A selection of science comics

The problem with science comics: uncritical images and ideology of research

Academics are increasingly using comic books to teach and communicate science, even as strong, unbiased evidence of the effectiveness of doing so is missing.

A recent review found that empirical research on the effectiveness of comics in science communication remains scarce and recommends more studies.

The underlying assumption in most of such studies is that research only needs to find out how best to impart scientific knowledge to readers though comics.

What they often ignore or skim over is the actual framing and ideology of science that is being communicated: the potential for uncritical promotion of science, even scientism, as well as clichés and established top-down narratives to be replicated through comics.

A key problem for science comics may be that they are often written by scientists who are keen to promote their work, and therefore might lack objectivity.

Farinella’s review found that the creation and study of science comics has been driven by a few scientists, artists and educators, who often use the same comics in their own practice of communication/education. The review also found that the quality of those studies is variable and that the analysis of the results may lack objectivity.

Such studies often uncritically embrace the use of comics as an exciting way of communicating science. Farinella’s review, for example, strongly suggests that comics have great potential for engaging wide and diverse audiences with science and simply recommends more research into figuring out what strategies will work best in communicating science to the masses.

These studies assume a priori that all science is great and worthy of being promoted as widely as possible via comics, potentially taking us back to the non-critical downstream model of science communication. They rarely, if ever, actually address critically the content of these comics or science itself.

Also, they assume that the producers of science should disseminate their findings and messages the way they want, disregarding inherent subjectivity/agenda/biases etc. And, they assume that sugarcoating science content in this unusual and fun medium may succeed where more traditional ways of science communication fail.

In fact, much of the field of study into science comics since my major review in 2009 has been about evaluating their success in conveying scientific facts and concepts: devising the most effective strategy to use comics as just one more way to fill the public’s ‘empty vessel’ with scientific content, therefore potentially making comics just another strand of the deficit model of science communication.

Science comics

Comic books are often being created, used and studied by the same people who produce the science they then want to communicate, often neglecting any independent assessment of what is being communicated and how.

This means that as science communication academics are rushing to ‘prove’ that science comics are effective, and figure out how to make them even more effective, while forgetting to address a whole host of questions surrounding their use in science communication.

For example: what image of science do these comics portray and transmit? Who decides what image of science goes into such comics or how they are framed? How do these comics represent science and scientists, and how might this affect readers, aside from the reported excitement of children around using comics in science classes?

There is a danger that the use of comics in science communication could end up backfiring, promoting clichés or becoming a part of a deficit model rather than a more progressive means of engagement with the public.

My own study of science comics found that comics present ambivalent images of science, with words and images often sending out conflicting meanings: for example, science is portrayed as both enchanting and disenchanting. Instead of presenting a fixed view of science, educational science comics are an arena where the public meaning of science is actively being worked out.

Whereas scientists are often portrayed as people in lab coats and glasses, using clichéd tools of technology and knowledge, they are also often portrayed by diverse characters, hence maintaining some stereotypes whilst dispelling others.

Scientists and comic book creators themselves are actively deciding what information and framing of science are included, without necessarily thinking through or challenging their assumptions or aiming to present an objective, balanced view of science.

In summary, the field of study of science comics largely comprises scientists and educators themselves both producing comic books and studying their impacts, without the necessary distance of a critical, disengaged observer.

References:

Farinella, M. (2018). The potential of comics in science communication. JCOM 17

Tatalovic, M. (2009), Science comics as tools for science education and communication: a brief, exploratory study. JCOM

Tatalovic, M. (2009), Communication of Science and Representation of Science and Scientists in Science Comics, Imperial College MSC dissertation. 

Mićo Tatalović

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