Cross-cultural science denialism will continue to impede progress on urgent, global issues such as innovation in healthcare, climate change, and sustainable food supply. How can art and science combine to confront the entrenched views of those who are too often simply dismissed as “science deniers,” when these views are driven by perceived legitimate fears and concerns? How can interdisciplinary projects, exhibits, or shows further progress toward ameliorating entrenched controversies? What can art add to the science of science communication and public engagement?
Iveliz Martel, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar
Texas A&M University
The team was challenged with developing art-science collaborations to reduce denialism on scientific issues. The group came up with the idea of creating a program in which artists and scientists work together to better inform the public on important issues in science, by offering artists the opportunity to spend at least 2 weeks in-residence at a research center and receive a stipend to subsequently develop original, creative ways to present science to a lay audience. The goal behind this idea is “to empower artists
to spark conversations that have been broken within their communities,” the proposal says.
The Oxford Dictionary defines a denialist or denier as “a person who does not acknowledge the truth of a concept or proposition that is supported by the majority of scientific or historical evidence.” Denialism has been described as the use of rhetorical arguments to create false debate that appears to be legitimate but in reality such a debate or controversy doesn’t exist. By using false claims, deniers refuse scientific evidence, generate disagreements against scientific consensus, and distract the public from helpful and informative conversations about science. Experts on anti-science movements describe deniers’ claims as emotionally appealing but lacking evidence.
Among scientists, some think that they do not have to spend time arguing with deniers, who are usually not interested in having a constructive discussion. Instead, they should focus their efforts on dealing with people who want to be “honestly informed.” Others, such as the researcher Baruch Fischhoff, have looked at the role of science when dealing with denialism. He has suggested that the goal of science is not looking for agreement, rather looking for “fewer and better disagreements.” In this sense, having scientists involved in outreach seems crucial to foster an effective public engagement and constructive debate in science.
The team thinks its proposal goes in the direction of promoting a constructive discussion about science issues by encouraging scientists and artists to work together, reach the public outside science, and generate spaces of conversation and education.
The goal is to set up a call for artists to propose a project that engages their communities in a conversation around hot-button issues in science. This initiative intends to encourage artists to come up with ideas rather than leaving it to scientists to address the public’s concerns. As well, the team speculated it must be tough for scientists to think of ways to reach people outside science when they spend much of their time in their labs. That is the thinking behind the proposal to encourage artists to tackle hot-button issues in science.
Because artists applying to this program will come from the local community, one can suppose they will have a different view of the needs, beliefs, and worldviews of their communities than do scientists. Thus, artists will have the freedom to suggest an art project that effectively draws their communities into a conversation and convey people’s opinions about controversial topics. Some issues artists might address are whether routine vaccination
is safe, whether climate change is leading to “global change” that manifests itself in many ways, such as mass migration of human populations, and the changes we might anticipate in food resources. “Global change” is a concept that better describes the varied impacts global warming can have on different communities; as mentioned previously, it can cause migration problems, for example. Even though migration is a social issue, it will worsen because of sea level rise, which is a consequence of climate change.
These art projects may be exhibitions, science kits, games, tools, activities, or whatever artists think is the best way to help the dialog. Artists will also have to define the audience and specific community they want to reach with their projects.
The team recognizes that the debate around these hot-button issues is challenging, and in many cases it is difficult because of intolerance, lack of knowledge, or public fear of science. That is why the team believes that it is necessary to reach communities with a creative, artistic approach that is complementary to data offered by the scientific community.
In that sense, the team proposes facing doubt and controversy through an integrative perspective, different from what the information deficit model suggests. The deficit model assumes that people don’t know about science, and their ignorance is the main cause of their hostility to science, whereas the team recognizes that other factors such as beliefs, worldviews, previous experiences, and community context also play a role in forming people’s views of the world.
Ideally, artists will identify a “familiar space” in the community where the discussion of hot-button issues will take place. A familiar space can be a community garden, a school, a grocery store, a market, etc. These places share common characteristics: they are known by people, part of their daily lives, and located within their communities, and they already exist. In other words, these places are different from labs and art galleries, which are scientists’ and artists’ familiar spaces.
The idea of reaching people in a community context was inspired by the initiative the Physics Bus, which contains electronic debris for children to explore when the bus visits schools in the United States. The Physics Bus
is a space in which the general audience approaches science without the fear of “breaking something” because devices inside the bus are already broken, and children can freely interact with those appliances.
Other existing programs also encouraged the team to foster the idea of familiar spaces, for instance, the work done by the artist Miriam Simun. She created GhostFood, a food trailer that was located on busy streets (familiar spaces) of cities such as New York. GhostFood offered “scent-food” to the public. The experience involved inhaling particular foods’ scents (cod, peanut butter, and chocolate) while eating ingredients that imitated the texture of real food. Thus, the public could taste “illusions of food” and approach food in a different way. This experience made them think, for example, about food scarcity. In this case, the public was invited, not forced, to try these “illusions of food” and peek in the consequences of global warming on their daily lives in the future.
Why Art and Artists
Several initiatives have shown that art in collaboration with science can address hot-button issues. In 2001, for example, British artist David Buckland launched project Cape Farewell that for more than a decade has taken artists, filmmakers, writers, and climate scientists in expeditions to places such as the Andes, the Amazon, and the Arctic. Cape Farewell has allowed artists to gather material to inspire their art works by visiting places that are being threatened by global warming and can drastically change because of climate change. Another example is the documentary Chasing Ice that in 2012 showed poignant images of how fast glaciers are thawing in the Arctic—images we now see often in the news in print and online. Both projects used art as a mediator to communicate science, tackle public hostility toward scientific evidence on climate change, and face people who do not believe that human activity has caused climate change.
Initiatives such as Cape Farewell are based on the idea that science and culture are closely related because artists are likely to be trusted by their communities. Artists know how to represent people’s values and fears, beliefs, and attitudes toward science. This group believes that art can narrow the distance between the public’s personal world and evidence by appealing to people’s emotional identification with science issues, as the Physics Bus and GhostFood projects have done.
In one of the sessions, the team specifically thought about whether it is possible to change people’s minds by appealing to them with more than
data. As part of the discussion, members listened to the episode “The Incredible Rarity of Changing Your Mind” from the radio show This American Life. The episode tells the story of a person who changed his opinion on gay marriage after being visited by a gay man who shared the obstacles he has overcome for being gay. The conversation seems to have made the citizen rid himself of some views he had regarding gay marriage.
In that sense, the team thinks artists and their ability to represent different views in creative ways can effectively appeal to people’s emotional identification and help clarify misinformation around controversial issues. As well, art-science collaborations can enhance “fewer and better disagreements” in science, as Fischhoff suggested the goal of science is.
Based on these ideas, the team’s proposal aims to give agency to artists to address hot-button issues in science through art projects. To better accomplish that objective, the program will give artists the unique opportunity to experience science with scientists in their labs through a residency of at least 2 weeks. It will also provide scientists with the opportunity to learn more about the creative process of art by working directly with artists.
This page intentionally left blank.