Comic Sans and the aesthetics of science

You know what is always very pretty? Autumn in Ontario. Last Saturday, it was gorgeous out, and I went for a hike with a few of my friends in the Forks of the Credit Provincial Park, which is located in Caledon. The Bruce Trail runs through there, and though it wasn’t yet peak colour in that region, it was still beautiful:

VLUU L210 / Samsung L210

That story was a lead-in to my next question: you know what isn’t always pretty? The visual presentation of science. And to that, I say, is that really so bad…?

I’m not saying science shouldn’t be presented in a visually appealing way, or that emphasis on visual appeal is wrong. I’m not saying that. Visuals are important, of course. But can we all admit that it has gotten a bit crazy when the fuss is more about the non-science than it is about the science? Case in point: the hatred of Comic Sans. When the scientists working at CERN gave their presentation about the Higgs boson, it seemed that the media (and especially the social media) were more focused on the font in their PowerPoint presentation than on their science. It made me feel deflated. Yes, okay, fine: Comic Sans probably shouldn’t have been used. But it was. Not every person has an artistic eye, nor do all people have the same taste. Nor should they. Leave it be. Do we have to be jerks about it? We can choose not to be.

It also makes me feel a bit deflated when I hear talk of how science should be presented; that we should think of our presentation of scientific data as if it were marketing or advertising. Doesn’t that seem strange? Advertising is about convincing, persuading, manipulating an audience. While that might arguably be a good strategy, I don’t think it’s something one should do necessarily. I say this as a person who does spend hours and hours and days and days fixing slides and posters. I’ve gotten much better over the years, and when I see presentations now, I can’t help but notice when things aren’t aligned, when there are extra spaces between words, when weird colours and fonts are used, and when images are pixelated. But I also think that that these things are secondary to the science. I try not to be distracted by them, and I envy those whose attention is not mercilessly seized by these aesthetic details — details which, I think, we should actively try not to pay too much attention to. “Too much attention” I would define as the level at which attention must be taken away from the science — in one’s own thoughts, in conversation with others, whatever.

To me, a science presentation is like a painting. Should we stand here and criticize the painter’s technique, the choice of colour, and the quality of the paint? We could easily do that, sure. But shouldn’t we try to see what artist has tried to convey, through his or her painting? The message in the painting is the important thing. We need to forget about the Comic Sans. It’s not easy, but, for the message, I think it’s worth trying our best. Plus, we wouldn’t be jerks, and that’s a good thing, too, because the world has enough of those.