In Defense of GIFs in Science Writing

University of Oxford PhD student Andrew Bissette recently published a diatribe against the Internet's favorite form of looping media, arguing that science writers should not use GIFs to explain science. He's wrong. His heart is in the right place. His argument is even halfway sound. But he's wrong.

GIF Credit: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which regularly features supplemental information that is both attention-grabbing and relevant. This particular excerpt is from the episode "Deeper, Deeper, Deeper Still"

Bissette's rant, which was ran yesterday at The Conversation, was inspired by a piece, recently published by Vox, titled "How scientists made a new chemical element, explained in GIFs." The Vox piece itself is fine. "Well written," even, says Bissette. What he takes issue with, however, are the GIFs that, as promised by the article's headline, are interspersed between its paragraphs.


Educational psychologists, Bissette argues, would classify these GIFs as "seductive details," i.e. "information included in an educational course to make it more interesting, but which is not actually relevant to the educational goal":

Over the past few decades psychologists have built a considerable body of evidence showing that seductive detail is quite simply bad news. Research stretching back to the 1980s has consistently shown that the inclusion of seductive detail in educational courses adversely affects educational outcomes.

Including seductive details reduces the ability of students to learn and retain relevant educational material. Worse still, it negatively affects their ability to focus on and understand the material in the first place. Seductive details grab the interest of students – but it distracts them from the educational material.

It's important to note that Bissette is actually arguing two points here. The first is that attention-grabbing but irrelevant information is as ill-suited to science communication as it is to education. The second is that GIFs are attention-grabbing but irrelevant. And while we agree with his first point, we can't help but take issue with the second.


To be fair, Bissette's first point is well made when it comes to the Vox piece in question. The article uses looping animations from movies and TV shows to punctuate its main points, but does a spectacularly awful job doing so, using GIFs that are, at best, tangentially related to the subject at hand. For instance, when discussing the subject of "natural" versus "synthetic" elements, the Vox article uses a GIF from Seinfeld, in which a character played by Teri Hatcher refers to her real (i.e. "natural") breasts. The rest of the GIFs are even more far-fetched. They reach. They try too hard. They add nothing. Like bad metaphors, they seem more likely to distract the reader than help him understand the subject at hand.


But not all GIFs are "attention-grabbing but irrelevant." Like illustrations, graphs, videos, and many other visual aids, there are plenty of instances in which a GIF can actually enhance a reader's understanding of, or appreciation for, a subject. I use the GIF on the left all the time to help explain the "transit method," a process by which astronomers search for distant planets by detecting dips in a star's brightness when an orbiting planet passes between it and a telescope's line of sight. You can say what the transit method is, but if you can illustrate what a transit looks like (a silhouetted planet passing before its parent star), and how it registers to the detecting telescope (a dip on a graph of perceived brightness), the reader can get an even clearer idea of what it is you're talking about.

Consider also this post about the carnivorous caterpillars of Hawaii. That a carnivorous caterpillar is a thing that exists is certainly attention-grabbing in its own right – but if a science writer assembling an article on a carnivorous caterpillar fails to include a visual demonstration of the creature's remarkable hunting tactics, then that science writer has done his readers a grave disservice. A writer can and should describe the caterpillar's technique in her own words – but why shouldn't those words be supplemented by endlessly cycling footage of the real deal:


Who in their right mind would deprive her audience of looping-footage this fantastic?


One last example: This post on chickens' vestibulo-ocular reflex. Also known as the oculocephalic reflex, the vestibulo-ocular reflex is a reflex eye movement that blah blah blah you're not even reading anymore, assuming you clicked through to the article in the first place. You know what's a lot more engaging (and 100% relevant to illustrating and explaining the genuinely fascinating, if intimidatingly named, vestibulo-ocular reflex)? This GIF of a chicken:


In the end, Bissette's beef isn't so much with GIFs as it is impertinent, and ultimately distracting, supplemental information. That may seem obvious, but it's an important distinction to make at a time when these looping animations have become a ubiquitous form of online communication.


As for the studies about "seductive details" that Bissette links to: they're helpful to some extent, but fall flat when you consider that students enrolled in educational courses may process information differently than people who actively seek out information about science on the Internet. There's also this point by Marie-Claire Shanahan, Research Chair in Science Education and Public Engagement at the University of Calgary:

One of the main causal mechanisms proposed for the problem with seductive details is lack of text cohesion. So they're distracting not because they're there but because they're forced into the text unnecessarily or clumsily.


With that in mind, it becomes clearer than ever that Bissette's rant could just as well be about poorly chosen images (he makes no mention of this in his post, but the top image on the Vox piece – a garish image of a mad-science-y type – is one in a hoard of stock photos that plays into all kinds of unhelpful stereotypes about science), videos, or even bad graphs. In fact, he could have saved himself, and his readers, a lot of time, had he simply whittled his 550-word diatribe down to his penultimate paragraph, which reads:


Including attention-grabbing but irrelevant details is bad practice in education, and it stands to reason that it won't work for science journalists either if our goal is to inform readers.


Which, sure. High five. I mean, who can really argue with that?

H/t Jennifer Oullette


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Robbie Gonzalez

So when are GIFs actually useful, in science communication or otherwise?

I feel like a good test is to remove the the GIF (or GIFs) in question and see how it affects the piece. For example: Remove the GIFs from Vox's article on element 117 and you're left with a piece that not only stands on its own, but is arguably better for having done away with the irrelevant material.

Remove the GIFs from many of Buzzfeed's articles, and you're left with decontextualized pap that is almost poetic in its badness (for the uninitiated: Buzzfeed Minus Gifs). When you think about it, Vox's use of GIFs is actually more offensive than Buzzfeed's. Buzzfeed's listicles may be mindless, but at least the GIFs provide a sort of framework.

But what happens when you take away the GIFs from, say, the vestibulo-ocular reflex post, or the carnivorous caterpillar article? In these examples, I would argue that GIFs are used to illustrate, develop, or clarify a point (the way all relevant visualizations should), and that removing them is akin to removing pieces from a completed puzzle.