This post is part of our ongoing project of SMASH Reflections, authored by our inaugural class of Fellows.
by Alie Caldwell
SMASH16 was a whirlwind kaleidoscope of science and media. In the course of three days, I had so many conversations, thoughts, and emotions about science, communication, and the future, that it's going to take some time for me to break it all down and figure out exactly what to do with it.
As a young neuroscientist and a YouTube creator, I was particularly interested in observing and understanding the ways that traditional science film production methods are colliding and changing with the advent of online digital media--how new platforms and formats are radically adjusting the way we consume content, and even more importantly, who is now able to access and use that content.
I had hoped that the closing keynote, in which Marco Werman interviewed Stephen Pinker and Richard Wrangham, would help me synthesize some of the information I'd been cramming into my brain all week. After all, the description for the event said that they would be discussing the use of media for violence and peacemaking, and thinking about what the future holds. It seemed like a good way to wrap up a week that had revolved around the changes in our world and our media landscape--a chance to consider the future and how we could use what we'd discussed in our work.
I was honored to have the chance to hear from such brilliant academics. But I was surprised to find that the content of their conversation didn't provoke much introspection. The key message was an optimistic one: We are, as a species and society, living in the safest and most prosperous era of history that humankind has ever experienced. By the numbers, this is true; as a species, we have continued on an overall upward trend toward increased equality and economic stability.
What I found interesting (and ultimately a bit disappointing) about this message, was that it didn't really encourage the audience to think critically about the future. The message that I got was "Things are pretty great for humans, so don't worry too much about it." Even if that's true, it doesn't give me--or our society--a reason to grow and change. Our era may be the best in human history, but we can still want things to be better. We can have the lowest disease rates ever and still want to hunt for cures.
I was also struck by the disconnect between the attitudes of Drs. Pinker and Wrangham and those of some of the international attendees. To be blunt, it is easy to say that “the numbers” show that the world is doing wonderfully when you yourself are unlikely to be affected by racism, sexism, poverty, or war. Dr. Pinker commented that he doesn't count systemic violence as "violence" in the traditional sense. And he is right that systemic violence is more subtle and difficult to measure. But these kinds of violence can still kill, and there is still a great deal of work to be done in this arena, both in our own neighborhoods and on a global scale.
Similarly, I found it interesting that the speakers' optimism stemmed from the statistics. Over the course of the week, a key takeaway has been that the Deficit Model--assuming that if your audience just had more information, they would understand and believe the “facts”-- is incorrect. This is why we still have anti-vaccination advocacy groups and climate change denial, despite the deluge of public conversations and information on such topics. Empathy for the audience is a crucial component of effective science communication; we, as communicators, need to understand the motivations and fears of the people we are trying to reach. For those of us in the audience on Thursday, the statistics showing that the earth is prosperous were comforting, but I don't think they would inspire much confidence in someone struggling through war or famine.
This particular point is why I find new digital media to be so fascinating--it has so much potential. These new platforms are not just a shift that we as creators need to “survive”. We need to embrace the change, and use it to blow up the traditional concept of science media. These are the tools of the digital era: users can choose how, where, and when to consume information, letting us reach new audiences in exciting new ways. To me, these platforms represent empowerment for the learner, giving them more freedom in how they learn. The onus is on us as creators to adapt and grow with the radically changing face of media. We need to think critically about how we can increase access and engagement with people who may be science curious, but lack the access that is readily available to traditionally educated populations. I don’t have the solutions, but there is a growing chorus of diverse voices who have some ideas.
In the end, Marco Werman’s conversation with Dr. Stephen Pinker and Dr. Richard Wrangham didn’t look too far into the future. I can understand why. Digital media is progressing so rapidly that it’s hard to keep up with every platform and style. It’s impossible to know where we’re going, or how we’re going to get there. But I know we’re in for an exciting ride, and I’m glad to be a part of the changing face of science media.
For more of my thoughts on SMASH16 and this particular point, please check out the video I’ve shared on Neuro Transmissions about the event:
About the author: Alie is a graduate student of neuroscience at UC San Diego, where she works with Dr. Nicola Allen to understand the roles of brain cells called astrocytes in the growth and development of the brain. She is the writer and host of Neuro Transmissions, an educational YouTube channel making the brain accessible to everyone.
As the curators of the Science Media Awards Summit in the Hub (SMASH), we believe storytelling is a common thread in our shared human experience, and that new media allows us to convey the wonders of scientific discovery in new and compelling ways.