“That famous quote: analysing comedy is like dissecting a frog – nobody laughs and the frog dies. Absolutely true, but you still learn a lot about the frog. It’s a good way of working out what makes a frog jump, if you’re trying to make your own one. If you are Frankenstein trying to build a frog, dissecting one is a good place to start. This analogy won’t sustain itself for much longer.”

In the spirit of killing frogs, is it possible to pick up a challenge from the Biofortified blog and use memes to get across keys scientific points? Or…


I think the answers are maybe and why? Or, if you’re a normal person, What the hell is a meme?

Wikipedia has a humourless discussion of what a meme is. Simply put, internet memes are clichés that get modified to form Samuel Goldfish-pleasing new clichés that usually follow certain patterns, a bit like knock-knock jokes as MemeMolly says in the video above. In the case above I’ve modified X all the Y to summarise Anastasia Bodnar’s post.

There are problems with memes. For a start it’s unfair to say that Anastasia Bodnar has said all science should be presented as memes. It’s just that there limits within the trope. Many memes follow simple patterns in primary colours like X all the Y. They’re made to be shared and digested quickly. If the internet is a school disco then altering a meme for accuracy is like releasing a 40-year-old geography teacher on the dance floor.


Each image has its own trope and because the messages are so simple subtle meanings can be lost. For example you might think your image looks like this:

Success Kid.
Photo: Laney Griner.

…but in this case Success Kid can only have success. You’d have to have good science news like “Predicted an earthquake // LIVES SAVED”. An alternative like “Debunked crank doommonger // FLUKE EARTHQUAKE HAPPENED” would be a misuse of Success Kid and make you look like a Socially Awkward Penguin.

Photo: George F. Mobley.

There are some science memes like Chemistry Cat and Troll Science but there are limits to what you can do with them.

Where I think there is room for some excellent science communication is with viral images. For example I like this from the same Biofortified post:


It’s a striking image. It doesn’t have all the facts. For example was this a typical plot of land, or was it infested with bollworm? As it happens it was typical. Connecting the image to more information isn’t a simple problem. But while it doesn’t tell me everything about Bt cotton, it at least shows me why I should care. Ultimately for public outreach is the aim that the public should be competent in knowing what gene expression is and how to perform experiments to determine the value of certain crops? Or it is simply to show them why they should be bothered at all?

In her post Anastasia Bodnar laments that these kind of images don’t spread among science bloggers. I can think of a couple of reasons for that. One is crediting and copyright. In this case there was the matter of asking for permission to modify the image and redistribute it. Open Access papers would be a way round this but this approach with proper (and justifiable) crediting is counter to how memes spread. They’re frequently contextless.

To see this in action, Facebook and Google+ are both sources of images that are reproduced with no credit to the original creator or context. It might not be fair to the person who’s put the work in, but if you want the image to spread you have to equip it to spread in a zero-context environment. Context is key to the best science bloggers so this is one reason why science memes don’t break out from science blogs.

The other problem is that humour helps something go viral and much important science is earnest. Imagine you’ve submitted a paper about global warming and its effect on trees. After arduous work in forests that involved being bitten by every insect in nature, you’ve found increased carbon dioxide levels and a reduction in rainfall are damaging trees. You’ve worked hard on the text. You’ve hammered out a paper you can put your name to after working through everyone else in the lab. Then you’ve gone through review and made corrections. You’ve added more illustrations, you’ve proof-read the paper and made more corrections that have slipped in. You’ve then seen something similar to your worked trashed by a rival at a conference. You’ve received a hate campaign from some smug bloggers who think your fifteen-year-old Volvo is a sign of the millions you’re paid to promote climate change. Your paper finally comes out and then the people you think should be on your side summarise it with a Philosoraptor.

Philosoraptor, rarely credited to Sam Smith
Philosoraptor, rarely credited to Sam Smith. Based (very VERY loosely) on this paper in PLOS One.

If you’re scientist with Facebophobia, you’re going to be understandably miffed. Being told “You should be flattered by the attention” isn’t going to help. In this case it’s a response to the old claim that more carbon dioxide is good for plants. This paper refutes that and explains why it’s not true. It’s good but requires an effort. Philosoraptor distills that “more to eat isn’t always good” message. If it could be hooked into the ‘source’ paper you have a quick response and data to back it up.

If you’re not going to use humour then the other way to spread is by invoking awe. Science can produce some images that fill you with awe, and some diagrams that are just awful. Like humour, awe is a personal thing and it’s hard to know what will click with a large number of people. It’s probably built-in that if you’re trying to spread images virally you have to accept large numbers of good and thoughtful attempts will fail and some will succeed for inexplicable reasons.

Thinking about what science memes can do, I think there’s something interesting in the Biofortified post. I don’t think you can transmit Science by meme. It’s too messy. But you can hope to transmit some science appreciation, or possibly highlight some scientific problems with viral images and memes. That’s valuable target and a difficult one. It forces you to think “Why should I care about this research?” which is always a useful question.

For people who don’t like that, there’s always Grumpy Cat.

Grumpy Cat
Photo: Bryan Bundesen.

Alun Salt

Alun (he/him) is the Producer for Botany One. It's his job to keep the server running. He's not a botanist, but started running into them on a regular basis while working on writing modules for an Interdisciplinary Science course and, later, helping teach mathematics to Biologists. His degrees are in archaeology and ancient history.


  • Yay! Very cool thoughts you have there.

    It’s hard, and it’s really excruciating when we know how important credit and source info is. And leaving out context is discomforting. But you have to accept the short time frame you have for attention and work with that.

    One of my favorites that I did was in response to the issue that some people have with hybrids. They assume that they are some kind of BigAg plot to create serfs. They’ve even tried to ban them in some cases. So I did this one: http://www.biofortified.org/wp-content/uploads//2013/01/17d31-hybrid_corn_why_2.jpg

    And it links back to the maize genome project. So it was an attempt to educate, responsibly.

    Maybe it’s not perfect, and not funny enough, but someday someone will connect with that memory potentially. I’d be delighted to workshop these more–take suggestions for text and design. I’m not very clever about sharp dialog.

  • I love the meme that cites me 🙂

    You’re totally right – not all science lends itself easily to memes. Your post has clarified an ideas that I’ve been mulling – there really are two types of images that we need here.

    1) general science promotion, which are more like actual memes. I think the @RtAVM pro vaccination memes are a great example. They are catchy, snarky, and communicate science in an awesome way!

    2) targeted science, such as an image that illustrates a specific concept or journal article. These are meme-like but less catchy. I was thinking that using these “summary images” might help bring attention to blog posts if attached to shares on social media. Some ideas can’t be summed up in one quote or sentence with an image, but so many can. Would such images draw people in to look a blog posts they might otherwise click on? According to Mary’s anecdote (as described here) it works at least once 🙂

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