The photo credit goes to Yann Débèsse.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Andrew Mark Creighton: I understand that you are greatly involved in popularizing science. So, can you discuss your work, just generally, on this subject

Pauline Suzanne Delahaye: I have a page and a channel under the name of the Dendrobate Doctor, and I am part of a collective more focused on the popularization of COVID research (Covid19Fédération). I am also a member of a task force against fake news and misinformation. Basically, the purpose is to give people who are lost and scared the resources to understand what is going on, to give them methods to be autonomous in spotting misinformation and to dispense popular education in science, especially for vulnerable audiences. When I was in France, for example, I was volunteering in popular neighborhoods to introduce and explain to teenagers what science is, how it works, why we know something is true and so on.

AMC: What are the major challenges with trying to popularize science?

PSD: To find the political will to do so. For the previous example, a lot of people said, “Well, they are kids, and we can’t even manage to make them attend their normal classes. It is not for them”, but the moment the project was set up, the kids, in fact, wanted that. It was on Saturday afternoons, and they were there, and they had tones of questions, and yes, I could make teenagers from underprivileged districts two heads taller than me sit down for two hours when I explained the difference between a scientific theory and a conspiracy theory. The same went for during the pandemic. It is not normal that we, as volunteers, did almost all the fact-checking and fighting against misinformation. It should have been a public program or something. Governments are not taking popular education seriously, and it is going to be very, very costly at some point.

AMC: I think a major issue within current societies, and we definitely saw this during the recent (current) pandemic, is that science seems to have lost some authority with large sections of the public. This lack of authority, in turn, makes it difficult to conduct public policies. Do you agree that science has lost some authority, and why do you think this has happened? Was this always an issue?

PSD: I think that losing authority is good; losing trust is problematic. Science should not be a matter of authority, “do that because I am the one with the white coat”; it should be a matter of trust, “do that because I will explain to you why it is the good thing to do, and if I am wrong, I will tell you and apologize and correct myself”. We did lose some trust in science. For the why, I think there are a lot of different factors, but it is sure that, with the Internet, we suddenly gave people the possibility to access all the information possible, but without giving them the tools to understand and tell apart all this information. Also, there were different scandals, like the tobacco case, that created mistrust. And, eventually, we have a lot of people who are far better than governments or scientists at communicating and playing with people’s emotions and who have things to sell (I am thinking about the Wakefield case, but any guru who wants to sell his cures, stones, pills, books and so on. In France, a guy explaining that you don’t need insulin when you have diabetes if you are eating only raw vegetables or that you can cure your cancer by fasting has a YouTube channel with half a million followers).  

AMC: How can trust be gained? Should we resort to similar rhetoric and plays on emotion as we often see with proprietors of misinformation?

PSD: Trust can be regained in different ways. Firstly, we need to remind people how, even if it can seem a bit obscure to them, the results of science are evident everywhere. When science says, “Go on this several-tons aluminum thing, and it will fly over entire continents, and you won’t die”, you actually can take a plane, go to another continent, and it will be the safest means of travel in the world. Second, we need more transparency. That does not mean “make everything available” because a general audience is not able to read scientific papers (and neither do we really, at the moment, many are out of our scope); that means “make everything accessible”: explain science, how it is funded, how it is planned, who is working in there etc. But to do that efficiently and with conviction, we have to be in a system that seems efficient and fair for us as scientists. Clearly, we will have trouble explaining the “publish or perish” system to a general audience because we ourselves find it utterly stupid. Third, I don’t think we should use the same rhetoric precisely due to trust: you can’t manipulate people to earn their trust; that isn’t viable. But I do believe we can go, with our weapons, on the same ground as the misinformation spreaders. I will give an example: I have a friend who is a mentalist. He is very clear that he makes his living by making spectacles in theatres, and he always says that his work is a trick. He specializes in reproducing, most of the time in an even more impressive way, the demonstration of the “powers” made by people pretending to be mediums who can talk with people’s deceased loved ones. He is using the emotions he generates (wonder, apprehension, euphoria, sadness, etc.) in people during his performance to “vaccinate” them against manipulation. Basically, saying, “Look how incredible it is, but it is a trick, and if I can do this trick, don’t believe in people trying to do the same thing to make you believe they have supernatural powers. I am a mentalist here to entertain you; they are scammers.” I think we should get inspiration from this technique.

AMC: This is really a great distinction between scientific authority and trust, at least for this context. However, it makes me think about the ethics of popularizing science. Of course, there are scientific ethics, and there are journalistic ethics. But, I have not really heard of popularizing science ethics. From my own anecdotal experience, I’ve taken several popularizing science classes, and the topic never appeared within the curriculums. There is research on the topic and science communication in general. John Desmond Bernal (1946[1939]), an Irish scientist, talked about this in the 1930s, and Zhengfeng Li and Jianquan Ma (2021), among others, more recently. However, the topic doesn’t seem to have the prevalence I feel it should, and when it is discussed, it seems more in line with engineering and the so-called hard science. Really, not so much with the humanities and especially semiotics. Do you view this as an issue? How do we popularize the social sciences, humanities, and semiotics in an ethical way? Especially when not only can many hard scientific issues be richly explored by semiotic methods and theories, but the social and cultural dimensions of these studies are extremely important for maintaining reflexive regulations of scientific conduct. I know this is a big question, but some points from your own experience and thoughts would be interesting to hear.

PSD: I have also noted this lack of discussion around ethics in popularization. I guess it should be considered field-relevant (you don’t have the same issues when popularizing medicine and astrophysics, clearly). I think it should be taught more, indeed, but popularization is already not taught often enough, or only on the side, so maybe it is more a lack of maturity regarding the subject in general.

I can’t say for all the humanities, but my experience regarding my specialty is that people are interested in the concrete aspect of science. I almost never talk about theory, authors or concepts. I am talking about fieldwork, consequences, and real-life implications, and sometimes, through this way, I can introduce theory. So, it is the other way around than how we are used to teaching in academia. When I do, for example, popularization about rats, I get to explain metacognition (“are you able to differentiate a rat from a mouse? How sure are you that you are able to do so?”), umwelt (“Let us imagine that we are a rat: how do we smell, how do we move, how do we feel about humans?”), mirror-neurons (“the rat that is not in the trap, when hearing and seeing another rat trapped suffering, projects itself in the same situation”), episodic memory (“when it approaches the trap, it visualizes the moment when it witnessed another rat being trapped, and will not be fooled”) and so on. However, if I start by explaining these concepts first, then everybody is asleep after five minutes.

AMC: I have some suspicions about popular science in that, to me, popularizers tend to simplify scientific and scholarly work to the point that, in many cases, at least, science is presented as merely overgeneralized findings. Meanwhile, the actual science, the scientific and scholarly process, is ignored. What do you think about this? Can you recommend any popular science texts/films/etc. that really take science and scholarship seriously?

PSD: As I discussed, what we try to do with the different groups and what I try to do myself is not just explain scientific findings but explain science. Who makes it? How do you know that its methodology is good? What is proof in science? What is a trial? What does placebo mean? How are researchers trained? Is it really that bad if a paper is retracted? Questions like that and so on and so on. Because this is what people need to understand science. They need to understand that if a study is saying something and scientists are not taking it very seriously, it is not because they are stubborn. It’s because we see methodology issues or sample issues, or maybe it is just one lone study, and there is not enough evidence to generalize. They need to understand we are trustworthy, and with the various ongoing crises (pandemic, climate, etc.), it will be vital that they trust us. I am mainly involved in French popularization, so unfortunately, I won’t have anything in English, but for French speakers, I recommend the YouTube channels La Tronche en BiaisChat SceptiqueE-PenserAstronogeek (and maybe mine, but only after these ones!).

AMC: We are living in a world of many distractions, mass media, advertisements, smartphones, etc., etc., you name it. Of course, this has been heavily theorized and studied for a long while now, too. C. Wright Mills (2000[1959]: 3-5), as just one example, discusses this confusion due to information from the late 1950s already. Moreover, you can really go much further back when looking more specifically at urbanization, division of labor and so on. I am mentioning this problem because, with the continued development of smartphone apps, the confusion between work hours and personal hours, and the ever-proliferating production of consumer media, popular science has a lot to compete against in contemporary times. Including fake news and misinformation – which you have already mentioned you have a lot of experience working to debunk. However, how do you and other popular scientists compete against this overstimulation, not just regarding fake news and misinformation but also with consumer media in general? How do you get your message out in such contexts? Is there a fear of conflating science with entertainment when doing so? 

PSD: I think it is where we have to think of popularizing science as a job, a full job, different from the job of a researcher. Of course, we can do both, a bit like there are researchers who are also teachers, but we all know that not everyone is good at teaching just because they are good scientists. The same goes with popularization; we have to create partnerships with people who are good at passing messages, entertaining people, and making them interested because it is a full-time job. It is partially what I am already doing in some of my collaborations. But it needs to be a real partnership, where popularizers can say, “No, if we explain with this level of details, nobody will listen, and it will be for nothing”, and scientists can say, “No, if you say it like that, it can create this or this false belief, and we don’t want that”. Here, we also need to build trust.

AMC: Let’s focus more on popularizing science as a process. You have published two popular science books on rats and other species generally stigmatized within society or liminal species as they are referred to in your research and in zoosemiotics. We’ve already talked about this a year or so ago when you were actively researching corvids in Tartu. However, now that the project is completed, will you be publishing any new popular books or texts on the topic of crows and corvids? Have you found there has been a big demand for such texts?

PSD: Publish, no, because you need to find an editor that is willing to invest money in that, and in this case, it will be for a book in English about a French-Estonian study, clearly impossible to sell correctly. But diffuse, yes, we wrote a booklet (me and an English-speaker master student) that is available, free, to upload here:

There is not a big spontaneous demand for such texts, but I have found that when you talk with people about that and show them what exists in this domain, they can quickly get interested. We are lacking a good marketing team, I should say.

AMC: As someone interested in popularizing the humanities and semiotics especially, I can say that I have largely failed at doing this, and I think this in part comes from me having difficulties distinguishing semiotic studies from, for lack of a better word, conventional studies. In other words, I notice editors at popularizing science/scholarship magazines really aren’t interested in a zoosemiotic piece on nonhuman animal communication, for instance, as they probably already have zoological studies on nonhuman animal communication. In your experience and view, how can we get over this hurdle for communicating and popularizing semiotics? Do you have any advice for people like me who are, to put it plainly, bad at popularizing? 

PSD: As I said just before, I think it is all about making it concrete: show case studies, show examples, explain consequences, expose a problem and what researchers are doing to solve it. You are in zoosemiotics? Explain how biodiversity is in danger and what you are studying to help. Are you in folklore? Explain how endangered this culture is, how people are living, and how legends impact their lives. You’re a cultural semiotician? In the history of semiotics? In the semiotics of mass communication? Explain how advertisements are manipulating people, how history is modified after wars, and how we are tricked while consuming or voting. Create a good narrative; tell your audience a story that involves them, their environment, and their future. I always say that instead of being Homo sapiens (because we are not very wise…), we should be called Homo narrens, the ape telling stories. If you are not good at popularizing, maybe it is because you are not a good storyteller, and it is by this point that you can improve. If you are passionate about your subject, find a story that will make people as passionate. The moment when you have their interest, they can learn a lot of things, even quite complicated things, from you. After that, if the audience is interested, editors will follow.


Bernal, John Desmond (1946[1939]). The Social Function of Science. London: George Routledge and Sons Limited. 

Li, Zhengfeng Z; Ma, Jianquan (2021). Science popularization and its ethical standpoint. Cultures of Science, 4(2): 74-80.

Mills, C. Wright (2000[1959]). The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Photo credit: Yann Débèsse.

hortus semioticus

Hortus Semioticus is a peer reviewed online journal of semiotics featuring new generation of semiotic researchers.

Hortus Semioticus on eelretsenseeritav semiootika võrguajakiri, mis on pühendatud uue põlvkonna semiootilistele uurimustele.


Our blog is a digital resource where everyone passionate about semiotics can share their knowledge, questions and experience on stuff that matters.

Meie blogi on koht, kus semiootikahuvilised saavad vahendada mõtteid ja infot kõigest, mis loeb.