July 11, 2012

The Flame Challenge winners, and other attempts to get science communication out of its rut

I blogged recently about Alan Alda’s contest with the Center for Communicating Science: explain flame to an 11 year old. The entries, mostly from trained scientists, were judged by thousands of actual 11 year olds. But their picks, announced last month at the World Science Festival, suggest either a weak field or the kind of 11 year olds who spend too much time on Wikipedia. Compare the winners to a new NASA video that’s going around and a fizzling effort in Europe to get tween girls excited about science.

The Flame Challenge was won by Ben Ames, a 31 year old American doing graduate work in quantum optics. “I also have a passion for music, film, and the performing arts,” he writes. “So when I learned about this wonderful contest, I had finally found a project where I could put all of my interests to use.” To what effect? Channel your inner 11-year-old and take a look:

You can see the other finalists’ texts, graphics, and videos here. None of them, unfortunately, shows much clue about how the strategies and sensibilities of science communication have been changing lately.

Part of the problem lies that word ‘explain,’ which sets up someone who knows (an explainer) conveying what she knows to someone else. Right away we’re in the old knowledge-transmission model that science museums, for example, have been trying to move away from for the last decade or so (with mixed success).

And Alda probably didn’t help by emphasizing the ideal of ‘clarity’ when he talked about the contest. Making explanatory clarity the brass ring may have pushed the entrants toward the pedantic end of the spectrum. They seem to have been worried mostly about getting the facts right — and in some cases, cramming all the facts into the story.

But even within those guardrails, we could have hoped for something more than just a friendlier, animated version of a fifth-grade science textbook. What’s missing are the things that great teachers and professors do instinctively: Make us care about the question before we try to answer it. Helping us answer it instead of handing us the answer on a platter. Sharing his own personal enthusiasm for the answer in an infectious way. Making us feel like he’s talking to us, authentically, spontaneously, and without condescension. Ideally, telling us a story in which both he and (at least implicitly) we are present. ...

These finalists (who may or may not be representative of all the entrants) do pretty much the opposite. They proceed as if we’ve just asked this question about flame and are eagerly waiting for the answer. That’s too easy. Good science communication doesn’t presume our interest, it takes responsibility for sparking it. 

And the best way to do that is to model that interest, that passion, in a genuine way. Which is what my favorite physics character, Richard Feynman, does irrepressibly in the video I showed in my earlier post about the Flame Challenge. (Alda has played Feynman onstage, by the way, and talks about him often. I wonder if this contest was inspired in part by that video.) But none of the winning entries shows us much if anything about how their creators feel about this subject or why they’re bothering to communicate about it with us.

Instead, we get various versions of that didactic, exaggeratedly cheerful voice that some parents and teachers take with young kids. In some cases, most egregiously in Simon Schreier’s video, we get forced, manic humor that feels like an adult’s guess at what an 11 year old might like (rather than an expression of the adult’s sense of humor).

Alda’s doing important, humanizing work in science communication and changing the ways both scientists and the rest of us think about public engagement. And he’s a subtle thinker, especially about the role of passion and naturalness in forging those connections. I just wish the contest entrants (and judges) had walked his walk.

Coincidentally, a colleague sent me this cringe-inducing video from the European Commission. It aimed to “overturn clichés and show women and girls, and boys too, that science is not about old men in white coats.” But mostly it has earned jeers, including a video response on YouTube. It would be funny if the stakes weren’t so high and the underlying thinking so cynical.

In a different vein but with some of the same goals, there’s this NASA video about an upcoming, tricky Mars rover landing, which is going mildly viral. The idea is to borrow some of Hollywood’s dramatic energy and sense of spectacle in order to spread enthusiasm for space exploration. Science as a movie preview (“In a world...”).

It’s a little slick and calculated, sure, but it has a few important things the Flame Challenge winners lack, like story, emotion, and doubt (which Feynman called the real engine of science). Not to mention a great tagline that evokes several different emotions at once: 'Dare mighty things.'

Popsciguy — July 15, 2012

The video was really good! I myself learned something today. Ben really had a good voice and genuine energy that would bring any viewer along for the ride. I agree that more science communicators would do well to convey this in their work and I'm going to be showing this video to my university students so they can learn too :)

Joe Hanson — July 15, 2012

There's an argument to be made, in terms of capturing the energy to make science literacy a lifelong goal for the reader, that sparking interest is far more important than explaining ________.

I make an effort to do this, and many others are catching on. In a world of infinitely accessible knowledge, the challenge is no longer assembling the information, it is connecting it to those willing to learn. I think you are right about many of the Flame Challenge vids (although I quite liked quite many of them).

We should be very conscious of why classrooms are failing us in science literacy and science interest. It's not because they lack knowledge or explanations, it's that they don't provide context and meaning to the life of the student. This post is full of notes to keep, thanks.

chad — December 21, 2012

Congratulations to all the finalists. They should be proud of the accomplishments. Keep up the good work.
chad from Crime Museum

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