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Changing the Science Narrative

A popular science education outreach activity for children in early elementary is “draw a scientist.” The name basically explains the whole activity: you tell the students to draw a scientist and then you share the drawings. Inevitably, the children draw the same thing ““ an old white man in a lab coat, sometimes with Albert Einstein crazy hair. This is what a stereotypical scientist looks like.

The activity works because it is generally repeated at the end of the outreach. By that time, the children have met and talked to and learned from a lot of different scientists and their new drawings reflect that. Suddenly, the drawings look a lot more diverse and reflect the true age, ethnic, racial, and gender ranges of scientists. It’s cool to see the students’ personal science narratives shift and develop, but it’d be great to see that same shift happen on a much larger scale.

What do you think of when you think of science? If possible, share your first impressions in the comments. From what I see in internet memes, pop culture, and the answers of my friends, a lot of people see test tubes, beakers, and flasks. They see brightly colored liquids, some of which might be bubbling.  They see smiling scientists leaning over microscopes, growing bacteria in petri dishes, or standing near large plants in a greenhouse. Sometimes there are white rats in cages and notebooks with long strings of numbers. Science is shown well-lit and crisp, all straight lines and order.

Science does not follow that narrative.

For starters, science isn’t a discrete category, but more of a continuum. Scientific methods can and are applied in non-scientific fields, and many fields fall somewhere between “pure science” and “art” or “humanities.” Secondly, science is tedious and long and sometimes gross and it rarely looks like the pictures. So why do we keep taking those pictures? Why do we keep forcing it into the same neat narrative?

I don’t have an answer to that question. I’m not sure why science is represented the way it is. I find it frustrating to have the reality be so interesting and exciting but not reflected in the narrative. It is not even an issue of total accuracy; it’s just that real science, as opposed to narrative science, feels so much more accessible and tractable and real.

That’s my biggest problem with the science narrative: science is always done far away with expensive supplies by people who are impossibly smart. In reality, science is done and happens everywhere. Some tools are expensive, but many are not. And scientists are regular people who sometimes like to tell terribly dull pipette-ing or greenhouse stories. I don’t think I’m blowing any minds with these statements, but nonetheless, these are the things that are often not shown in the narrative.

Providing real stories about real scientists, as many publications are starting to do, would go a long way to shifting the narrative. Showing the real struggles and obstacles that scientists face when doing research, showing the sometimes non-linear movement of research, helps shift the narrative. I hope this shift continues: progress has been made, but there is still a way to go.

I expect that very similar comments and critiques can be made of the representation of basically every other field. What we see and what the reality of the job is are widely different and this is a gulf whose existence I do not understand. The reason I do not focus on those fields is because I’d be a total outsider ““ I would probably end up projecting some of the very narrative I’m critiquing here. I welcome you to share your experience, your field’s gulf between reality and narrative, and how you think it can be addressed.

29 replies on “Changing the Science Narrative”

I think the problem with the image of science is the problem of other exact (Alpha?) courses/ways/subjects. if you’re never told that it’s part of the daily world around you, it will continue to be something exotic that can only be touched by tough formulas.

I think a fictional maths teacher in a novel showed me that and it really changed my thoughts about it.

Ok, I’m a little tickled that you mentioned science as a spectrum and included arts. Pretty much all visual artists end up needing a working knowledge of optics, and many of us are interested in anatomy as well.

I wouldn’t say that we are scientists, but we tend to like science rather a lot.

I can’t help but think that there would be less of the wild misinterpretation of scientific studies if scientists partook in our fascination with semiotics. Artists fixate on communications and perception problems rather a lot (because, aesthetics aside, that is really the judgement of successful art, does it say what the artist wanted it to in a way that generates interest.) But my particular field (animation) wouldn’t even exist without the phenomena of the persistence of vision. That’s the sort of thing that makes you have to sit up and notice science.

Eh…a lot of the misinterpretation of scientific studies is rooted not in what the scientists say, but in what the University press offices say and then what the reporters want the press office to have said. Scientists are getting leaps and bounds better at communicating their findings to a lay public and are actively learning about communication and perception in those arenas, but science reporting and literacy isn’t improving.

Agreed, Ailanthus-altissima.  All presentations are made better by nice graphics!  As scientists, I really think we need a small amount of training in graphic design for nice presentations and posters, and at least a cursory understanding of what makes a nice figure/picture.  Sitting through badly designed slides in a presentation is no fun for anyone.

…or basiclally what Opifex said above.

I am a chemist, and the colored liquids/smoking test tube meme drives me nuts.  When I was working at the bench, my reactions were rarely colored, and I was always hoping for sparkly white/clear crystals.  Not colored anything.  Color = bad, for my stuff.

I’ve left the bench, and now do computational chemistry (in a microbiology lab, heh).  So, yeah, not what’s depicted as your “typcial” chemistry….  whatever that is.

Funny. One day in my lab we had a bunch of non-science-y folks in an amateur photography class come through. We were doing regular analytical work, nothing really to do with a bunch of colored liquids, but were told to put on a good show.

We had a few sep funnels we rarely use so I set up a few with water an ethyl acetate and some indicators. But basically they weren’t taking pics of the stuff we were *actually* doing – just a few photogenic phase separations and some test tubes with colored water in them.

I admit, there is a part of my brain that looks at that and immediately goes to, “Shit, shit, what went wrong this time!” I am mildly comforted by the fact that this seems to be a procedural animation gaff rather than an animator losing their shit.

I’ve gotten the hang of Matlab now, but there was a span of about 6 months or so where Matlab = hours of unintelliglible cursing.  I’ve still not figured out how to read in a damn text file line by line (which seems like an ENTIRELY STRAIGHTFORWARD thing to do!) but we’re reached a detente kept in check by copious amount of side-eye. So, yes.

Back in college we used to keep a quote wall, where any time someone said something we found particularly humorous we would write it down and pin it to the wall. One of the quotes up there was, “I’ve just taken two Vicodin and Maya is still pissing me off.” That about sums up my feelings on the matter. And has a lot to do with why I focused on 2D animation. I was a pretty good modeler, but I couldn’t rig for shit. I’d always end up with a piece of the character’s skin attaching itself to a joint it shouldn’t have. Then you’d go to move the arm and a chunk of the hip would come with it.

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