Details and Transcript

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Timestamps

  • 00:00 - Introduction

  • 01:00 - Segment 1: Literary Currency (Short Story)

  • 09:55 - Segment 2: The Origin of "A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words" (Metaphor History)

  • 19:22 - Segment 3: SciComm Infographics (Communication Topic)

  • 27:52 - Segment 4: Talk With Laura Finnegan (Guest Interview)

References

Theme Music​

Transcript

To my ravishing family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome to the 33rd episode of the Metaphorigins podcast.

 

To show support if you like this sort of content, it’s very simple, please take 5 seconds to rate and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or Spotify or Google Podcasts or whatever platform you are listening to this on. It truly helps small, independent podcasts reach new people and grow the show with minimal effort. You can always leave a small review as well, and follow @metaphorigins on Instagram, that’s @metaphorigins, where I will be posting all of my updates, as well as on my personal website: kjbmercurio.com/metaphorigins. As always, I will hold another draw on my 40th episode for… yet again, something. I’m just not sure what yet. But stayed tuned for more information on this incredible… thing, whatever it ends up being!

 

Let’s get on with the show. Today’s expression is a common one that has reached transcendental proverb status, equating the value of visual representation to verbal description.

 

Let me draw you the scene: Today marks the beginning of the newly established historic writer’s festival. You, an aspiring writer, have attended the festival since it began two years ago. The amazing thing about this particular festival, is it’s collaboration with computer scientists and engineers, who have advanced technology on artificial intelligence and holograms to have attendees experience a session with legendary writers of the past. 

 

This year’s theme is literary realism. This genre of writing tends to focus more on how life really is, no speculative fiction and certainly no supernatural elements. Scholars say that it originated in the mid nineteenth century, with some contest beginning in France while others say it started in Russia (in the end, it probably originated in both simultaneously). This year’s lineup is truly heralded as the greats via their literary masterpieces. These include Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas and Jane Austen. And through these holograms, their fictional characters also come to life. Anna Karenina, Pip and Magwitch, the Three Musketeers and Elizabeth Bennet.

 

The author you are here to see is tooted as the one who popularized the movement worldwide, but particularly in France, and headlining this year’s festival, Gustave Flaubert. Now, Flaubert, was not known for speed writing, practically the opposite work ethic of James Patterson or Stephen King. In fact, Flaubert would often spend days trying to construct “le mot juste”, the right word or words that would bring his imagination to life in stunning detail. It is how he wrote classics like Sentimental Education the Temptation of Saint Anthony, and typically regarded in most Top 10 Lists of Greatest Books of All Time, Madame Bovary.

 

This festival, as it has always been, is free, money-wise. The only currency exchanged at this event, is words. Here, words are as economically valuable as coin and cash, the moment you walk through the gallery door.

 

At the entrance, you await your turn at the gate. Finally, one of the ushers tells you to come forward.

 

“One haiku per person for entry,” the usher states.

 

“Okay, what does the haiku need to be about?” You ask.

 

“Hmm, tell me your feelings about this festival.”

 

You think for a moment and proclaim, “Timid beast rises. Pounding flesh conceals the take. Have mercy on me.”

 

The usher thinks for a moment and says, “It’s okay to be nervous, they’re not real you know. It won’t do you any good.” He stamps your hand and gestures you into the gallery.

 

You run past Tolstoy and Austen, shamefully hiding your gaze as holograms seem to portray that eeriness of portrait paintings that are looking directly at the observer from every direction. Your focus is on Flaubert, and Flaubert you will meet.

 

At his exhibit, you wait in line to take a picture with him and Emma Bovary. Once it’s your turn, you walk up to him and extend your hand as habit.

 

“He’s not real, you know,” the photographer states.

 

After the picture is taken, the holograms disappear until the next participant is ready. You walk up to the photographer and request for the picture.

 

“That will be a thousand words,” she says.

 

“A thousand words?” You shriek, “That’s like a novella!”

 

“With the headliner? A picture is worth a thousand words,” she states, readying her word counter.

 

“Well what does it have to be about?” You ask.

 

She looks at the printer finishing the latest shot. “Alors,” she holds up the photo, “Describe your picture in a thousand words, and I’ll throw in a frame for free.”

 

You think for a moment. How can one describe one photo in a thousand words. “Well, here goes,” you say, “Ahem. Ahem.”

 

“The picture before me is of three individuals, a man, a child and a lady. The lady is Emma Bovary, the protagonist in Flaubert’s renowned novel, Madame Bovary. She is dressed in all white, full white gown with floral design along the sewn cuffs and sleeves. It’s wrinkled, as if she hadn’t taken much care to put the clothing away after use. I said all white, but her hat is black, clashing with the dashing, enchantment of her attire to one that, if only seen of the head, would predict that Bovary was on her way to a funeral. Her expression, though smiling politely, is one of peculiarity. She doesn’t look directly at the camera, like most people who have difficulty giving eye contact. However, women normally provide graceful eye contact, and are at least conditioned to provide such in 19th century France. No, this is a moment of thought, like something is eating away at her mind, and each passing second is a time for reflection. Perhaps she’s not enthusiastic about being here. Perhaps she’s dollying herself to be a part of yet again another ruse by a man she must follow to the end of time. Her eyes, tired with short bags underneath, tell a story of hardship and confusion, of emotional turmoil, of escapades with hidden motives that cannot be divulged. On my left, she is leaning her hand on my shoulder, as if difficult to stand in her white-heeled shoes. I want ask her, what are you hiding? And why are you not following your heart, that obviously beats for something else, someONE else? The tragedy of this is knowing her future, or evidently her past, the doom and gloom that has occurred so painstakingly written by the man on my right. 

 

His name is Gustave Flaubert, the headliner at this festival. Seen in this picture is the shiny baldness of his head, receding hairline drapes the back of his dome, and a huge flagrant moustache of which modern hipsters dream of grooming one day. He’s wearing a typical prestigious brown suit, or did I say prestigious, more pretentious, however this is 19th century class. Underneath in an olive lining that seems like a vest, and a black-maroon coloured bowtie generic to the patterned ones we see today. His expression is one of yearning, yearning for, perhaps a happier ending than the literary realism he frequently provided. Most of his life he jumped from one prostitute to the next, women, men, and acquired many venereal diseases throughout his life. He was an opponent of raising children, as he is famously noted that he would transmit to no one the aggravations and the disgrace of existence. Yet, he had a serious relationship, one with the French poet Louise Colet. He doesn’t smile, not because he is unhappy, but because he has been neutral and risk-averse for the entire 58 years of his life. Perhaps, this yearning, for an existence greater than the ones his characters experienced, and much greater than the ones he experienced, is displayed here, standing next to this child. Now me…. Umm how many words was that?”

 

“You’re at 520,” the photographer says.

 

“Only halfway. Alright, now me…”

 

The photographer puts up her hand. “Arretes, s’il te plait. You were really going to recite 1000 words about this picture. Mon dieu. Most people stop at 100, and others just keep saying the word “really” many times in front of their adjectives.”

 

“A picture can be difficult to capture in words. I was trying to do Flaubert and his work justice.”

 

“I respect that, vraiment. Realism is hard to capture, in words obviously and ironically, in picture form as well. Donc, take the photo, and the frame as promised.”

 

“Thank you! I mean, merci! Merci beaucoup!”

 

You grab the picture and frame, relieved that you’ve managed to get a sentimental piece from one of your idols. Under your breath, you change your haiku recited to enter, “Timid beast rises. Pounding flesh conceals the take. Demonstrate your power.”

 

Riiiighhhht. You know at the beginning of this I had planned to actually write one thousand words to describe your picture with Flaubert and Bovary. Writing 520 words was a challenge in itself, and I mean, let’s not aim to prove today’s expression false. As mentioned, this adage of words about words is now of legendary status, even amongst writers themselves. But what makes images, all images, valued at a solid 1000 descriptors?

 

What’s the origin to the expression, “a picture is worth a thousand words”?

 

*Theme Music*

 

 

Most of this information was obtained from various articles discussing its usage and the potential origins to this expression. All sources will be mentioned in the description.

 

Do you have a favourite picture? It could be a a photo of something or someone; a graphic image of abstract meaning; a still illustration of a nostalgic cartoon; or a painting by a beloved artist. For me, if I had to choose, it would be a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, his most famous painting, called the Garden of Earthly Delights. The work is a triptych, arguably the most well known triple panel painting, next to another dutch artist Peter Paul Reuben’s The Elevation of the Cross. Yet, the Garden of Earthly Delights surpasses my sense of interest and goes directly into obsession. Every time I look at this painting, I always see something new. For example, looking at the piece right now, there’s a half horse/half seal chilling in the bottom pond of the Garden of Eden (or the left panel); a bear caught by someone riding what seems to be a mix between a lion and the Pokemon Articuno in the middle panel; and creatures doing winter activities in Hell (or the right panel). Yes, I could spend all day toiling about the details of this iconic work of art, but it would be easier for me and you to just google the painting right now. Don’t worry, just pause and I’ll wait.

 

Insane, right? Did you see the platypus with a bow and arrow ice skating below a sledder and a decapitated man? Words do the art piece no justice. You had to be there. Not literally, of course. Be by the painting and look at it. And interestingly, this goes for not just images, but videos too, really any visualization. Like the perspective of gazing atop Mt. Everest or being in New York City on September 11th in 2001. Words seem insignificant to describe these experiences. It’s because no one has the same imagination. When I say Mt. Everest or September 11th, you will likely visualize something related but different than me. This, again, goes for descriptions of things as well.

 

This difference in imagination is why people argue that images speak louder than words. Even academics have researched the effectiveness of visuals for marketing strategies. One 2019 paper published in the American Marketing Association’s Journal of Marketing Research studied what picture styles led to a greater number of comments from their audience. Moreover, in a blog post on LinkedIn, Investor and Entrepreneur Gabe Arnold states reasons why visuals are better marketing tools, like great engagement, faster information processing of the brain, and a universal general understanding of what is being depicted. It’s interesting that he also mentions that the Internet has moved from a text based platform to a image-based platform, predicted to move into video. Yet, we have now migrated back into a hybrid of the past, where audio through the rise of podcasting has enhanced text to become a solid competitor.

 

One of the main goals of this podcast is to understand how effective words are for description, particularly when one wants to deliver an argument by telling a story. Stories are, in themselves, descriptions of ones imagination, in the hopes that words can be used by an audience to follow along. Which is why many of the most highly regarded stories of history are written as fat novels, intimidating in their literary output, like anything by J. R. Tolkien or James Joyce. And it’s perhaps because of today’s expression, “A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words”, defined on it’s Wikipedia page as, “an adage in multiple languages meaning that complex and sometimes multiple ideas can be conveyed by a single still image, which conveys its meaning or essence more effectively than a mere verbal description.”

 

Like a holographic photo with Gustave Flaubert and Emma Bovary, is a picture truly worth a thousand words? Perhaps there cannot be any exchange rate for these currencies. Written in a piece on WIRED titled “AS it Turns out, a picture is not worth a thousand words”, writer Paolo Gaudiano states, “words can not replace pictures and pictures can not replace words- although often used together, they each serve a completely different purpose.” Dr. Alan Blackwell, professor at the University of Cambridge would beg to differ. In a publication for the Proceedings of the first ESP Student Workshop, where he determines that in visual programming, a picture is actually worth 84.1 words on average.

 

The idea that that things are worth a lot of words is not new. Stated in the Word Counter, similar expressions have been used since at least the 18th century. During the 1760s, the phrase “one timely deed is worth ten thousand words” appeared in The Works of Mr. James Thomson; or in an 1862 novel Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev, a character says, “The drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over ten pages in a book.” In 1911, a New York Newspaper called the Post-Standard cited speaker Tess Flanders at a journalism banquet saying, “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”. This is close, but we are not quite there yet.

 

Who or what made us believe that pictures have a value of one thousand words? Being such a famous adage, many well known groups even outside of etymology went on the hunt for its origin. In 1996, writer William Safire wrote an article in the New York Times about the matter. Stated in the New York Times article and other sources like Phrase Finder and Book Browse, most people attribute the expression to an American advertising manager named Frederick Barnard. In an 1921 advertisement within a trade magazine called Printer’s Ink, about how good visuals are in advertising, Barnard came up with, “One look is worth a thousand words”. And as the story goes, Barnard attributed this saying to Japanese origin, stating it was said by a famous Japanese philosopher, although in 1927 changing the saying to, “one picture is worth ten thousand words”, stating it was a Chinese proverb in order for people to take it seriously, which they did. And subsequently, in an error on the editors of the 1948 MacMillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Famous Phrases, this now common phrase was written in its modern form.

 

Whether Barnard was inspired by those of history or not, it was his advertisement of faux-oriental origin that led the saying to be included within a book of popular phrases, to which it was incorrectly entered anyway. It’s the real life story of that childhood game of “Telephone”, where one child starts with a word or sentence, repeats it to the child next to them, and this repeats down the line until it gets back to the original child. Because of mishaps in hearing or understanding, often the word or phrase never makes it back to the originator unscathed. Perhaps there’s also another reason. There’s a finite number of words to describe what a visual is. Therefore, this begs the question, if your favourite picture is worth a thousand words, how many pictures is your favourite word worth? How many different visuals could there be to describe a word? If anything, if the value of a picture in words is a thousand, then the value of a word in pictures is infinite.

 

*Theme Music*

For my communications segment, I would like to discuss a heated debate in which more and more researchers are becoming proponents for, particularly with the rise of social media and the rapid, widespread sharing of information. And that topic is SciComm infographics.

 

How much is the restricted method of knowledge delivery hindering researchers’ ability to communicate science? It’s a big question. For scientists who have dedicated their lives to one specialized topic would undoubtedly desire to remain in the vernacular of their field, throwing out terms only one who achieves a PhD in the topic could define. For non-experts and public figures who have dedicated their lives to other ventures, even potentially in other scientific fields, would desire to simplify concepts as much as possible.

 

Reflecting on my own education, I’ve noticed that it comes down to an obvious duality of obtaining and retaining attention of students, or any conversation partner you have. In person, this could be accomplished via more than the words you voice, you could use tone, hand gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, hell, you could even dress a specific way and at least check off that you can obtain audience attention. But what about on text-based formats? News articles, emails, social media posts. This is a lot more difficult for the social human brain to keep and remain attentive, particularly in the modern digital age where literally everything is trying to grasp our attention, like an unlimited commodity of sorts. To fellow scientists listening to this, we see this strategy for gaining views with an increasing trend for published papers to include graphical abstracts or concluding models, like Cell, a prominent journal in my area of biological sciences.

 

For the sake of this episode, I’m grouping pictures like graphical abstracts, models, diagrams, graphs and other visual representations of data as SciComm infographics. And yes, I acknowledge that I am painting you a picture of infographics with a broad brush (that’s two visual expressions in one episode). It is extremely important to know which infographic is to be used for a specific situation or set of data. Perhaps you’ve already caught the glimpse of what I intend this episode to be about. But, for all of these examples in general, they could be highly effective not just to readers of experimental findings, but to the researchers themselves. 

 

To highlight this, one 2019 study published in the prominent journal Nature paired researchers with graphic designers and content media creators, one of the most genius ideas for science communication and a potential business idea for any young SciCommers out there listening. Not only did the project produce outstanding graphical art, such as an infographic describing the importance of structure in plant-pollinator networks, it also provided researchers an opportunity to empathize with their target audiences, honing the main implications of their research to something actually relevant. As mentioned in the article, “In some cases, the message refinement processes brought forward points that the scientists originally thought were too obvious to mention”. This is the very critical issue in all of science communication, when educators ask themselves, “What can I assume my audience knows?” And frequently get this wrong.

 

Infographics, when done correctly, tell an engaging story from beginning to end. It’s no surprise that for many researchers, when coming across a relevant academic publication they need to read, often look at the figures/graphics first just by habit. It’s because if the authors produced fantastic visual representations of their research, one could get the entire gist of their 10 page paper in 5 minutes rather than an hour. Think of all figures within a paper as one big infographic, it should represent all the information you are trying to say in an honest way. In a 2016 Scientific American article, writer and graphic designer Amanda Montanez reiterates the innocence of a good graphic, “There is also something about an information graphic that inspires trust in its content; seeing a concept visualized gives it a certain amount of objective weight. Surely this idea can be used to ignoble ends, as seen in certain deliberately deceptive data visualizations. But more often than not, I believe it is harder to lie with a graphic than it is with words alone—if only because it requires much more effort to visualize something for which there exists no factual reference.” Although one could argue that you’ve also created the accompanying text, word description can be deployed in a more looser manner than visual representations of the data in question.

 

The structure of infographics is also important, and often this is where training in graphic design or media content construction would be highly valuable for researchers. During the 2018 Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, Director of Art for Scientific American Jen Christianson lays infographics along a spectrum from the figurative to the abstract, or more specifically, three categories along this spectrum: 1) Representative images, 2) illustrated diagrams and 3) data visualizations. As an example using my own PhD research regarding the microbiome, a representative image could be a picture of a gut with bacterial cartoons along the mucosal layer, an illustrated diagram could be the cellular layers of the gut lining, and data visualization could be the number of a specific pathogen found in this gastrointestinal region. All of this could be separated into multiple infographics, or combined into one in creative ways for thought-provoking delivery of information.

 

As I’ve alluded to earlier, it would be beneficial for schools to educate early career researchers, and the public, in comprehending infographics. This is even more complex when scientists need to figure out which data visualization to use. Stated in a 2019 article in Knowable magazine, writer Betsey Mason juxtaposes various different graphical representations like pie charts, bar graphs, scatterplots and box plots, all serving different purposes and potentially misleading those who come across them without the training necessary for proper interpretation. 

 

The point here is that infographics could not only be more effective than delivering information in plain text, but also help the scientific field standardize how to best showcase data in a more honest and digestible format. And we need this, now more than ever, particularly with the worrisome amount of misinformation and disinformation spread online on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. These incidences, to no obvious fault of researchers themselves, spotlights the fact that experts are not equipped to argue and educate effectively through these platforms. If anything, theories against scientific advances in the research areas like vaccinations and climate change have been taken up more easily by everyday people than the actual advances themselves. I find experts around the world who either have difficulty communicating their research in simple terms or outright dismiss those who just seem to not understand. This is a failure, and delegitimitizes researchers who are actively trying to bridge the communication divide by engaging with the public, often on their own time.

 

And on this final point I will end this segment. Those who make infographics as effective as possible are very likely the ones who are in the public sphere the most, who are actually talking with the individuals or groups of people in which their research affects the most. They do this in the field while collecting data, they do this through publishing their findings in academic journals or mainstream news outlets. They do this on the very social media platforms battling against them, correct false claims and distributing content that grabs someones attention. All of this is now part of the role of scientist’s job, outside of, I suppose, their typical job, whether they were trained for it or not, and please believe me when I say this, researchers are not trained in this regard. The importance of creating infographics for science communication provides an opportunity for schools to educate early career researchers on how to educate others, and provide job opportunities for designers to collaborate and sharpen their message’s focus. And isn’t that the happy ending we want for this story?

 

*Theme Music*

For my third guest of the season, I’ll be interviewing someone who astounds me in not just her research, but also in her own SciComm infographics and personal illustrations.

 

She is a PhD student in Dr. Jane Farrar’s Lab at Trinity College Dublin, where she explores the use of gene therapies for retinal degenerations. She is interested in the communication of science through visual media, which she does as part of the Irish Department of Health's SciComm Collective. She is also a teaching assistant on "Science Education, Communication, & Society", a module that equips undergraduate science students with communication tools they'll need throughout their careers.

 

Please welcome the outrageously talented, Laura Finnegan.

 

*Theme Music*

 

 

*INTERVIEW*

Visual learner, audio learner, text-based learner, whichever learner you are, make sure to find the best medium or combination there of for you, and acknowledge those who deliver that content by supporting their cause. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed learning about picture values and graphics. My ability to link expressions with communication topics is finally improving. But yes, we’re all at the end, so updates. I presented at FameLab Ireland’s National Finals recently where I talked about the science of fear. Ououououou. In honesty, the evolutionary basis and neuroscience behind fear is actually really interesting. Shoutouts to Michael Stevens from VSauce for inspiring my video entry. Also, apparently the scariest movie of all time based on scientific experimentation is Host, a 2020 movie filmed entirely over Zoom. But unfortunately, I feel like my topic was not as profound and significant as the other topics, plus the competition was fierce. I didn’t win *insert audience groans*, but it was a blast to participate in and has shaped my idea of what SciComm is all about. That’s it for this episode, thanks so much for listening. Do remember to follow the podcast Instagram page for visual updates and sneak peaks, and of course, anyone following will be placed into the draw to win some Metaphorigins swag, whatever that ends up being, on my 40th episode and Season Four Finale. Rate, subscribe, share, message, megaphone this episode to your family and friends. Tune in next week but until then, stay skeptical but curious. Intact information

 

*Theme Music*