Blogging for the MIT and Culture Kettle collaboration: The Evolving Culture of Science Engagement

I wrote something that was posted today over on the MIT and Culture Kettle Evolving Culture of Science Engagement website.

Full text follows:

In the insightful research agenda that appears at the end of the first Evolving Culture of Science Engagement report, some attention is paid to the idea that research is already “out there” about several of the ways science engagement is changing today, but that it is often hidden in disparate disciplines where the relevant papers aren’t easy for a science communicator or educator to find. I agree, and I’d like to offer up some work that kept ringing in my ears while I was reading the report. More theoretical than empirical, this thinking comes out of Science & Technology Studies, specifically from Sarah Davies, a colleague of mine at the University of Copenhagen. Her article, Knowing And Loving: Public Engagement Beyond Discourse, can shed interesting light on a few of the topics that Culture Kettle and MIT are investigating: namely, engagement and emotion.

Too often, science communication is considered as the delivery of information to various uninformed or under-informed publics, usually through methodically crafted discursive texts: lectures, scripts, chatter, or some other instance of language. However, thanks to the work of a large pool of talented practitioners and scholars (see Elam & Bertilsson, 2003; Irwin & Michael, 2003), we know that public engagement with science need not be reduced to a one-way street where experts deliver informational goods to ignorant audiences (the “deficit model” of science communication). Over the last few decades, researchers’ understandings of how various publics engage with science have become much more sophisticated than that. But as Davies demonstrates, scholars still focus far too narrowly on the discursive elements of science communication. “Discursive,” in this context, refers to the written and spoken word, or “language in use,” rather than to its more colloquial definition of wandering and rambling thoughts (though it can be that too when the science communication is not so engaging!). Davies challenges the idea that the potential impacts on the participants in a science engagement experience depend largely on the “language in use” in that activity, media or event. Instead she shifts our gaze to the importance of site, embodiment, materiality, and affect (emotion) in understanding how science experiences make audiences feel in the moment and afterwards—including how they feel about science itself.

Davies, a scholar of science communication, asks, “What makes science worth engaging with?” After all, non-experts have busy lives and a million other interests. What do they get out of science events, media, and other forms of communication if their day-to-day lives don’t depend on interacting with scientific ideas?

“People (whether scientists or laypeople) generally participate in public engagement because they want to—because they find some satisfaction or enjoyment in talking about nanotechnology at a museum forum event, experiencing the spectacle of the Body Worlds exhibitions, or participating in a policy-oriented discussion. There is, we might say, a hedonism of science as leisure and pleasure, and it is this latent and largely unacknowledged reservoir of emotion that powers many of the encounters between scientific knowledges and publics.” (Davies, p. 101, italics added)

But a danger looms where pleasure is the lens through which we evaluate the worth of a science engagement experience. This can reinforce the old (and well criticized) idea that knowing more about science leads to loving it: that knowledge precedes and causes interest and connection rather than the other way around. Contemporary science engagement is much more layered, complex, and just plain interesting than that simple tenet suggests. Besides, the idea that science communication aims to make people love science smacks of getting people to love broccoli. Sure, it’s good for you, but not everyone’s a fan. Some want it every day, some never, while others ebb and flow depending on the setting, occasion, and social context. In our everyday lives, we regularly laugh at things and feel emotional about ideas or subjects that we don’t necessarily “love” or identify with. Indeed, it can bring us a lot of personal satisfaction to engage that way, without leading to some kind of further behavior or change of heart. Similarly, audiences can feel all sorts of things about science, appreciating their experiences of contact with it beyond binary feelings of good or bad. Davies argues that the gulf between exposure to science and loving science is worth exploring:

“Many scientists do think that interested publics will like science better, and become a more accepting market for its products (or perhaps be recruited into it). But is this dynamic the only one structuring expressions of interest, pleasure and delight? Can we understand them in any other terms? I would suggest that pleasure in public engagement is indeed a more complex phenomenon—one that requires further attention in order to account for and understand its role and meaning.” (Davies, p. 101)

If you’re reading this blog, you likely have an interest in the ways that science is talked about and shared in contemporary culture. But how did you first get engaged with it? Beyond the traditional classroom, what first piqued your interest? Did you read a rapturous piece of science writing? Or did a documentary whet your appetite? Or did it start less formally than that, through an older cousin you admired who studied biology? Or a crush on a science teacher (as in my case)? Did you attend a science-themed comedy show as a kid? Or have an excited conversation with a researcher over a beer? We should start looking at the everyday experiences that breed identification with and interest in science, and learn what (if anything) flows from those experiences over time. As Davies says, “It is precisely when science is not taken too seriously that engagement with it becomes powerful” (p. 102). Which leaves me wondering: Must we become “science lovers” for the impacts of engaging with science to be powerful in our lives? Or might we be swimming in a whole other ocean of affects, yet to be fully explored?

Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 9.33.19 PM

Britt Wray is a radio producer and science writer currently writing her first book aimed at a broad audience, about de-extinction. Britt is also a PhD candidate in the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication at the University of Copenhagen, where she studies science communication with a focus on synthetic biology. Follow her on Twitter @brittwray.