Keynote 'Unspoken Truths - Science, Film & Realities'

A video-based exploration into the conflicting nature of scientists, filmmakers and activists.

The keynote video was first screened at the Silbersalz Science & Media Conferene & Festival; overall topic: "Trust in Science and Media", Halle Germany 2020.

... no more powerpoint slide keynotes... video rule the world (thanks Corona!)

Personal Notes on the Video Production

As the second wave of Corona hit Switzerland right before the conference, I wasn't able to travel to Halle. Quickly, I decided to rewrite my original planned keynote presentation into a video-based format. As video offers quite a broader spectrum of narration formats for a keynote presentations, I decided to create a trialogue between the scientist, filmmaker and activist. These three (fluid) identities are naturally a part of my work and life, so it was obvious to distingish them into different point of views and create a critical discourse on the current bottleneck of Trust in Science, Film by Society.


The following script below was the draft for the production, and it's not verbatim of the video version as I had to improvise the speech (I didn't know the text by hearth) due the limited time of production. Several persons have asked me already, how long it took me to produce this video at home. Rule of thumb...


Preproduction: ca. 1/2 a day of re-writing the presentation into a trialogue video script, 1 person how gave feedback and corrected parts on it.

Production: around 2 days (as I did everything on my own, so I basically had to run forth and back to the camera, trusting my canon autofokus to do the job and so on). Usually in teamwork and with a prepared speaker I would say 1 day.

Postproduction: 1 day and 1 night ... nothing would ever get done without a deadline...: “I love deadlines. I [author's comment: DO NOT] love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt )

Script Draft

Rebel (fireside):

We don’t have time. Seriously, we don’t. Climate change, the sixth mass extinction, and now the pandemic - you name it. Are you tired of seeing all the videos already? The facts, the figures, the #fakenews. I for one am haunted by nightmares, caught in an inescapable loop of powerpoint presentations concluding in cautious scientist-statements.


Filmmaker (am schnitt-PC):

Yeah Powerpoint is a no-go! Show me catastrophe! Apocalypse! Doom! Bring it on academia - I’ll make the most glorious science videos for you! Full of indignation, strong emotions guaranteed. Drama, fear, disgust - everything in the latest 4K high-gloss imagery with a drone shot opening. No seriously, at least spreading conspiracy theories works like a charm with such strong audiovisual language.


Scientist: (schlürft kaffee)

If I may add my point of view from the science perspective. It is at the very core of our ethos to remain calm and rational, even more so in the face of imminent danger! One cannot allow emotion to cloud judgement. Simplification must be avoided, and so we resort to presenting as we know it and our genealogy of past professors taught us. We can use video to record our lectures and get the key messages out there.



Really? I mean. Really? Come on. Film is a VISUAL medium. So if you don’t have to show something, why is it a video? I’m aware of your endless discourse on intersubjectivity when it comes to, science and film. Using more visuals for science may sound contradictory to the word-strong academic culture at first. But in one way or another, every academic field already uses images. And I don’t mean statistics, but literally “taking a perspective”, using the visual as an argument to proof, give evidence, show it. Some even in an epistemological way. I personally experienced once how the visual can overpower hour-long discussions about the distinction of certain terminologies to an interdisciplinary team and lead straight to the material question at hand. They suddenly understood that their common message was already visible in the images. Historically, there has always been a strong connection between science and film since the early silver film technology was invented. Unfortunately, we don’t see many fruitful collaborations between scientists and filmmakers as many think they can do it on their own. And while some are talented speakers and the boring format still works. But for a vast majority of scientists, it simply does not.


Scientist (book in hand):

Right, people seem to sometimes have a hard time listening to us. It may also just be “mental laziness” to confront themselves with the hyper complexity of a world built on assemblages of slightly-less uncertain hypotheses instead of facts. It’s tiring to deal with cognitive dissonances, which science media can create. We must be careful not to break the audience's mind into tiny fragments…(Deleuze book in hand)



Or maybe they just don’t listen anymore - because they already believe that climate change is a hoax, other lifeforms as humans are completely overrated and Covid-19 doesn’t exist. A distorted overtone window for science videos. Well, one thing we know is that the current crisis of truth and mistrust hits at a time when science clearly shows major threats to the web of life on earth. Can audiovisual media negotiate between science, false beliefs and the unknown?



Let me start first on this thing we call truth.

“Photography is truth. The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second”. Godard’s classic statement is so provoking, because it is semantically utterly incorrect. To the contrary - moving images are an audiovisual illusion. And as such, they can’t be true or false anyway. However, our human perception and is based on what we hear and see - and with AUDIO-VISUAL media, we can show and tell things at the same time. So they are convincing, independent of their truth.

We perceive everything in videos as interconnected into a whole experience. Even if you are consciously aware that what you see has nothing to do with what you hear in a video, your perception will automatically connect the content, no matter how absurd it is. (MUSIC STOPS HERE) This is one of the fundamental superpowers of videos: a mastery of audiovisual rhetorics. To create an unique and memorable experience, that allows you to see something from a completely different perspective. Even if a misconception or false beliefs are already deep-seeded and very hard to change, II still believe that public science videos can create such AHA moments?


Rebel (in bathtub with Absinth):

Indeed - after an inspiring moment during his bath, the mathematician Archimedes supposedly ran naked through the streets and screamed EUREKA. So you want the public to run naked on the streets after watching a revealing science video?

Scientist (looking up from Amiga screen with game picture): Yes - Studies show that it’s easier to hold on to old beliefs than adjusting your mindset to a new view. Misinformation and misconceptions are deeply rooted in our minds, once we are convinced by something. So the actual breaking of misconceptions is such a huge shift in our thinking that running naked through the streets is a quite appropriate reaction.



Further when misinformation is connected to strong emotions, as as we observe in science media with Covid-19, it will be even more difficult to change those misconceptions again. It takes excellence in the design of the video, in the performance of the individual researcher and in the outreach strategy. This is a key dilemma in science film: Good film design and narration is invisible and highlights the content creatively.


Scientist (rubik’s cube):

In your journey towards being a scientist, you have to overcome a lot of “Threshold concepts”. Each scientific field has some transformative concepts, where a scientist starts to see the world differently. It’s irreversible, they create a shift in values, feeling and attitudes. We also have to critically overcome some misbeliefs and misconceptions in science. Part of our scientific culture is to disagree, to debate, to discuss and argue about our work. But we try not to let those parts go out - or else none would believe us anymore! Such reflective processes are almost never visible in science video communication.



Indeed, fact is, that most popular science videos build upon a worldview as a fixed and know entity. Results are communicated in a dichotomy between true and false to make them understandable - so an unspoken rule. Public science communication needs to be accessible, engaging, entertaining. This strategy has its basic roots in the Royal Society of Science from 1992. It assumes that a public audience can only deal with clear answers, guidelines, the one big truth. Hence, results show either the presence or absence of something, increasing - decreasing, truth or fake. Avoid uncertainty at all costs.



But the painful truth is: it’s in the nature of science that it’s ridiculously complex, that most things are quite uncertain. The unknown is a fundamental part of the scientific process.

There are - and always have been - ambiguities, bizzare scandals and unreliable messages in official political communication strategies. It may be an unspoken truth, but science is in a constant struggle with defining what is real. And this is what is getting more visible in these uncertain times. If a big daddy-government or mummy-president doesn’t have the answer - who tells me what to do?



Fakenews thrive on unspoken truths. Nothing is more helpful to the spread of over the top crazy conspiracy theories than an ordinary, but officially ignored conspiracy.

Scientists: We need more fact-checking, verification strategies to prove if a fact is truth or false. If something sounds cheesy and overdramatic, investigate and critically reflect on it. How else is the public going to make an informed, democratic decision?


Rebel laughing.

Is your fact-checking just a shortcut to avoid the uncertain? (Puts up the black-red Anarchist sign.) I personally doubt that fact-checking will work. If an individual is already on the trajectory of alternative data and distrust in the “mainstream” --- fact-checking and verification strategies will only feed the existing doubts and prejudices of a person against you. The“backfire effect” - disproving evidence may lead to the unwarranted effect of confirming our previous beliefs “if it comes from a fake science or media organization, my previous doubts were right!” The circle of trust is already broken for those in a separate filter-bubble. Even as a highly privileged individual, it’s very easy to feel neglected and overseen, to feel part of a certain minority. This is where you feed the dragons. The “othering” is something most conspiracy videos build upon. Such videos drive upon a common enemy - and academia as a powerful, hierarchical and inaccessible institution offers a suitable enemy. The self-declared sceptics feel like they are Astrix and Obelix fighting against the Roman university empire. But to come back to my original point: The world is still burning and we’ll soon reach a point of no return. Climate scientists know more than they say - they even calculated the emissions from rabbit shit. (DELETE? We’re social animals on a painful path towards singularity, clicking political advertisements in our twitter feeds. Giving more likes to those, who are already liked and commented on by our peers.)



And there is a major problem. Scientists, media creators, filmmakers - we need to seriously collaborate. Film should feel like magic… Or sitting around a campfire, seeing and hearing a good storyteller: full embodied immersion in story; Scientific writing in itself is an artform that needs years of practice - and so is filmmaking. For more than hundred years, great creative minds have been investigating in theory and practicing how moving images work. You need to use that knowledge and be precise in your audiovisual language, just as you use precise philosophical terms like adaptation and paradigm shift when you talk about climate change.

Rebel: There is always a way to connect! I like to go straight to the most basic humanity: We are all scared of pain and suffering. We all care about someone. We all want our lives and the lives of our loved ones to be better than before.


Scientist (object???):

But I can’t! If I don’t perform competitively on my citation index, I’ll drop out of the academic career path, i need to get funding for my next position! In SwissGerman, we call that “ellebögle” - or “Ellenbogenkultur” in German - which was by the way the German word of the year in 1982. - the citation index only counts what the journals are accepting using, we have to follow a standard format. Science media communication is nice, but I need to survive. The only way I will get my reputation is to get accept by my peers with peer-reviewed publications - I won’t get my tenure track with science video.



Not yet. Scientific culture is also fluid - paradigm shifts happen all the time. You may even get your future professorship only because you’ve made a major contribution for society with science videos. Let’s be clear. Filmmaking is never a “one-woman-show”. It’s more than pushing a REC button.



But have scientists and filmmakers not a long history of collaboration? When approaching each other as independent experts, respectful and full of curiosity, you can co-design the content! Alright alright - ten minutes are almost over: so can we all agree on our hypothesis and call for action now?



To regain a certain trust in public, science media communication needs to increase their transparency and visibility.



Science videos should not only show the results but also how scientific processes work, how knowledge is created. But videos are another “audiovisual language”: Hence it needs skills from both, scientists and filmmakers.



Create a global organized movement to push back against misinformation with direct action and mutual aid.