Science in time of Twitter

Can you communicate science in 140 characters? The question might shock researchers today but would not have scandalised ancient philosophers.

Socrates is renowned worldwide for his saying: ‘All I know is that I know nothing’ – 33 characters with spaces. Hegel expressed the founding principle of his metaphysics in 82 characters: ‘Was vernünftig ist, das ist wirklich; und was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig’ (What is reasonable is real; that which is real is reasonable).

I doubt that we could find a scientist at CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, so concise in describing the essence of reality.

Science seems lost in its complexity, unable to connect to people’s daily experience, and get any other feedback from citizens other than ‘NO’.

Why has science become so distant from society and so inaccessible to people?

A quick review of the recent cinematography shows science as one of the main perceived threats to society, siding with greedy corporations and cynical governments, and experimenting with viruses and robots at the expense of humanity.

Perhaps this is not true, but it does exemplify people’s anxieties about a world whose meaning they struggle to grasp, for which science adds another layer of uncertainty and complexity instead of removing them.

This is a good introduction for a workshop on narratives, ICT and science to engage society and inspire behavioural change – isn’t it?

Last week (13 – 14 March) twenty-five people, amongst whom were researchers, European officials, experts in ICT and multi-stakeholder engagement, convened in Brussels for the workshop ‘Narratives as a communication tool for scientists‘ organised by Euclid Network together with the European Commission and partners of the European research projects INSITE and GSS. We met to explore how narratives can reconnect science to society and how ICT can make the process interactive and collaborative.

The ambition was to harvest the expertise of such a diverse group and distil recommendations for the future strategy of the European Commission in developing Global Systems Science and engaging stakeholders in all strands of society.

In quite a short time, and overcoming the disciplinary barriers, we realised that there is a large array of options at our disposal: films, online games, social media, gamification, apps, smart phones, simulations, data visualisation, data journalism, visual arts, and theater.

An effective strategy for multi-stakeholder engagement should contemplate the possibility of using all of them in relation to the needs of various target groups. Social groups respond differently to different media and techniques.

I personally retained some important lessons from the workshop.

Firstly, narratives exist as a medium and middle ground between science and society. This is the target to explore and where to lead experiments with all media and techniques.

Secondly, ‘everybody matters’ but we should target the new generation of researchers and experts that is emerging from a traditional divisions between sectors and disciplines. This is a generation defined not just by age but by mind-set. They see science, art, design, journalism etc. as all interconnected, with each other and society as a whole, and they see themselves as intermediaries and interpreters.

Thirdly, agency is the key for a strategy to get people engaged in science. The future is in a science that empowers people instead of making them feel passive and ignorant recipients.

Finally, the starting point has to be the concrete and daily experience of people, such as drinking a cup of coffee. When you can explain the global economy through those daily habits you conquer the imagination of people and can transform their behaviour.

Perhaps science can’t provide answers in 140 characters any more, but can raise good questions. If Twitter were turned into a social network for sharing questions on the mysteries of nature and humanity, wouldn’t it be empowering science for society?

We will resume the enquiry in the next leg of our journey: let’s meet at ASU, Phoenix on 14 April.

 

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