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Let me entertain you – that’s how to get a science message across

Robotics as entertainment can help people engage with the real science. Queensland Museum/World Science Festival Brisbane

Let me entertain you – that’s how to get a science message across

Communicating science to the public can be hard. Climate change is the most notorious example, but the public debates around vaccinations and evolution have also exposed a lack of understanding of how the public engages with science.

The old way of communicating science was known as the “deficit model”. It’s the idea that the public has a deficit of understanding, so experts simply need to feed them more facts.

Sticking with climate change as an example, it’s now clear that more factual knowledge of the topic does not make a person more likely to believe in human-induced climate change.

But scientists still generally favour focusing on facts and accurate reporting of science over other communication strategies such as framing messages to resonate with audiences’ pre-existing beliefs.

The concept of framing assumes that the facts, unfortunately, don’t speak for themselves.

But there are some encouraging signs of a more deft approach to engaging the public in science, one that appeals to a sense of wonder.

Festivals can help

The World Science Festival Brisbane, on this week, is a great example of doing something with science that can attract the public’s attention.

Now in its second year, in 2016 the festival attracted around 120,000 people over five days in March. To put that in context, there were two major sporting events in Brisbane during that same period – an NRL game featuring the Broncos and an A-League game for the Roar – with a combined total attendance of 51,122.

So the festival clearly was doing something right to attract such a large audience.

How does it do it? The festival features a solid dose of narrative with visual arts and live theatre, along with events that incorporate kids’ entertainment. It’s aimed at connecting with people’s pre-existing cultural identities.

People want to have their identities affirmed rather than challenged, and the festival gives them music, local culture, food-related events and the kinds of activities they already like. This is partly achieved simply by having events at the festival that are entertainment first, science second.

Of course the festival is not alone and there are many other examples of entertainment-driven science communication. These range from the better executed science related exhibits at museums, to YouTube channels and even webcomics.

When Hollywood gets it right

The traditional media also has a role to play in helping people to better understand science, although we are still awaiting the ABC’s replacement for Catalyst.

But film and television can help, as long as they get the science right in the first place – or at least get it as close to what is known at the time of production.

This is something the science festival has tapped into with screenings of several popular films including the 2014 movie Interstellar, which is certainly science fiction.

Interstellar’s director, Christopher Nolan, employed the physicist Kip Thorne as a scientific consultant. Thorne’s scientific credentials are impeccable. Among many other contributions to theoretical physics, he was one of the main scientists responsible for the project at LIGO that last year discovered gravitational waves.

Thorne worked closely with Nolan to make sure the science in the film was at least plausible according to today’s knowledge. He even wrote a book about the film’s science.

Interstellar is a great example of the way science communication can be packaged in ways that are less direct. It is grounded in actual science and its plot involves catastrophic climate change occurring in Earth’s near future.

The film has already been seen by tens of millions of people, making it a potentially strong ally in the effort to raise public understanding of the risks of climate change.

Another film showing at the festival is Voyage of Time directed by Terrence Malick. This is a wonder-driven exploration of nature, from the birth of the cosmos to the end of time.

The film, poetically narrated by Cate Blanchett, is part documentary, part spiritual meditation. It is obvious that it was not produced by old-school science communicators.

It’s particularly encouraging because it comes from a more socially conservative director. But the film is still based on modern knowledge of cosmology and evolutionary theory.

It has the potential to resonate with new audiences on levels that traditional science communication efforts cannot.

Of course, Hollywood doesn’t always get the science right, and there are plenty of examples of science in films being wrong.

What science can learn from entertainment

If scientists want to entertain an audience then perhaps they need to learn more from the world of entertainment.

The founder of the World Science Festival is Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist and popular author. Among writers of popular science, Greene is almost universally acknowledged as a master of communicating very difficult ideas in highly accessible writing.

This is perhaps no surprise when you learn he comes from a lineage of vaudeville performers and clearly has a theatrical bent. His efforts at fusing science communication with entertainment are just one step towards a more sophisticated way of engaging the public.

Brian Greene the entertainer.

Greene has not shirked the most difficult topics in modern physics, such as the strangest results of quantum measurement and their confounding interpretations. But his books are still mainly aimed at people already receptive to science.

So his shift to the cultural scene, with annual science festivals now in Brisbane and New York, signals an awareness of the wider problem of developing scientific knowledge among other sectors of the population.