Public art serves as many functions as it has forms: it can inspire awe, joy, and pride for place and history. It is often with these net-positive reactions in mind that communities commission public art. Antagonists inevitably object to the content, cost, or even the concept of public art itself. However, without intentional beautification budgets, public art will unavoidably arise, whether by paint canister or yarn.
In other cases, public art may be designed to discomfort and rankle. The motivations of artists who strive to provoke can be to educate or spark dialogue, or they may be intentionally inscrutable. Whatever the goal, an artist can consider their cause célèbre as a success provided it does generate controversy.
Science rarely reaches general audiences from the mouths of scientists themselves. More often than not, discoveries are communicated through media intermediaries like popular science periodicals and documentary series. This communication runs the gambit from articulate and faithful to unforgivable inaccuracy–much to the dismay of scientists and educators. Disney's erroneous and unethical portrayal of lemming migration as mass suicide in White Wilderness is an infamous example of this.
Even worse than having science misinterpreted, one's work can be simultaneously misrepresented and demeaned by political leaders, such as in Arizona Senator Jeff Flake's annual "Wastebook." These reports follow a simple formula: (1) focus on the peculiar minutiae of a study's methodology, (2) imply that the price tag for the entire study was for one outré method, and (3) overlook the broader impacts and actual results of the study. This generates nice bylines for the politician, and substantial hate mail for the featured scientist.
Nearly 50% of basic research in the United States is federally funded, with publicly-funded universities contributing another 20%. With taxpayers on the hook for the $50 billion+ budget devoted to pushing the boundaries of knowledge forward, we scientists should rightly expect to receive scrutiny and commentary regarding the value and validity of our work. But scientists should not feel helpless to preempt misrepresentation by regressive programming (e.g., Shark Week) or thinly-masked political theater.
It is up to scientists to bring their work to the public eye, expressing projects and intentions through mediums appropriate for a target audience. This is most important for scientists studying fields that are controversial, commonly misunderstood, and/or of great public consequence. Unfortunately, unlike divisive art, the intent of communicating controversial science cannot be to cause controversy, but rather to express evidence and consequence in the clearest, most relatable terms. This expression can and should come in many forms. The "Dance Your PhD" competition is a marvelous template for young scientists to express their doctoral research outside of academic journals in a creative and entertaining way.
The adaptation of language and simplification of figures can be sufficient to allow non-scientists to engage meaningfully with research findings. StoneyBrook University has partnered with actor and education advocate Alan Alda to train scientists in tailoring their communication to the public palate. Our Science Communication course is crafted in a similar spirit.
And on occasion, it may be required for scientists to put themselves in front of the camera and declaim empirically revealed truth. The words and visuals we provide must be carefully crafted in order to be successful, but can do wonders to broadcast and clarify the evidence good science provides. There are dozens of science advocates who excel at this, but perhaps the best known is Neil deGrasse Tyson. Who could forget the poise and power of his Round-Earth Sermon on the Nightly Show?
The author of this entry does not think scientists should aspire to celebrity in order to be heard and understood. That path leads too quickly to Scientism and the intellectual myopia that comes with it. But if our goals are for knowledge to be shared and for discoveries to understood, we are obliged to put research into the public space in a way that it can be explored, enjoyed, and–when appropriate–celebrated.
Howdy, Internet! I'm Dan Albrecht-Mallinger, and I'll be taking the reins of the Science Communication Blog for the coming week. Most of my posts will be discussing public art, public science, and how scientists and non-scientists interact with these projects, but I'll use this first post to introduce myself.
I grew up in Indiana, and I have worked as a biologist in Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, the Bahamas, Argentina, and New Zealand. I completed a Masters in Biology at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2014, where I studied conservation methods for the declining Golden-winged Warbler.
I'm entering my third year of doctoral work at the University of Wyoming. My research focuses forest birds in Panama, and how their populations will respond to the droughts that are predicted to occur in tropical forests with climate change. Previous research by my advisor Dr. Corey Tarwater and her collaborators found that the populations of several iconic Panamanian forest birds decline in dry years.
One drought response from this study is of particular interest to me: the alarmingly negative response of Blue-crowned and Red-capped Manakins.
Manakins are a family of small, colorful birds found only in Central and South America. They come in a wild variety of colors, but all manakins have two things in common. First, they dance; males gather in groups known as "leks", where they perform manic and hilarious acrobatics for visiting females.
Second, manakins eat fruit–lots and lots of fruit. Manakins are among the most abundant and voracious frugivores (that is, fruit-eating animals) in lowland rainforests. Plant species have co-evolved with manakins, often competing with one another for manakins' essential service of carrying seeds across the forest and…depositing them.
The possibility that these charming birds will suffer as climate change limits rainfall spells disaster not only for manakins, but also for the plants that rely on them to disperse their seeds.
To gain a better understanding of why these birds decline in dry years, I am studying changes in their abundance, behavior, and physical condition along a natural rainfall gradient in Panama. The Caribbean forest of Panamá receives twice as much annual precipitation as forests on the Pacific side.
By measuring changes in local abundance of manakins, the length of mating periods, and weight or metabolically stress from the Caribbean to the Pacific, this study will provide a model of how manakin populations will experience the droughts forecast for the coming century.
Tropical biology is a new topic for many audiences, and the climate change can be difficult to describe and discuss. My professional goal is to introduce these topics approachably, accurately, and humorously when possible, so that people can understand the strange wonder of tropical birds, and how they are responding to the warming globe.
Well, that's all I have for an introduction. I look forward to posting about public art/science in the coming days. For now, I'll leave you with a video of a bird on one of my study sites trying (and failing) to woo a female with his sweet moves.
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