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Saturday, June 15, 2024
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Science sit down: Nan Li explains how art helps us understand research

When it comes to science, sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words.

 Have you ever tried explaining something to a friend, family member or coworker who just doesn’t understand what you’re talking about? 

Well, you’re not alone. Even scientists struggle to explain their research to people who aren’t also experts in that field. 

Nan Li is an assistant professor and researcher with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication. She said scientists often think the best way to communicate their research is to explain concepts in thorough, unbiased ways. 

But that’s not always the case, according to Li. She said when scientists simply talk about knowledge, “people either don’t understand what’s going on, or, if they do understand, they’re very selective about what they listen to based on their personal values.” 

When certain information clashes with someone’s existing beliefs, they choose not to accept that information regardless of whether they understand it or not. 

Li refers to this as “value-driven information processing.” In a population of individuals with wide ranges of beliefs, this can make science communication very difficult. 

However, Li said there is a way to reach a diverse audience: visual communication. 

“Visuals are often seen as supplemental or decorative — secondary to the key information that [scientists] want others to learn,” says Li. “Based on my research, that’s not true. I think visuals usually play a much larger role than people think, in terms of helping people understand science.”

But visual communication isn’t limited to strictly informational depictions. Li said her research shows artistic depictions of science tell “a more holistic story about science.” Beautiful art pieces can pique interests in scientific topics and communicate across the diverse backgrounds, values, and beliefs of the general public. 

For example, climate change has relied heavily on visual communication. 

“There’s a lot of research on the visual representations surrounding climate change, and you definitely see a change in [those representations] over time,” Li said. 

She explained pictures of polar bears and melting glaciers were popular when people first started discussing climate change, but the effectiveness of those images has become watered down over time. People struggled to see how climate change impacted them thousands of miles from the nearest polar bear. 

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Now, Li is researching the effectiveness of more artistic representations depicting climate change. These art pieces combine “traditional” images like melting glaciers with maps, graphs and fine paintings. 

“Everything is blended in a very visually pleasing way,” Li said. “The purpose is to revamp the visual language of climate change.”

Li is also studying how visual communication affects engagement with COVID-19 information, specifically when information is presented artistically versus graphically. So far, her team has concluded that artistic depictions of the virus often prompt more emotional responses, which increases public engagement with the information. 

“The gist of that particular study is that the power of art can go beyond the confines of galleries and museums,” Li said. “Art has a broader reach than we ever imagined.” 

“We’re entering this ‘visual culture’ where everybody is getting information through memes, comics and videos,” Li said. “It’s the right time for science communicators to study how people are responding to these new forms of visual communication and how to reach the audiences that are using these technologies.”

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