The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences

July 11, 2012

The Flame Challenge winners, and other attempts to get science communication out of its rut

I blogged recently about Alan Alda’s contest with the Center for Communicating Science: explain flame to an 11 year old. The entries, mostly from trained scientists, were judged by thousands of actual 11 year olds. But their picks, announced last month at the World Science Festival, suggest either a weak field or the kind of 11 year olds who spend too much time on Wikipedia. Compare the winners to a new NASA video that’s going around and a fizzling effort in Europe to get tween girls excited about science.

The Flame Challenge was won by Ben Ames, a 31 year old American doing graduate work in quantum optics. “I also have a passion for music, film, and the performing arts,” he writes. “So when I learned about this wonderful contest, I had finally found a project where I could put all of my interests to use.” To what effect? Channel your inner 11-year-old and take a look:
 


You can see the other finalists’ texts, graphics, and videos here. None of them, unfortunately, shows much clue about how the strategies and sensibilities of science communication have been changing lately.

Part of the problem lies that word ‘explain,’ which sets up someone who knows (an explainer) conveying what she knows to someone else. Right away we’re in the old knowledge-transmission model that science museums, for example, have been trying to move away from for the last decade or so (with mixed success).

And Alda probably didn’t help by emphasizing the ideal of ‘clarity’ when he talked about the contest. Making explanatory clarity the brass ring may have pushed the entrants toward the pedantic end of the spectrum. They seem to have been worried mostly about getting the facts right — and in some cases, cramming all the facts into the story.

But even within those guardrails, we could have hoped for something more than just a friendlier, animated version of a fifth-grade science textbook. What’s missing are the things that great teachers and professors do instinctively: Make us care about the question before we try to answer it. Helping us answer it instead of handing us the answer on a platter. Sharing his own personal enthusiasm for the answer in an infectious way. Making us feel like he’s talking to us, authentically, spontaneously, and without condescension. Ideally, telling us a story in which both he and (at least implicitly) we are present. ...

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Categories: Advocacy, Informal science education, Learning, Public media, Science museums, Social media, Subjectivity
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April 10, 2012

Happy Arts Advocacy Day! Go bake a cake

Whether you know it or not, your life is affected by some form of art in every waking minute of every day. Architects design the buildings in which you live and work; graphic designers create the signs that guide you and the logos that bombard you; writers create the sitcoms and dramas that make you cry with laughter or just plain cry; chefs create the meals that look so good you almost don’t want to eat them (and the desserts you don’t have room for but you eat anyway). So, who needs Arts Advocacy Day? You do.

We are used to thinking of “the arts” in standard formats — from the masterpieces of sculptors and painters to the thrill of live actors sweating out their emotions to the splendor of dancers who move in ways we could never imagine. We tend to reserve outings to view these formats for special occasions. But art isn’t always a special occasion — it’s part of our everyday lives.

This is why Arts Advocacy Day, an annual tradition created 25 years ago by Americans for the Arts, is so important. It’s not just about advocating to your congressperson in support of museums, theaters, or dance companies. It’s about advocating for...well, humanity. It’s a time to think about what “art” is and what it can be. A smartphone app. A headphone design. A guerilla marketing campaign. In my mind, anything that stems from an idea and is meant to positively and impractically enhance a person’s state of being is art.

Broad, you say? Of course. Art is broad, but over the decades it has been troublesomely compartmentalized into stifling categories. It needs to come out of the box. 

So to recognize this year’s Arts Advocacy Day — actually two days, April 16 and 17 — you could see a play or go to a museum or attend a chamber music concert. (Frankly, I think you should do these things throughout the year.) However, I suggest some alternate art immersions:
 

  • Sign up for a pastry class, a great mix of science (for the taste) and art (for the presentation). Plus, yummy.

  • Read a book about typeface design. You probably use the font Arial every day, but do you realize each character was meticulously designed by graphic artists? 

  • Instead of e-mailing a loved one, find some markers and a piece of paper and hand-draw a creative greeting, and then send it via snail mail. Much more personal than any electronic note. (By the way, the stamp on the envelope? Art.)

I advocate for the arts. But more importantly, I advocate for a larger acceptance of what “the arts” really are. And if I'm wrong, then I'll eat my artistically designed hat.
 

Arts Advocacy Day: The 2012 National Arts Action Summit will be held April 16 and 17 in Washington DC. On the evening of the 16th, actor Alec Baldwin will give the annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy at the Kennedy Center. To learn effective ways to advocate for your favorite arts organizations, visit the Arts Action Center at ArtsUSA.org

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Categories: Advocacy, Diversity, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, State of the arts
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March 12, 2010

The big picture on arts participation is now officially fuzzy

When you factor in personal art-making and participation in alternative, informal art forms, are the arts as a category occupying a smaller or larger share of America’s hearts and minds? The answer may depend on how we define “arts.”

There’s a moment toward the end of The Philadelphia Story when Katherine Hepburn’s character, hung over and confused about who she is and what she should want, laments to Cary Grant, “What am I supposed to think when I — I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.” To which Grant’s character replies with the hint of a smile, “That sounds very hopeful, Red. That sounds just fine.”

We reached a moment like Hepburn’s at a small gathering of arts professionals I attended this week here in Chicago. The occasion was a visit by Sunil Iyengar, head of research at the National Endowment for the Arts, to present an overview of the agency’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts and hear previews from two Chicago-based researchers who are writing papers analyzing the SPPA data from particular angles: Jennifer Novak-Leonard from WolfBrown on arts creation, and Nick Rabkin from the University of Chicago on arts education. (Both are going to be terrific studies, by way.)

Inevitably, the conversation in the room turned quickly into what the SPPA data leaves out, just as it has at other recent gatherings about national arts statistics (including Sunil’s own webcast conference in Washington in December and last week’s by Randy Cohen in Chicago about the new National Arts Index from Americans for the Arts).

Okay, attendance is declining at the traditional, presentational arts formats that lie at the core of the NEA study. But what about people learning to play the guitar, singing in amateur choruses, and going to salsa clubs where they both participate and watch? What about all those technologically-mediated forms of spectatorship and creation? Many of the creative, expressive things that people are doing are captured only partially in studies like the SPPA and even the broader NAI, if at all.
 


So we’re missing part of the picture, and we have some sketchy evidence that the part we’re missing looks rosier than the part we have.

The big question, as Paul Botts, a program director at the Donnelley Foundation, put it at this week’s meeting, is whether that overall picture is growing or shrinking. Are the arts occupying less or more of Americans’ time and attention? ...

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Categories: Advocacy, Arts participation, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, State of the arts, Survey research
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January 15, 2010

Say it ain’t so, statistician

I’m just getting to a recent book about the buying and selling of scientific “truth,” and it’s enough to make a grown researcher cry. Any lessons for us in the culture and higher ed crowd?

Unfortunately, yes. Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health by David Michaels, an epidemiologist who last month became Obama’s OSHA chief, is an infuriating look at big industry’s manipulation of scientific evidence to derail or delay safety regulations. Think cigarettes, lead, asbestos, or remember Silkwood and Erin Brockovich.

The book’s title refers to an infamous 1969 memo from a Brown & Williamson tobacco executive who wrote that, "Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy."

The companies and their mercenary scientific henchmen didn’t need to work too hard to find uncertainties to exploit, since doubt and uncertainty are built into the scientific method. (The physicist Richard Feynman called doubt the essence of science.) Real science is about disproving hypotheses, and there are always outlier data, competing explanations, and marginal numbers requiring interpretation. Research is supposed to be empirical and objective, but deciding what counts as knowledge – the process of scientific consensus-building by which we decide what it is we know – is messy and human.

Why does this hit home for us researchers in the arts and education? Well, the science we do is social science, but the statistical and interpretive questions are similar. The advocacy impulse in our world may be socially positive, but it’s still an advocacy impulse and has to be kept from influencing our empirical findings about how audiences think, feel, and act.

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Categories: Advocacy, General, Higher ed, Museums, Performing arts, Research issues, Survey research
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Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »

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