Wednesday, March 26, 2008

illustrating science

io9 explains how the top scientific discovery of 2007 was nearly overlooked by the mass media (and thus general public) because no one could figure out how to simplify it:
For a long time, It seemed as a medical discovery that Science called "one of the greatest of 2007" might never get covered by the mainstream media because it was just too complicated. But then an enterprising journalist and artist with the Philadelphia Inquirer boldly went where no reporters dared go. Writer Tom Avril and artist Cynthia Greer figured out how to simplify this complicated discovery into a completely-accurate cartoon (above).

A researcher named Steven Reiner at University of Pennsylvania proved that the human body fights disease with two kinds of immune cells (called T-cells): some that fight the invading microbes, and some that exist just to keep a record of how to fight those microbes in the future. Those "memory" cells are what this researcher revealed, and their mysteries are still being unlocked.
Very interesting. But I have to wonder - what do we miss because people can't figure out a snazzy graphic to go with the report or story? I know when I write blog posts, I scrounge for appropriate art, sometimes creating my own and always grateful when a site like io9 takes care of it for me. Why? We're visual creatures, and I think that the art makes a story more interesting, and in the case of science, can make a complicated concept easier to understand. (I would have never passed geometry without the coloured 3D shapes we had to play with.)

Combined with wondering what we miss, I wonder at how much things have to be dumbed down in general for American mass market media consumption, and if anyone has compared science reporting in different countries to see how they vary. Do countries which have a higher level of general scientific literacy in their population have the same media reporting habits, or is their media more rigorous? Or more importantly, should we be worried that the mainstream media feels it can't even try to cover science without cutesy art?

Art in bioethics is, itself, a somewhat tricky subject. How, precisely, do you illustrate neuroethics? Informed consent? Agency? If you're talking about fMRIs, I can certainly point you to some interesting graphics - likewise for IVF, fertility, abortion. It's the abstracts where we run into potential problems, the concepts that cannot be so easily summed up in a photograph of a pregnant belly.

Are important, but less visually easy (or stunning, a la the photo of the mouse with an ear on its back) stories in bioethics being passed over because of their lack of easy illustration? And is there anything that can really be done about it?


SabrinaW said...

Non-academic and non-scientific people have a mental block against anything "scientific" - they seem to assume that it is "too complicated" or "beyond" them. If it is put into a cute picture or some other non-threatening medium, it is less intimidating. I see similar issues with students I tutor who are convinced that they are "bad at math" and such - if I try to get them to think theoretically or abstractly, they shut down. But if I give them a real-life example or draw a picture, they are much more receptive.

I'm sure a neuroscientist could comment on the use of visual stimuli versus conceptual stimuli and how they activate different areas of the brain, resulting in a differential response to new information.

Here's an off-the-wall idea: I wonder if the use of "cartoons" (ie: simple drawings with colors) triggers a person to think more like a child (ie: open to learning) because most people associate cartoons with children. Okay, randomness done.

(and didn't we already know about T-memory cells? I distinctly remember reading a really cool description of how the immune system works in a National Geographic over ten years ago)

Bea said...

Are people really not receptive, or does the continual dumbing-down of science/maths in mainstream culture send the message that these subjects are things ordinary folk can't understand?

If the media just went ahead and assumed that the average person could grasp a concept if they sat down and thought about it, would people start to assume the same? And therefore not need the cartoons?


Term said...
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