March, it seems, is the month of wonder. At least, it is if you’re a science communicator or run in those circles as I’ve found at least three years’ worth of blog posts and articles about science and wonder that seem to be written solely in March. Perhaps it’s the Equinox’s strange pull that makes us ponder the relationship between science and the unknown and our reaction to it*.
The latest spate of wonder-related articles were kicked off by a Guardian article by Eliane Glaser linking Brian Cox’s ‘misty-eyed’ appearances on shows like Wonders of Life to religious spectacle and calling out atheist science enthusiasts on their hypocrisy. There has been plenty of reaction to the article, with most parties dismissing the criticism, but again it’s provoked thoughts on science communication’s use of ‘wonder‘ when engaging with people, and how it can be used responsibly.
To begin I’d like to say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the idea of wonder in either a scientific or religious sense – surely it’s better to face the unknown with a sense of awe and curiosity rather than fear. Cultivating wonder (or magic, or awe) can allow people to approach things they don’t understand as phenomena to seek out rather than avoid, and the aim of good science communication is as much to encourage a connection with the subject as it is to explain it. It’s certainly preferable to the other extreme, wherein science and technology are said to leech all magic out of the proceedings and ground them in dry, boring facts. No, wonder is a good starting point. The problem lies in the next step. Where do we go from there?
One blog points out that TV scientists (which seems to be where the ‘wonder’ issues forth from most often these days) rarely give a complete picture of the science behind any issue, nor do they accurately reflect what science is all about.
“I can’t say I get much of a sense of what the intellectual exercise of science is really like from popular science TV. And unlike with history TV, I can’t fill in the gaps myself. I’m guessing most of the people snarking at the above article on Twitter can fill in those gaps, so no wonder they know how to “wonder” in a constructive fashion. They take the wonder as shorthand for something else…”
So rather than dwell on the wonder, perhaps the job of the science communicator is to explain this shorthand to their audience. This also helps to dispel the worst-case scenario where the sense of wonder is projected onto the scientists, building them up into figures far above the average person, making them into preachers instead of communicators. This disconnect helps no one and fosters a divide that no amount of panning landscape shots, regardless of how stunning, can overcome.
How do we tackle this problem, though, while keeping the audience’s attention? Launching into a detailed explanation of the often confusing and frustrating world of theories and research could quickly turn even the most receptive listeners off. Good communication catches the attention, enthuses and then explains. It’s not enough to do just one; one must follow through to the end to really make an impact.
There’s no need to avoid wonder, to hook people in with the big picture, the awe-inspiring camera shot, the inexplicable magic of the stars or cells within us. What science communicators need to do then is take the next step and enthuse people with the process of science, explaining how scientists tackle the unknown and how in this way science is accessible to anyone. Perhaps you may not have access to a laboratory or state of the art equipment, but you too can be a scientist if you ask questions, test and retest and continually wonder: ‘what if?’
*(There’s even a tumblr dedicated to it – http://wonderandscience.tumblr.com/)