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RL #005: Science Fiction, Ficta, Science-in-Fiction: Does Fictionalization Benefit Science Communication?

Can fictionalization help communicate science? To abbreviate the answer we provide here: Yes, fictionalization can help science communicate its content and results to society. However, using fiction to do so in a meaningful way is not straightforward.

Fictionalization actually has a firm place in science: the example. The Allegory of the Cave, Schrödinger’s cat, Newton’s apple – they’re all fictionalizations of scientific thinking. Examples help to understand – by making abstract things concrete and theoretical things practical. A well-chosen example that breaks down a complex scientific theory helps increase understanding. And it confirms the reader’s understanding of the text. Or not. In any case, examples help to make science understandable. And thus they serve science communication.

Why do science communication again? David M. Eagleman, a neuroscientist, compiled the reasons to do science communication in a manifesto years ago. Six reasons Eagleman identifies. Entertaining the public through exciting, science-related fiction is not one of them. And yet fiction can help get a broad audience excited about science.

Antje Boetius, a marine biologist, is convinced of this. In January, in the often very listenable (German-language) podcast “Das Interview” by Philip Banse, a Berlin based journalist, she explained the importance that fictional entertainment literature can have for communicating science. In concrete terms, she made this clear for her field of expertise, the gas hydrates of the deep sea, using the example of the 2004 global bestseller “The Swarm” by German author Frank Schätzing: “I don’t even know if there has ever been a second bestseller that has familiarized people with the principles of the ocean and gas hydrates in such a way. Of course, there was a lot of action and novelistic stuff in it. But Frank Schätzing, whom I know well, put an incredible amount of work into research and tied together many little stories that were true, that is, ocean processes. In the process, of course, some untruths emerged, for example, that there are intelligent, slimy, blue-glowing single-celled creatures that rule the world and can get whales to mow people down. But nonetheless, many individual observations are genuine. What the novel generated was a broad understanding of gas hydrates in the ocean. In fact, that really led to people being saved from the tsunami wave back in Southeast Asia because they had read the novel and knew what it looked like when a tsunami came. That’s just terrific. As a scientist, I would never look down on fictional literature or films; on the contrary, we scientists often find it really difficult to generate broad knowledge. An adventure novel like this – if it makes an effort and assembles the facts well – can generate that.” [Translated from German by the author.]

Science Fiction

For those who would like to approach the question of the relationship between society, science and fiction in a more fundamental way, we recommend a text by Jan Arendt Fuhse, which deals with science fiction as critical theory. [German]

Ficta

In 2006, Søren Brier, a Danish biologist, sociocyberneticist, and cybersemiotician, extensively explored the use of fictionalization in popular science communication as a response to the changing demands of science communication in the mass media. He examined fictional literature with a scientific core using Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park as an example, and immediately coined his own term for popular literature that is about science: ficta. However, the term has not really caught on.

The crime series CSI, which is about the work of crime scene forensics, could also fall into this genre. Michael Saks and Nickolas Schweizer, both psychologists, studied the effects of the reception of the portrayal of forensic science in the series on the reception of the scientific subject of forensic science: They found that popular fiction about forensic science influences the public’s expectations of real forensic science. They named this relationship the CSI effect. 

Science-in-Fiction

Now, The Swarm, Jurassic Park, CSI, and many other works of classic science fiction are not formats of science communication that use entertaining fictionalization, but entertaining fictions that use scientific motifs. However, there are also fictions that quite specifically aim to communicate science. Carl Djerassi was a highly decorated chemist before he became a novelist. He describes his path from scientist to novelist and the difference between science fiction and science-in-fiction on scienceblog.at: “I decided to do something to bring the culture of science to a broader audience, with a genre that I soon named science-in-fiction. For me, a literary text only falls into this genre if the processes described in it are all plausible. These restrictions do not apply to science fiction. In saying this, I am in no way suggesting that scientific fantasy products are inappropriate in science fiction. But, if free invention is really to be used to bring unnoticed scientific facts to the attention of a scientifically unsophisticated public – a kind of smuggling that I consider intellectually and socially useful – then it is crucial to accurately reflect the underlying scientific facts.” [Translated from German by the author.]

The project “Fiction meets Science” by the Volkswagen Foundation, the University of Bremen, the Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg, and the University of Oldenburg also strives to deliberately create encounters between science and fiction. And it is also worth taking a look at the archives of the annual Berlin digital festival re:publica when it comes to exploring the boundaries between science and fiction, between different forms of perception. In 2017, Joachim Haupt and Wenzel Mehnert from the University of Fine Arts Berlin spoke about Business Science – Fictionalized. The lecture can be seen on Youtube.

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RL #004: More clarity in matters of truth – a journey of thought through the labyrinth of facts, knowledge, opinions, fake and bullshit.

Truth does not have the best reputation at the moment. Is there any truth in science at all? How true can evidence-based policy be? And what is truth anyway? 

Behind this Reading List lies my own longing for truth in science AND politics. As a scientist, communication expert and filmmaker, I take you along on my own quest.  

I wish you inspiring reading,
Ina Ivanceanu, CEO Oikoplus

Tempting as it is, this begins neither with Corona nor with Trump, but with one of the invariably good anthologies published by the German Federal Agency for Civic Education. The clever little volume is simply titled “Truth” (2017) – seven texts on the connections between experience, reality, knowledge and credibility. Sociologist Peter Weingart writes about a consensus in science: namely that “truth” in the sense of scientifically proven facts is also a matter of social “constructions”. Knowledge production always remains an incomplete process that lives from contradiction, interaction, discourse, negotiation and consensus building. So it is all a question of interpretation? Are facts arbitrarily changeable, relative and therefore not binding or relevant to action? Not at all. Using the discussion about the human contribution to climate change as an example, the author shows that opinions cannot be played off against research results – they find their limit at the latter. 
 
Back in time and yet highly topical: the thoughts of the political theorist and publicist Hannah Arendt on the impotence and power of truth. In her essays “The Lie in Politics” and “Politics and Truth” (first published in German in 1969), she stated that what is true cannot be determined by politics, which tends to be “at war” with truth. Conversely, Arendt defended politics, whose practice gave people the only opportunity to “change the world.” A current paperback edition is available from Piper Verlag, and there is an exciting treatment of it by Judith Zinsmaier on the philosophy blog “praefaktisch.de“. 

How far can science determine political decision-making in a state of emergency like the pandemic? In his May 2020 article “Lessons from an unfolding emergency”, Czech author Jiří Přibáň asks: What happens when the boundaries between public opinion – which is stuck in complete uncertainty, and evidence-based knowledge – which is supposed to please point the right way, become blurred? While scientific knowledge is never definitive, a political decision is irreversible and can have unforeseeable consequences. The calm voice of science, says Přibáň, paradoxically has to appear in the pathos of political conviction when it comes to convincing the public of the sense of certain measures. 

The online portal Eurozine, which published Přibáň’s text, is currently one of the most exciting media projects: A network of over ninety European “cultural journals” from Portugal to Russia, from Sweden to Greece, which curates and translates the best articles of all media partners in thematic focuses. Here, for example, is the link to the focus “Information: A public good” with 23 articles on it. A stimulating and high-quality collection. 
 
Science and politics often seem to merge in the pandemic. Sections of the population see this amalgam as the figure of an elite that wants to exploit the immaturity of the citizen. But what distinguishes science and politics? Mitja Sienknecht and Antje Vetterlein from the Social Science Research Center Berlin refer to Niklas Luhmann in their article “Scientific Truth and Political Responsibility”: Politics make collectively binding decisions and assume political responsibility. Science gains knowledge and strives – ever further – for truth. In the political system, communication is structured along the distinction between power/powerlessness or government/opposition. In contrast, the central code in the science system is truth/untruth, which normally does not play a dominant role in politics, here Luhmann agrees with Arendt. He sees politics and science as two independent systems that enter into exchange – for example in the form of scientific advice on the basis of which political decisions are made. The situation of the pandemic complicates this connection, the authors write: “While politics is now more urgently than ever dependent on the expertise of science (…), science is far from being able to present conclusive data, as the controversial different results of studies on the Corona infection rate of children show.” In science, the revision of a position is precisely not an expression of weakness, but its everyday business. But what is important in times of a pandemic? Political responsibility means not hiding behind science, but rather facing up to these uncomfortable questions – in other words: making politics.

How should politics NOT be made in the sense of truth? Here are two text gems: 

1. The legendary booklet “Bullshit” (Suhrkamp 2014 in German) by the emeritus Oxford professor Harry G. Frankfurt: an angry and cool philosophical bestseller, also in the USA. The analytical philosopher elevates the expletive to a weighty epistemological technical term: “bullshitting” as highly dangerous talk in which the speaker does not care whether his statements are true. An indispensable foundational work in applied stupidity research.

2. The New York Times meticulously analysed the 77 days of Donald Trump’s “Election Lie” at the end of January and revealed how much planning and strategy was behind it: Eye-opening. 

This little reading tour ends with an artistic recommendation, namely for the online programme “True Fake””: a seies of films that explore the relationship between truth and fiction, art and science, and question the naive notion of objective truth. A programme from the equally renowned and exciting artistic platform E-Flux, accompanied by its own e-journal. The films can be seen from 9.2 to 20.4 this year, including the new project by my multi-award-winning film friend Manu Luksch: ALGO-RHYTHM, a hip-hop musical against automated propaganda, featuring Gunman Xuman, Lady Zee, OMG. Don’t miss!

From our projects – at a glance 

In the ArcheoDanube project, in which Oikoplus is involved together with the Sustainication e.V. association, the basic study on cultural heritage and cultural tourism has now been completed. We are currently working on a guide for the design of local archaeological parks. News can be found here

In the SYNCITY project, there are new Cureghem Tales, with a special recommendation for the cold weather in February: Madame Zouma and her ginger juice. And we are in the final spurt for the texts of the Urban Innovation Toolbox: Hands-on ideas and inspiration for participatory and sustainable urban regeneration, available from May. 
 
And the Horizon 2020 project EnergyMEASURES focusses on simple and low-cost strategies to help households that experience energy poverty. Unfortunately, the pandemic is currently making it difficult to work directly with affected households as planned. News can be found at energymeasures.eu.

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RL #003: Hear and being heard, exchange ideas and have a say: Digital participation made easy

Even before Covid-19 the world we live in was a connected and condensed one. Complex and diverse as it was, it had already put the heart of our community, namely democracy, to the test. To what extent democracy has been affected in and outside of Europe can be read in the yearly reported Democracy Index of the British Economist Intelligence Unit. But now that the pandemic is firmly in control of most states and containment measures have been imposed, the assumption that further deterioration will occur is not far-fetched. In this Reading List we share exciting contributions, articles and projects with you that ask how we can participate in social issues despite contact bans and physical distancing, and which methods of e-participation help us to maintain a dialogue on equal footage.

The Green Paper of the Austrian Federal Ministry for Art, Culture, Public Service and Sport – a well-founded guide for participation in the digital age – offers an introduction that is well worth reading, including exciting how-tos about e-participation. The authors emphasise the importance of participation and transparency for a living democracy and conceive digital participation and communication formats as a contemporary solution approach. They argue that the use of information and communication technologies makes it possible to design participation processes more easily and to remove barriers to participation. Some target groups can better be reached and integrated through digital participation formats as opposed to of analog and presence-oriented methods: who does not know the monologue of those who like to hear themselves talking and the silent ones among these who do not dare to express their opinion. Here, e-participation also provides a remedy on a discursive level.

The final report on the project “Open statecraft – better politics through open government”? provides information on the opportunities and challenges of such initiatives. In the Co:llaboratory – a multi-stakeholder think tank and policy laboratory – initiated by Google, experts from civil society, science and corporate sector are devoting themselves to the question of how concepts of open statecraft can be integrated into political culture using Germany as an example. In the chapter ‘eParticipation: Get involved! ’You will find numerous recommendations for e-participation projects – starting with the conception through to implementation. And for those who want to know exactly: the best practice collection including analyses and success factors!

Apart from all the potential (and risks) associated with digital participation formats, we would like to show you very specific and practical tools on how you can bring e-participation into your everyday (work) life. Involve, a UK-based, non-profit organization, for example, offers introductions to numerous synchronous and asynchronous digital tools and participation processes on their website: crowd mapping, interactive whiteboards, interactive Q & A’s, etc.

An almost equally comprehensive introduction to the universe of e-participation is offered by the small 1×1 of digital participation by Zebralog. However, the focus is on the additional competencies that e-participation demands from its organisers. The participation pioneers from Germany have collected a whole range of methods, tools and ideas on their website so that you can design your video conferences more interactively. But they also state that no master has fallen from heaven. The rule is: practice, practice, practice! Furthermore, a new tool case for digital participation is also offered by nonconform – the office for architecture and participatory spatial development inside and outside of Austria.The new platform nonconform live transfers sophisticated participation processes into the virtual space and guarantees a creative as well as productive atmosphere.

The art project #HotPhones by Nadja Buttendorf through the eyes (or better, the keyboard) by Magdalena Götz from the magazine Kunst Medien Bildung represents a creative way of how e-participation can be further spun out. The artist focuses on digital media technologies and forms of newly enabled (or prevented) participation; the portraitist, for her part, examines possible consequences and conclusions of the discourse about post-digitality for the concept of participation. Exciting and amusing at the same time, but we won’t reveal more. Have a look yourself!

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RL #002: Publish or Perish! Is Communicating Scientific Findings in Journals Still the Right Strategy?

Just before the end of the year the publishing rush is back. While large parts of the western world oscillate between a consumer frenzy and a production stop lasting several weeks, thousands of young academics start writing, revising or editing an article. What counts is turning research into an argument, the argument into a script and the script into an article. Or two! The pressure to publish has put many scientists has increased. A study cited in the Katapult magazine and a personal experience published in the Spektrum magazine show how this happens (both texts in German).

Those affected voice their annoyance and displeasure. One of the more recent examples comes from David A. M. Peterson. In his revenge (unfortunately hidden behind a paywall) against common publishing practices, he titles: “Dear Reviewer 2: Go F’ Yourself“. Black humour from the researchers’ WhatsApp group. However, the discontent is also accompanied by creative ideas. Nicola von Lutterotti claims in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that radical open publication would create transparency and improve the quality of the work, as a critical audience could ask questions while research is still in progress. Another approach presented in the Austrian daily derStandard last July was to evaluate researchers on the basis of the Hong Kong Principles (in English) so that they could maintain their integrity. A promising approach?

No matter where one looks, it becomes clear that research should result in more than overflowing publication lists. But can researchers be expected to do the additional work of communicating to a broad audience? Where to begin? Whereas a study by the German Centre for Research on Higher Education and Science presented in the magazine Forschung und Lehre reveals that about 30% of working time at German universities is spent on research (and publication), 30% on teaching and 40% on supervision, third-party funding acquisition and participation in administrative and organisational work at the institute and in committees, communication agencies such as Oikoplus are developing formats that enable scientists to reach out to society with as little effort as possible. Don’t worry! Not all scientists have to be the “champion” with an independent community described by Beatrice Lugger for the National Institute for Science Communication in 2017. One thing is certain, however: the chances of being appointed to a professorship increase with the level of awareness associated with the person. Science communication thus needs to shift from communicating only the results to communicating processes that include the authors leading to the results. The choice of medium could, in future, be designed more freely.

From our projects
At this point we give a monthly insight into the work of Oikoplus.

The Archeodanube project, in which Oikoplus is involved together with the association Sustainication e.V., is concerned with strategies for sustainable archaeology tourism (“Archeotourism”) in the Danube region. Here you can find the current project newsletter

And in the SYNCITY project, we are working with a number of Belgian partners on participatory concepts for the development of the Cureghem district of Brussels. We report on the project in the Cureghem Tales

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RL #001 – The Hammer and the Dance, with Evidence, please!

2020 was the year of science communication, one might think. When has there ever been such intense public discussion about epidemiology and public health issues as in the year of the Sars-CoV-2 pandemic? The Coronavirus Update of the Norddeutscher Rundfunk NDR became the most listened to German podcast right from the start. Its main protagonist, the virologist Christian Drosten, explained in a recent interview on the occasion of being awarded the Klartext Special Prize for Science Communication how important he considers the communicative role of scientists. A conversation worth reading. 

Proper communication is not only important in the communication between research and society, but also within scientific communities. A study identified a gender gap several months ago. Male researchers communicate their research more forcefully than their female colleagues. This was reported in the Katapult magazine

The described problem of gender inequality in the communication of science is probably not the only communication problem science has. Otherwise, political decisions would have to be made much more often on the basis of evidence, wouldn’t they? But a simple causal chain between scientific evidence and political decision making is extremely rare. Sometimes it is even difficult to find even one correlation. However, especially in the year of the coronavirus pandemic, there is a call for political measures based on scientific evidence. When policy is scientifically based, this is particularly noticeable when it is openly discussed. For example, the famous concept “The Hammer and the Dance” for coronavirus containment. When did a scientifically based policy concept last become so famous so quickly? It’s worth taking a look at how it came about that political personnel in countries around the globe adopted the hammer and the dance strategy so quickly for their communication. Presumably this is also to some extent related to the catchy headline of Tomas Pueyo’s text. His text “The Hammer and the Dance”, which was read and shared by millions within a very short time in spring 2020, was originally supposed to be called “The Lockdown and the Release”, as he himself recently described on Twitter. There he also published the basic ideas of his famous text in bullet point form. An interesting and historical example of science communication that caused political impact, which also shows that successful science communication does not necessarily have to be done by scientists themselves.

For many topics, knowledge-based decision making does not seem to be the most politically obvious basis. No wonder. Science and politics do not follow the same logic. And it’s not as if science constantly produces incontestable truth. A text worth reading that looks at the difficulties of evidence-based politics appeared on the Rand Corporation blog in May. 

From our projects
At this point we give a monthly insight into the work of Oikoplus.

The Archeodanube project, in which Oikoplus is involved together with the association Sustainication e.V., is concerned with strategies for sustainable archaeology tourism (“Archeotourism”) in the Danube region. Here you can find the current project newsletter

And in the SYNCITY project, we are working with a number of Belgian partners on participatory concepts for the development of the Cureghem district of Brussels. We report on the project in the Cureghem Tales