who blogs about Neuroscience and Creative writing. By far my most popular posts are the ones that relate brain imaging data to reading . I find that my biggest challenge with these posts is to make sure my readers don’t take away more from it than the data justifies. Yes, brain activations are interesting and informative, but there is nothing magical about them, and just because a writing technique makes a brain light up some way doesn’t mean it’s necesarily better. Brain imaging is simply one more source of information.

  18. Martin Shovel says


    Many thanks for your comment. Nothing beats a contribution from the horse’s mouth – so to speak! I’ve bookmarked your blog, and started following you on Twitter – hope you’re tempted to reciprocate.



  1. […] Shovel cautions you against blindly accepting scientific speaking theories. Among other arguments, he points to a […]

  2. […] version of the term. So did Francesca Elton. So have countless others. There is, of course, danger in co-opting scientific explanation. But it’s feels right because it’s so explanatory. And they give us a shared lexicon. […]

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