When Doughnuts Become Spaceships: Science Communication Across Media

©Maki Naro

Yesterday I gave a talk at Rockefeller University's Summer Science Research Program, where high school students get a chance to meet leading scientific researchers and at least one bumbling cartoonist.

Rather than just talk the whole time, I decided to lead with a drawing game that, I feel, perfectly visualizes the challenges of taking science and making it into comics. If you watched Penny Arcade's Strip Search, you may be familiar with it, and know it is a game I adore. It plays pretty much like telephone, except with a drawing step in between. The first person writes down a sentence, and then the next person has to draw a picture of that sentence. Then it all falls apart. Without knowing the original sentence, the next person has to write a description of the drawing, and then pass it on to have that new sentence illustrated. Things get out of hand pretty quickly from there. If you're still confused, go ahead and watch a game in action here.

This is pretty much how science communication works for me. The first person is science. The second step (the drawing) is me, interpreting the science. The third is my audience. In the best cases the third person either understands the drawing, or just throws their hands in the air and walks away. What's worse is if they look at that drawing, get the wrong message from it, and then pass it on to the next person. This is usually what happens in bad science journalism, where people run with a bad article and then the rest of us have to spend decades telling people that we don't actually only use 10% of our brains. It's challenging because it's so easy to send the wrong message, or to give the wrong impression. I usually spend half the time just trying to make sure I'm getting it right.

Back to yesterday, where unlike real life, this is just a game, and it's actually better if people get it wrong. Let's look at some of the examples from yesterday. I'm not going to outline every step of each game, but here's the initial prompt of one group:

Off to a great start.

This is a great example because here we have a starting point that's vague and open to a lot of interpretation. Journalists aren't the only ones communicating poorly, sometimes we have to look back at the source of the chain reaction of misinterpretation. Let's see where we end up after a few passes...

Adorable. We're glad that grandpa and the monster were able to make amends and even form a budding romance. Wait, monster? Grandpa? Cupid? What happened? Somehow, the original information was changed enough to completely twist the message being passed. It doesn't stop there, either. If you think that's funny, let's fast forward to the end...

To me and my twisted sensibilities, this is a perfect game. To the fast-paced world of journalism, this is probably still the best-case scenario. Let's take a look at another one, shall we?

Shots fired.

Things got topical pretty quickly. This one is great because you can really see where things fell apart. The revolving door of the building has been mistaken for a goalie's net, and by the next step, the egg has disappeared entirely, mistaken for the ball being kicked into the goal. Funnily enough, the window somehow made it through the entire round without anybody asking, "Why is this window here, behind the goal? That's an accident waiting to happen."

There's a valuable lesson to be learned here. Science communication is tricky, and made more so by me introducing art, which is already subjective enough. As such, communicators have to be wary of including enough details that their message isn't misconstrued. Lest the end result be the complete opposite of what you intended.

I'd like to thank Jeanne Garbarino, who is Director of Science Outreach at Rockefeller for letting me come in and just play games with her class. Also thanks to the SSRP group for being great sports.