UW News

October 15, 2014

Science communication should consider cultural perspectives

News and Information

Is nature something we enjoy when we visit a national park, something we feel a need to “preserve,” or do we think of ourselves as being a part of nature? Are a bird’s nest and a house both part of nature?

The answers to such questions can reflect different cultural orientations and have an effect on how well science and scientific concepts are communicated, according to new research from Northwestern University and the University of Washington.

Two images from Native-American-authored children's books.

These images, examined by the researchers as part of their study, are from Native-American authored children’s books and reflect distance perspective and viewing angle variations.

“I think there are some trends and norms about science communication that at the least need to be reconsidered, especially around how truths are reported and expertise – or perhaps more accurately lack of expertise – is presumed,” said co-author Megan Bang, a UW assistant professor of educational psychology.

“A view of singular truth as the only possible way of understanding the world will inevitably reproduce particular forms of power and privilege, especially given the still largely homogeneous scientific world,” Bang said. “Perhaps science communication could also take up the voices of those not in formal expert positions.”

The new research, published in September in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, resulted from a collaboration among the two universities, the American Indian Center of Chicago and the Menominee tribe of Wisconsin.

The authors say the challenge is to identify effective ways of communicating information to culturally diverse groups in a way that avoids cultural polarization.

“We suggest that trying to present science in a culturally neutral way is like trying to paint a picture without taking a perspective,” said lead author Douglas Medin, a Northwestern professor of psychology.

The research builds on their broader research on cultural differences in the understanding of and engagement with science.

“We argue that science communication – for example, words, photographs and illustrations – necessarily makes use of artifacts, both physical and conceptual, and these artifacts commonly reflect the cultural orientations and assumptions of their creators,” the authors write.

Native Americans, for example, traditionally see themselves as part of nature and tend to focus on ecological relationships, while European-Americans tend to see humans as apart from nature, the researchers found previously.

“We show that these cultural differences are also reflected in media, such as children’s picture books,” said Medin. “Books authored and illustrated by Native Americans are more likely to have illustrations of scenes that are close-up, and the text is more likely to mention the plants, trees and other geographic features and relationships that are present compared with popular children’s books not done by Native Americans.

“The European-American cultural assumption that humans are not part of ecosystems is readily apparent in illustrations,” he said.

A logo for a children's "I Spy an Ecosystem" study activity.

A logo for a children’s “I Spy an Ecosystem” study activity.

They searched Google images using the term “ecosystems,” and 98 percent of the images that turned up did not have humans present. A fair number of the remaining 2 percent had children examining the ecosystem by, for example, observing it through a magnifying glass and saying, “I spy an ecosystem.”

“These results suggest that formal and informal science communications are not culturally neutral but rather embody particular cultural assumptions that exclude people from nature,” Medin said.

“There are profound implications not only for perceiving the issue but studying it, forming policy, or forging adaption for our collective futures,” Bang said. She and the other researchers have developed a series of “urban ecology” programs at the American Indian Center of Chicago.

“In our work we have found that presenting multiple perspectives, both human and non-human, on phenomena and related consequences may help to support more complex ecological thinking.”

The work was supported by the National Science Foundation.


This story is adapted in part from a news release by Northwestern University.