Science Communication as Experience: a bit about the book-in-progress

I have begun the long and arduous process of writing a book. This is a kind of rite of passage for many academics: the book that (hopefully) leads to tenure and to job security. That wasn’t always my plan. I began my post graduate career thinking I would never, ever write a book length manuscript again. My dissertation took so long and, well, I didn’t love it. I figured I would focus only on journal articles, the other route to tenure. But, plans change, and it turns out I have more to say about science communication than I anticipated. I have a book-length argument in me. Spending ten years trying to do work at the intersection of several disciplines that ought to interact more has provided a wealth of inspiration. I have a lot to say. So, I can think of no better way to kick off this project than to write a 1500 word version of an argument I decided was too long and complicated to fit into a 10,000 word journal article.

I’ll start with the three-sentence version: Science communication treats communication as information transmission, but communication is not about moving information from point A to point B. There are many ways to think about communication; in this book (and in my work), I treat communication as experience. This shift from transmission to experience changes everything.

Now for the slightly longer version.

From my vantage point, science communication has been chasing its tail for a few decades, caught in a few particular traps other fields have managed to avoid. So, I am suggesting a shift in perspective that can help make sense of some of the more frustrating realities of science communication and to refocus the field. My book will introduce a new model, the experience model, that helps researchers understand science communication and offers practitioners some new ways of thinking about how they communicate science.

In science comm, we tend think and write in terms of models rather than theories. These models are often descriptive and prescriptive, which can be confusing. The existing models come with baggage: the dreaded deficit model has been so well and roundly criticized that the use of the term is often little more than an accusation of outdated, backward thinking. Meanwhile the public engagement model, which has at least four different meanings[1] in different realms of science communication, has been held up as a kind of vague ideal. This shift from deficit to engagement (also sometimes known as a shift from dissemination to dialogue) is important: over the past 30 years, science communication research has established that scientists are not the only ones with knowledge worth sharing. But we, as a field, are still struggling with how to manage that sharing in wide-ranging situations where the people and institutions involved have complicated, often troubled, relationships with one another.

In the book, I am pushing the field to move beyond these models by fundamentally rethinking them. I call into question a key assumption that underlies all the existing models: sharing knowledge is the primary function of science communication. Science communication, as an academic pursuit and in practice, has not let go of this vision of communication, even though communication, cultural studies, and media scholars abandoned it long ago. To be fair, for science communication researchers, the ways we discuss communication have grown more nuanced: we no longer focus solely on transmission from point A to point B. We recognize networks throughout which the information flows bidirectionally, and we think about the power structures within which these networks exist, even if we haven’t always had answers to how we should mitigate the problems these power structures invite. Even so, communication as transmission remains the core assumption upon which our understanding of science communication rests.

We’ve also recognized that in order to effectively transmit information, we need to make the information matter. We might use narrative or storytelling to convey information; we might find ways to make information beautiful or personal. This, I argue, is where we’ve gone wrong. By thinking we are using stories or artwork to aid in our transmission, we reduce important aspects of the human experience to tactics, embracing their use while rejecting their value. For example, using a story as a way to get people to listen to the information you wish to present might seem effective, but at the end of the day, it is the story, not the information, that is meaningful to the listener. The information is a part of what makes the story compelling, not the other way around. When values, emotions, and experiences are tools for delivering information, science communication becomes PR. If, instead, we aim for meaning, then information becomes one of many tools we use to facilitate experiences which people find meaningful. Thus, I propose the experience model.

The experience model is built, in large part, on John Dewey’s foundational ideas about experience. Dewey was a lauded philosopher at the forefront of the pragmatist movement. He wrote about, among other things, communication, education, democracy, nature, and art. His thoughts on experience are woven into his works on many of these topics, but are explored most thoroughly in Art as Experience (1934) and Experience and Education (1938). For Dewey, there are two kinds of experience. The first, which I’ll call lived experience, is the constant and cumulative state in which we move through the world. We are always experiencing the world, and this forms the context for each new experience. The second, which Dewey distinguishes as an experience, or an aesthetic experience[2] is its own event. It has a sense of flow from one thing to the next, a sense of unity, and a feeling of satisfaction or conclusion.

Each individual experience becomes part of lived experience, but it also stands out, calls attention to itself, and invites its own consideration, interpretation, and reflection. During an experience, we step back from our normal state of experiencing the world to examine what the moment means, then we take that examination and add it to our cumulative experience. An experience need not be positive or negative; it may be of great significance or not. Eating a meal might be an experience, as might an argument in class, listening to a song, or even receiving a postcard from a friend. Because an experience involves meaning-making—reflection, contextualization, and interpretation—it begins with the assumption that no matter the event, the person having the experience is an active participant: either they engage in meaning-making or not, and when they engage, they do so within a particular context. Lived experience shapes the experience, and the experience is incorporated into lived experience. Each experience becomes part of us.

It is possible to be engaged in this way without ever uttering a word just as much as it is possible engage as an active participant in the event. This model, then, is not particularly invested in choosing between dialogue and dissemination. This distinction has become a litmus test for “good” science communication; however, it has proven a poor predictor of whether members of the public are informed, engaged, or empowered. This is because individuals have agency either way. That agency can be frustrating for communicators when audiences interpret meanings in ways they neither intend nor condone, and it can be frustrating when members of the public participate in good faith, having been promised their input will be valued, only to find there is no mechanism for implementing “upstream” communication.

Instead of focusing on this dialogue/deficit binary, the experience model frees researchers to consider varied aspects of communication like context, affect, interpretation, and reflection, not as secondary characteristics of the act of communication, but as significant aspects of the experience of communication. As the visual version of this argument (below) shows, information is just one of many factors that contribute to an experience, alongside mood, history, relationships, space and place, and a multitude of tangible and ineffable qualities.

Because the focus of the experience model shifts away from transmission, it frees practitioners from the deficit/dialogue binary. They can choose from a wide range of forms, media, and modes. Experiences can be ritual, performative, informative, narrative, material, or any combination of these. A lecture might provoke an experience just as easily as a discussion, depending on the event and on the participant or audience member. A museum exhibit might provide the opportunity for an experience, as might a citizen science research project or a deliberative event in which members of the public participate in discussions about science or technology policy. This model is open to new and experimental modes of science communication, because it does not prescribe particular ways of interacting, it suggests ways of understanding any kind of interaction, no matter how familiar or unfamiliar to the field.

Designing science communication for experience means focusing on the wholeness of an event; building continuity and flow. It means developing satisfying conclusions to the event. Finally, it means deciding what information and knowledge help to create an event that invites an experience. This shifts the defining questions of a communication endeavor from “what do they need to know and understand?” to “What would be meaningful? What might inspire participants to reflect on this moment within the context of their lived experience?”

And, this is the book, in a blog-post-sized nutshell. I plan to continue use this space to do some of the formative work of building out the ideas I’ve posted here. So, look for posts ranging from how I think about experience and power; shared, communal, and personal experiences; designing for experience; and evaluating with the experience model.

There’s also a visual version.

A sketch of the ideas presented in the book

The image above is a quick, visual representation of the experience model. Inspired by the Sketches of Science project, I asked graduate students in a science communication seminar to draw their research as a way to get them to distill their ideas and visually represent them. On a whim, I decided I would try to draw my own research as well. I’ve grown quite fond of this sketch, and I find myself using it often when I try to describe my model to people. The drawing indicates that any event is a combination of factors, including information, relationships, context, and many more. The experience is the point at which we interact with all of these aspects of the event, interpret them and thus make them meaningful. They then become part of the sea of lived experience in which they occur.

Footnotes

[1] The primary meaning is derived from deliberative processes to find consensus around policy issues, but engagement is also a way to describe interactive informal science learning, a way to describe formal education, and a way to talk about public participation in scientific research. See http://informalscience.org/news-views/public-engagement.

[2] “An experience” and an “aesthetic experience” are not precisely the same thing to Dewey, but their use is interchangeable for the purposes of this post.

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