Immersing Science in Media

Ella Barnett | July 30 2018

Lessons from Silbersalz: Continued…

So what did I learn at the Silbersalz Conference? I know you’ve all been riveted in suspense since my last post.

As a brief recap, science needs to be effectively communicated and we need to utilize the media as it is currently the biggest source of information. However, people don’t always have an inherent interest in science, not enough grounding in basic principles, to fully absorb the kind of science messages  being communicated. Therefore, science needs to get better at storytelling, and make better use of stories, films, books, press articles, and other storytelling formats beyond The Scientific Paper. This was what the Silbersalz Conference was all about: discussing how to best give science a *effective* voice through media.

Think about examples from Hollywood science fiction – like The Terminator, Back to the Future, and Ex Machina. Scientists want “the science” to be as accurate as possible, but often that is not the case… since narrative fiction is, at the end of the day, fiction. Science fiction is not necessarily useful as an educational tool. However, “science fiction” is a means to get people interested in science. They want to know more. With the rise of Artificial Intelligence, gene editing, and space exploration, people are becoming more and more aware of the science around them. We need to cultivate that interest in science through entertainment.

However, the current problem with these Hollywood blockbusters, is that scientists aren’t controlling the narrative. Science is inserted into the story ex post facto, rather than being the subject of the story from the beginning. Scientists should be involved from the ideation phase, in order to inspire the narrative itself. This not only ensures a more scientifically-accurate storyline, but also a more realistic representation of scientists themselves. Which, at the end of the day, is really what we want.

So now we have the idea of stories back on our brain, what is the best medium to tell them, and to whom are we telling them?  I attended two expert workshops, one on immersive media (Virtual Reality) led by Mark Atkin, and one around distribution led by Sarah Mosse.

Mark Atkin (Director of CrossOver Labs) ran a workshop looking at how a variety of new media technologies, specifically Virtual Reality (VR) & Augmented Reality (AR), could be utilized to tell stories in different and engaging ways. As our media becomes more immersive, and in some ways indistinguishable from reality, how can we use that to our advantage? We have moved beyond telling stories in a linear format, and now storytellers are focusing on how to fully engage a person in this new, non-linear space.

We discussed how a Behavioral Insights Advisor could try to measure how much risk people take on a day to day situation by creating a VR simulation of being a bank robber. This particular study was focusing on how people tend to take higher amounts of risk on Mondays and Fridays, with their risk-taking behaviour waning throughout the week. These findings had been applied to bank robbery statistics to find similar patterns. Who doesn’t want to be a bank robber? Here you have the perfect situation of collecting data while engaging people in an immersive media experience – a ‘win-win’ for researchers and artists.

Sarah Mosse’s workshop was focused on reaching and engaging audiences for film. Sarah’s company called Together Films focuses on the distribution side of film, rather than the planning and storytelling side. Often, scientists and activists will spot a problem that needs attention, decide on film as their medium, and then carefully plan the narrative and production elements of their ‘social good’ film. Unfortunately, they often neglect the equally-important elements of distribution and marketing.

Sarah gave the example of one of her latest projects, a documentary on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – produced and shot by a scientist who actually has the disease. Sarah was able to get the film in front of multiple politicians at once – we all know how difficult that it! This resulted in UK legislation change that surrounds the condition. She was also able to have the film screened at multiple medical universities, in order to change the way they teach the topic of chronic fatigue syndrome, as well as hospitals, so they could change the way they diagnose. Considering “Who is my audience” and ‘How will I reach them?” is hugely important to effective communication. Science can only create action and change when media is utilized effectively.

Both of these workshops focused on the responsibility of scientists to communicate science to different audiences, and in different ways. Science is currently preaching to the converted by only utilizing a very limited group of platforms – such as science journals and science-specific media platforms. While this is a fantastic start, we need to widen and vary the audiences we are influencing by widening our communications. We need to showcase science’s relevance in the everyday world. From exploring the depths of outer space, to understanding the planets smallest bacteria, to the best way to farm crops. We need to show how science is the driver for everything, and the media is the best place to do this.