The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

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Science and Comics — Together at Last

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Last week Scitech, the best damn science centre in Western Australia, asked the question:

Using comics to communicate medical information - a good approach for science topics too?

The fact that this is worth asking might just be an indicator of our potential for success in our bid to host the Square Kilometre Array — the largest radio astronomy project in the history of James Bond. Yes, it’s a long bow, but I’m drawing it and here’s how.

Let’s step back a week. The Scitech tweet was referring to a post about medicine and illness in comics over at the Wellcome Trust, in which Mun-Keat Looi makes a case for combining words and pictures to communicate medical issues to patients and the general public.

The advantage of a comic is that not only will people read and retain the information better, but that it doesn’t need to be pure information. Instead of just having a brochure containing the facts about some invasive therapy which just happens to mention that, oh yeah, it’s a bit rough on everyone, even the non-patients, and you might all want to see a counsellor about all of this… you could have a poignant and accessable comic strip that says it all much better in about a thousandth of the space.

But the defensive subtext of the original article makes it slightly ironic. While it promotes the idea that comics can communicate serious issues, it lapses into statements like:

But graphic stories are hugely popular among all age groups and are today seen as a legitimate form of literature.

If it were seen as a legitimate form of literature, that sentence would be completely superfluous. By including it, the question of using comics for communication subtly shifts from “well, why aren’t we,” to “should we, should we really?”

Because the question should really only be: who is not already doing this, and why not? Instead of pontificating about the merits of using a medium which is not actually alternative any more, the people in charge of communicating this information should be finding people with the necessary talent so they can just get it done.

Obstacles remain in challenging people’s preconceptions and biases against comics – presenting comic-form information might seem flippant to some.

The only obstacle is that it’s not happening enough: people are reluctant to use comics to communicate serious messages because they think comics are less than serious, and they think that because no-one uses comics to communicate serious messages. That’s almost too small an argument to even be circular!

My point is that this defensiveness is unecessary in the context of discussing the merits of a new approach, and even a little bit harmful. It elevates and even validates weak arguments and undermines an otherwise constructive message. Detractors can have their own stage and be laughed off it in their own time.

So Scitech now ask whether we (ie. they) should be doing this for science.

Um… You mean like this?

Or this? Or this?

Or this entire book?

Those are not just examples of nerd humour in cartoon form — they each communicate important but subtle ideas about science, politics, ethics, belief and media in the most compact format possible. I could print them out and show them to non-scientists and they would get them, and laugh at them, and buy the shirt.

So what has this got to do with the Square Kilometre Array? Well, Australia-plus-New-Zealand and South Africa are competing to be the host to this project. It’s huge, and both countries need to prove that they’re up to the job. Projects are already being undertaken to showcase the science and engineering capabilities of the respective countries: Australia is constructing the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (aka. ASKAP), and South Africa, the Karoo Array Telescope (dubbed MeerKAT).

Such large endeavours require not just infrastructure, planning, management and meetings, but public sentiment to be fully on board. Public relations and science communication for the SKA and its precursor projects should be first class — not just in content or accuracy, but in execution.

Comparing efforts in public relations is quite a subjective process, often involving factors that no two people will ever agree on. Not in this case, though. Look at the MeerKAT website — it has a slick and professional aesthetic, and beyond that there is information pitched right across the spectrum of their potential audience. It’s integrated into the SKA South Africa website, emphasising the fact that it’s an important part of the bid.

Now, look at the ASKAP site. It’s… well… it’s certainly there, isn’t it. And hey! It has pictures of factory acceptance testing! Wooooo.

Meanwhile, South Africa made a comic. A good comic. Not just a bunch of poorly drawn stick figures with speech bubbles containing textbook phrases; they’ve actually used the media to create simple visual metaphors that plain text could only replace in paragraphs. I read it, and I thought it was great. It’s pitched at school-aged children, but works for pretty much anyone.

Mission MeerKAT
I'm serious here, people. It's good.
© Jive Media, I'm claiming fair use.

I’ll say that again: it works for anyone. Because comics aren’t some infantile substitute for the high-brow world of text-only media. They’re not going to tarnish your reputation of serious world-class science. They’re going to foster it. It will only make more people want to get on board.

So where’s our comic, ANZSKA?

Although… There is one factor that makes me think that, actually, dodging the comic idea might just be okay. See, South Africa named their project Meerkat. Awwww, meerkats! Who doesn’t love meerkats?

Otters: The pirates to meerkats' ninja.
Otters, that's who.
© Kevin MacLeod, CC-A-2.5.

But Australia, well… we named it ASKAP. Say it out loud: ASKAP. ASkap. AS. KAP.

Okay, okay… so that’s a little immature. But then, so are people who read comics.

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