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Albert Einstein and Brad Pitt Walk Into a Bar…

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Another Sunday evening recently found me fuming through another science infotainment show as they abound these days on not-so commercial broadcasts. It made me think about how important science education is in development and how easy it is to do it wrong. Popular science education is essential, and not only in development. Climate change is one of the most obvious issues where people need to understand what’s going on and need to understand it fast. Health issues are another area where a better understanding of scientific principles can contribute to behavior change that could promote better public health. What I tend to see around, however, is not as useful as the producers may think.

Here’s a typical science show: a middle-aged physics professor with ambitions to be a cross between Albert Einstein and Brad Pitt lives out his professorial quirks on television, traveling to beautiful places, usually including Italy, and explains how our universe came about and that the earth is revolving around the sun. The target audience of these shows is not immediately apparent: musings about dark energy are probably not too helpful to high school dropouts, while observations about the heliocentric nature of our solar system may not be so useful to an educated lay audience. The lack of targeting is a massive problem in public education in general. What is the objective of science infotainment? Is it to provide education to those who don’t get much of it, because they live in poor rural areas or can generally not afford a good school? Or is it to deepen the understanding of reasonably educated people about a certain issue that is either immediately relevant to society, or should simply be part of people’s general understanding of science?

I argue that the first case, educating people who lack access to formal education, should be the foremost objective of science infotainment. This idealistic notion is, of course, problematic in today’s media markets. Commercial broadcasters that reach a large part of this audience tend not to invest much in science programming. The broadcasters that do tend to have a different kind of audience. The question is how to find a good balance between audience attractiveness and educational content.

Maybe we can learn from examples where infotainment or entertainment have successfully been used to improve public understanding of complex issues. There’s the radio soap opera “Taru” that was broadcast in four states in India in 2002 and 2003. Approaches to difficult social issues, such as gender equality, reproductive health, family planning, caste harmony, and community development were presented in a context that the audience could relate to and found entertaining. As a result, girls’ education and family planning became an issue of public discussion and more people engaged in healthy reproductive behaviors.

How can this be translated to science education? Easily. Define a topic that you want to address. Be clear what you want to achieve: better understanding and awareness? Behavior change? Embed the issue in a context that people can relate to. Design your messages in a way that neither bores nor overtaxes your audience. If you want to talk about climate change, find an angle that makes it clear how climate change will affect your audience’s life. If you want to talk about the solar system, start with something people are interested in: spacecraft, the first landing on the moon, maybe even spy satellites. An important question for broad science education, actually, is whether to settle on infotainment or entertainment. The latter is easier to sell to commercial broadcasters and more likely to reach a larger audience.

Science education is so important, and we have so little of it. Don’t waste those few programming spots by catering to none in particular. Science education is not about the public profile of a professor of Highfalutin University. It’s about the public.

Picture: Flickr user ScottSchrantz

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Great post. One additional point I'd make is that it's not unusual for the scientific establishment to look with disdain at scientific infotainment. Maybe the true punchline to the joke about Albert and Brad is that Albert IS smart and Brad can ACT smart. In scientific infotainment, the outcome is about increasing the knowledge of the listener versus increasing the esteem to which the purveyor of information is held.

Thanks for your comment, Linda! So - we're looking for a scientist who truly cares about the public participating in scientific progress, who is smart and comes across as smart. I think we're looking for people like you!

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