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Thinking outside the box: what scientific communicators can learn from catastrophism, zombies, and reality TV

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2012. Thinking outside the box: what scientific communicators can learn from catastrophism, zombies, and reality TV. The Exchange 19(1):6–8. <http://www.stcsig.org/sc/newsletter/html/2012-1.htm#item2>

Try the following test: Without Google, name one research activity being performed right now on the International Space Station. For bonus points, name any crew member. If you had to resort to Google to come up with an answer, you’re not alone. I’m a keen supporter of the manned spaceflight program, and I couldn’t have answered either question without Google. That’s a strong clue that NASA’s public information campaign isn’t getting the message out, but it’s not just NASA; science as a whole and scientists in general fail to get out the message about what they’re doing and why we should care. Those who are actively seeking this information can certainly find it, but the general public who pay for the science we communicate about won’t generally make the effort, and if they don’t, their support is likely to dwindle.

Given that those of us who are actively interested in science are in the (very small) minority, that’s a huge problem: the majority won’t fund us or understand us or make decisions informed by scientific knowledge if we can’t tell them what we’re doing in terms they understand and that excite them. Sadly, most scientists and aficionados of science do a truly lousy job of attracting the general public’s attention and holding it. It’s not that we’re not skilled communicators; many of us are. It’s just that we don’t speak the same language they do. Speaking the same language isn’t a matter of choosing simpler words and better metaphors, though Carl Sagan’s famous “billions and billions”, nominally from the Cosmos TV series, became a popular catchphrase, even making it into the Bloom County comic strip at one point. (If memory serves, this was even immortalized in The Far Side, which for some scientists probably trumps being published in Nature or Science.) For the record, Sagan never actually said that line until years later, when he gracefully accepted defeat and uttered the line so that it could finally enter the historical record. But it’s illuminating that these words live on long after most of us have forgotten Sagan’s contributions to science.

Sagan isn’t the only one who succeeded in popularizing science. David Attenborough, in his Life on Earth series, parlayed his image as a dotty old English professor poking into strange corners of the plant and animal world into a series of TV specials and a best-selling line of books. Two of my favorite images: First, Attenborough strolling across a vast and empty landscape and suddenly darting forward to point out a single fruit fly, the proverbial needle in a haystack in that landscape. Second, Attenborough seemingly standing inches from a pack of Komodo dragons that were tearing apart an animal carcass while he discussed their keen sense of smell and terrible sense of vision—undoubtedly while a dozen heavily armed security guards stood by, off camera, to protect him should the wind shift. Science as theater or even farce? It worked for Attenborough.

These kinds of images may strike scientists and other serious folk as grandstanding—indeed, as unscientific and bordering on a parody of science. But they offer one overwhelming advantage that a more sober approach might lack: they are exciting, and they show science as something interesting. Contrast this with NASA’s coverage of the Mars rovers. Mars should be exciting; it’s the iconic planet in our solar system, resonant with the mysteries and romance of lost Martian races (Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury) or hostile Martians (H.G. Wells). To the educated eye, the images beamed back to us from Mars are indeed fascinating: “these are live pictures from another planet, billions and billions of miles away.” Yet I confess, after the initial thrill evaporated, the images completely lost their impact for me, even though I’m a huge fan of this kind of science. Objectively speaking, all we can see are acres of dull reddish rocks and sand, essentially indistinguishable from what one might see in Arizona. (Which I’m damning with faint praise, since I fell in love with the Arizona desert when I visited Arizona for a week. But the point is, such things are ordinary to those who lack the flame of scientific curiosity, or for whom that flame burns low.)

Imagine, instead, if NASA had made a more strategic decision, and chosen to drop its landers along the edge of the Valles Marineris, a canyon so long and deep it makes the Grand Canyon seem like a backyard ditch. Or if they had sent the rovers up Mons Olympus, which stands nearly three times the height of Mount Everest, our former standard of comparison for Really Big Things. There’s no doubt that NASA could have done good science at either location, even if that science didn’t offer the same scientific bang for the buck as the research they’re actually doing with the rovers. But the difference is crucial: huge canyons and dormant volcanoes larger than Everest are visually fascinating, exciting, and the kind of thing that builds public excitement for a research program. The increased public support that results from such excitement creates stable funding for a research program that lets you do the really important things. Spend some of the budget keeping the public in your corner when it comes to budget-cutting time, and do the quieter, less spectacular, but often more important science in the background.

Despite my criticism of NASA, I don’t want to pick on them alone. Indeed, there are signs of hope that Big Science may be learning. Consider, for example, the ever-popular topic of catastrophism, and specifically the well-supported notion that life as we know it could be wiped out tomorrow if a sufficiently large asteroid hit Earth. This wasn’t much more than an abstract concept to most people until Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 struck Jupiter in July 1994. I remember watching clips of the collisions on the evening news, and marveling at how many people were watching this event with me. Though I’m speculating here, it seems likely this event led, only 4 years later, to a pair of over-the-top movies, Deep Impact and Armageddon. NASA and other agencies briefly gained attention unprecedented in recent memory for the subject of protecting Earth from asteroids, and this may have led directly to the formation of The Spaceguard Foundation and other programs to watch for asteroids.

If you want a canny example of harnessing pop culture to promote science, consider NASA’s use of the graphic novel format to promote their Astrobiology program. I’m sure I’m not alone among readers of this newsletter in having read “Classic Comics”, comic-book adaptations of classic novels that inspired me to read the originals years later. But it’s hard to do better than the Centers for Disease Control, who recently hitched a ride on the current craze for all things zombie to increase public awareness of how to prepare to survive a disease outbreak. Zombies have a long history as objects of pop culture fascination; most readers of this article will at least have heard of Night of the Living Dead, whether in its original 1968 incarnation or its subsequent remakes. Younger readers may prefer films such as Resident Evil or recent (and bizarre) literary hybrids such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the ever-popular Zombie Survival Guide. CDC went NASA one better by harnessing the power of social media, and specifically blogging, to create Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse, a primer on how to survive when zombies begin to take over the world. But the really important point from a scientific communicator’s perspective is that the same preparations can help you survive a flu outbreak or other epidemic. It’s a wonderful (albeit creepy) example of harnessing a popular fad to distribute information to an audience that might not otherwise learn what they need to prepare.

If you’ll grant me an even more extreme departure from the conventional box that constrains scientific communication, I’d like to provide a radical proposal that would return us to the question with which I started this essay. Why doesn’t anyone know what’s going on aboard the International Space Station? Because there’s no spectacle. Imagine instead if NASA created Survivor: ISS, and staffed the station with a dozen sexy men and women, and beamed down carefully edited, hour-long episodes of their adventures. (Carefully edited because episodes of vomiting as Earthbound stomachs adapt to zero-g conditions probably won’t make for the most compelling viewing.) The cost of getting these individuals into orbit could be covered by corporate sponsorships (Nike, Gatorade, Trojan, etc.), sales of TV commercials, and celebrity endorsements. The profits could then be used to fund research, even without resorting to salacious tricks such as encouraging viewers to speculate which of the survivors has joined the (200-)mile-high club.

By no means am I proposing that big-budget research be turned into a series of lowbrow spectacles. In case it wasn’t clear that I was exaggerating for effect, let me emphasize that the point of these examples is to help you learn to think outside the box by thinking about our work from the perspective of the general public and the things that interest them. Science is serious business, but the way we promote it and communicate its importance to people who are not the same as us doesn’t have to be nearly so serious. We may not really want to dabble in shows like Survivor, which would trivialize what we do, but I hope that if you laughed at the notion, this will encourage you to step outside your comfortable box, even if only a few steps.

Just keep an eye out for zombies when you do.


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