The art of synergy
How embracing creativity could save science in the age of “alternative facts”
Is this science or art?*
It’s an easy question to answer if we presume that the two sit at opposite ends of a spectrum. Science is about established facts, hard-won evidence, provable results. Art is construed, imagined, finding its form as it develops. The cognitive abilities of artists and scientists follow very different pathways.
Yet if you tap ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ into an image search you’ll see that good science has long been complementary to good art – and vice-versa. Da Vinci used art to explain scientific principles and ideas in ways that helped the reader instantly grasp their form and purpose. His anatomical drawings were astonishingly detailed and far, far ahead of their time in terms of educational value.
Sadly, in our own time, adherence to facts and accurate observance of the natural world are not always so highly regarded. In an age of information on-demand the acceptance of scientific reality should be spreading. But, instead, lazy perceptions, myths and conspiracy theories continue to firm their foothold like a Japanese Knotweed defying all attempts to be eradicated. Infinite mis-information is a river in flood and the dam is leaking.
There are complex and varied reasons why individuals accept mis-truths without question and willingly spread them further. Scientists are often mistrusted as being hand-in-glove with an unaccountable political elite. A single truth about that controversial vaccine is drowned in a flood of tweets and posts and sensational headlines. Once a fact becomes a ‘controversial’ fact, it never goes back. The science really needs reading to be sure, but who’s got the time for that?
It’s naïve to expect people to do the research and analyse the data before publishing an opinion. With that in mind, scientists must make better use of art to provide instant hits of knowledge and reassurance to a busy social-media savvy generation with a short attention span. We can’t tweet a thousand words but a well-designed graphic can go around the world in the time it takes to put your pants on.
Science must ‘play to the gallery’ and use social media in the way a new audience demands it. This approach can offer real benefits. Words and data can bore, but an image glanced even for a second demands reflection from its viewer. It sparks the natural curiosity of all human-beings to ask “what is it?” The more we ask that question, the better the chances of real science gaining momentum against nonsense.
Very few people saw Da Vinci’s work in the 15th century and his ideas made very little impact during his lifetime. In today’s pop culture world with the stresses on its environment, society and resources, we cannot afford for science to be similarly disregarded. Promoting art and science as two sides of the same coin has long been an effective way of scientific communication and we now have the perfect environment for it to readily gain value.
“Visual art has always played a vital role in fostering critical thinking in society. It has great power to communicate complex and nuanced ideas. This is why one of the first things totalitarian regimes do is to suppress open artistic expression and to heavily sensor artistic production.” – Sean Caulfield, Artist
*It’s both – ‘Photo 51’: Rosalind Franklin produced the first X-ray diffraction image of DNA IN 1952. From this image James Watson and Francis Crick were able to work out its structure.