On Inflatable Pools, #scio13, and the Messy Business of Preaching Science Outside the Choir.

by David Ng

Note that this essay is in regards to this.

scio13inflatablepool

The session began with a bit about inflatable pools: although here, a little context might help.

In the summer of 2009, my hometown of Vancouver experienced a small heat wave. It got very hot and humid, unbearable even, and not surprisingly my two young kids (Hannah and Ben) were quite miserable. Consequently, to led to the very popular idea of getting an inflatable pool for our backyard, which to all intents and purposes, appeared to be a genius move. And so before we knew it, we were suddenly on the hunt.

This naturally led us to a local toy store, where lo and behold, marketing geniuses that they are, the store had conveniently placed all of their pools front and centre. Here, we were confronted with the pool that you see in the picture above (on the left).

It looked, quite frankly, awesome, and, if you can believe it, it was also priced at only thirty dollars. Needless to say, we bought it immediately and full of excitement, took it home to set up. It was here that something odd happened. In essence, when the pool was inflated, it looked a little different from the box (see image on right).

Of course, being a scientist and all, my rational mind was racing and trying its hardest to come up with hypotheses that could explain what was going on. Why did the pool look so tiny?

Did I not blow hard enough and inflate it properly?

Was the photograph on the box taken in a land of small hobbit-like people?

Were my children, unbeknownst to me, massive?

It was all very bizarre, but at the end of the day, the explanation was quite simple. Apparently, in the world of advertising, it is permissible to use misleading images so long as there was some presence of text that exposed the reality of the product. For instance, the object’s dimensions are clearly printed on the box, or a statement such as “object in box may not be as appears” is included.

For our session at Science Online 2013, this silly anecdote served as a sort of meta-example of what we were hoping to talk about: That is, how do we talk science to folks who don’t necessarily care about science? How do we preach outside the proverbial choir, or go “beyond the choir,” or delve into things that are praeterchoral if you will. And perhaps more importantly, what are the tensions associated with trying to do this? Should there be important things to consider, say for the public good? And do such things even work (or how would we even know)? In effect, the two images represent the “truth,” and how the “truth” might come across when communicated. They are meant to represent a literate form of science communication, and a form that is not quite accurate but might be easier for the general public to engage in. In other words, we were wondering whether there is a cost to translating science in this way.

Looking at the two inflatable pool images, I can think of a number of potential problems. For instance, when using more creative methods, perhaps one will inadvertently dilute, distort, or even get the “truth” or the science wrong. Or maybe it’s not even a case of being scientifically sloppy, but rather one paints a slanted version of science culture by consistently focusing on the stuff that is deem interesting, strange, entertaining, or dramatic – we leave out the boring bits, which arguably present a more accurate portrait of science. As well, a lot of the science used to capture interest, might not be the sort of science that is quote-unquote “important,” or at least important in terms of civics and public good (yes, a narrative about an inflatable pool is charming, but shouldn’t we talk about climate change or gun control for instance?) Even worse, maybe in my zeal to be entertaining, funny, and/or quirky (never mind finding a way to show off my kids), I actually created a situation where clarity was lost in the discussion.

All to say that the act of preaching outside the choir has many nuances. Certainly enough to warrant an extensive list of things to think about: a list that Gertrude Stein might even approve of. Which was why Tom (@TomLevenson) provided a tour of such a list of considerations, prefaced by the dying words of Stein and made all the more pertinent because it was quite likely that the inflatable pool meta-example had failed (which you could say was sneakily deliberate – a meta-meta-example? – or a consequence of my not getting enough sleep and perhaps being too glib and overconfident in my ad-libbing speaking skills*)

In any event, this list (which can be seen in full here) was aimed at provoking the audience and included important questions such as: “Should we first ask: why do we want to engage such audiences (the uninterested)?”, “Where do notions of Civic Duty/Need (Proselytizing!) and/or Self-interest fit in?”, and “Does entertainment even work?” And in the end, this dialogue culminated in three simple queries: WHY, WHO and HOW?

Which worked well, because the audience took to the list and responded in wonderful and thoughtful ways. In particular, the discussion appeared to categorize itself into three particular trends.

Firstly, many of the comments showcased intriguing examples that took advantage of an unconventional pairing – for instance, the case presented by Chad Orzel (@orzelc) of connecting a narrative between the National Football League and the neuroscience of concussion effects. Along similar lines, there were also many examples where some facet of art was combined with the act of translating science. This included discussions around the use of aesthetics in artwork, comics, animation, video, or the importance of theatrical elements or story telling as a form of engaging narrative (@Indrevis, @BenLillie, @Beatricebiology). In particular, I remember Jennifer Ouellette (@JenLucPiquant) describing some of the mandates around her role as Director of The Science and Entertainment Exchange. This was great stuff, and really this should all be archived somewhere someday (maybe here even?).

As well, there was a category of stirring conversations which tended to be the ones that considered the motivations involved – as in, why do the people in the room do what they do. Here, we heard many comments around the simple idea of sharing one’s passion, and to hope that in doing this, one will engage someone to look a little deeper. Or better yet, a science communicator who wants to move outside the classroom mentality is doing this because they are, in effect, saying that “this is my view of science culture and I think that you might find it interesting too…” In other words, it’s not necessarily about being strategic or attempting to fix science literacy issues en mass but simply doing your part, in the context of whatever reach you can muster. I quite like this sentiment, especially when expressed with eloquence and passion by individuals like Danielle Lee (@DNLee5) and Annalee Newitz (@Annaleen). It feels right and, if I can be honest, it’s also downright inspiring.

Except that none of it feels very scientific, which presents a delicious sort of irony and also our third and final stream of commentary. More to the point, this discussion addressed whether any of our preaching outside the choir was actually working. Are our efforts for naught, or are we, as a roomful of passionate science communicators, actually changing societal impressions, views, and opinions around science? Anecdotally, yes, but can we call ourselves successful when applying a more rigorous scientific rubric.

This, to me, is an important question, but it’s also a question that might not have easy answers. In fact, Ben Lillie (@BenLillie) very nicely expressed this conundrum, so much so as to suggest that maybe it’s not something that can be measured – and I think there’s some merit to this train of thought. How do we evaluate such things, this talking science to the uninterested, and in any case, how confident would we be with this evaluation, knowing that it is likely a caveat laden process? It reminds me a little of a recent chat I had with a theatre academic – he told me his colleagues were constantly wrestling with the following question – “how exactly does one measure the value of art?

Still, that doesn’t make it a pointless question, and certainly not one that shouldn’t be explored. Indeed, Science Online was wonderful because others were interested in this challenge, and I’ve even managed to embark upon a research initiative with Marie-Claire Shannahan** (@mcshanahan) to hopefully capture a glimpse of what an answer might look like. It’s funny: This science communication business is all a little mysterious when you think about it, but upon reflection, I find it comforting to realize that this isn’t so different from the awesomeness of science itself.

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* It was the latter by the way. This is why theatre is always workshopped, and I should’ve known better!

** More on this later. For now, we have both agreed to present this research process in a completely open manner. Right now, we’re stuck on the name of the blog where we would real-time share our discussions, processes and results.