24 March 2021
By Shane M Hanlon
“Now, more than ever” is a common refrain used to emphasize importance and uniqueness. I googled “now more than ever science” on 9 December 2020 and came up with the following top hits: Why Nature needs to cover politics now more than ever, Science and Scientific Expertise Are More Important Than Ever, Science communication is more important than ever. Here are 3 lessons from around the world on what makes it work. There are hundreds of articles out there using “now, more than ever” to try to illustrate the importance of a scientific point (and I know that I’m guilty of this as well). But what does the phrase actually mean and why is it so ubiquitous when discussing science?
“Now, more than ever” is short for “now, more than ever before”, as in “this thing is more important in this moment than it has ever been at any moment in the past.” We oftentimes use hyperbole to emphasize a point for effect, for good reason. From above, it is important for scientific journals to recognize the role of politics in science; for people to value scientific expertise; for the sciences to value science communication outside of scientific audiences. However, I worry that “now, more than ever” will go the way of “literally.” Meriam-Webster defines “literally” as, “in a literal sense or manner: actually.” But it also includes the second definition “in effect: virtually.” I.e., figuratively. There’s much debate as to why the second definition was added or if it was the downfall of the English language. Personally, I credit Chris Trager from Parks & Rec. Regardless, “literally” was used so much and in a non-literal manner that the definition was altered. While the concern with “now, more than ever” is not about the definition, we could see a similar pattern where over- or misusage could result in a dilution of the intended effect.
The use of “now, more than ever” is often used, especially in the sciences, to spur action. “Now, more than ever, we need to take this action.” It’s been used to talk about the need to include discussions around science into our everyday lives to ensure a better future. Dan Rather used it to advocate for scientists resisting changes in science policy during the Trump administration. And recently the phrase has emerged as a tool for emphasis pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic. I agree that all these points are warranted; however, I’m not the intended audience. I’m a scientist who sees value in research and science communication. When I see a “now, more than ever” headline, my brain automatically ignores that part and goes straight to what follows, so for me, the phrase neither helps nor hurts the intended message. But what happens if a member of the intended audience sees the phrase and immediately tunes out?
My concern is that “now, more than ever” has, or will, become the “wolf” that the boy cried. When people see that headline, does it actually grab their attention? is it, like in my case, the post-it note that we may put on our computer screen to remind us to do something that never gets done because the note ultimately becomes part of the background? Or is it an active deterrent, pushing audiences away who feel that scientists are being overly dramatic and using deceptive language to get their point(s) across? For example, research into how to message around climate change and water recycling has shown that positive messaging is more effective when advocating for change than negative messaging. While “now, more than ever” likely isn’t always perceived as a negative message, it rings of “or else.”
We don’t necessarily need a replacement phrase. Instead, we should focus on having solutions be a part of potential messages and headlines.
I don’t have a suggestion for a replacement because I don’t think that we need one. All science is important. And, largely the non-science public understands when a certain issue deserves more attention than others (even if they don’t accept the science around it, e.g., climate change). We as scientists should continue to talk about science outside of research and academic circles and try to find new and exciting ways to get more people interested in, and caring about, science.
Science communication was, is, and will be important in the future. We don’t need a gimmick to stress this. Taking those initial headlines from above, what if they read, “Nature needs to cover politics because science has always been political.” Or “Public engagement can ensure that science has a seat at the decision-making table.” Or if the point is to emphasize this exact point in time, perhaps, “Why we need to communicate the science of our time for a better tomorrow.” I’m not an editor so your mileage on these headlines may vary, but my intent is to show that we can message about science in ways that still emphasize importance without sacrificing credibility. Rather than relying on a hollow phrase, let’s focus on finding new and exciting ways to engage and encourage our audiences.