The problem of the scientific comic: uncritical images and the ideology of research

Academics are increasingly using comics to teach and communicate science, although hard and unbiased evidence of the effectiveness of doing so is lacking.

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

The underlying assumption in most of these studies is that research only needs to figure out the best way to impart scientific knowledge to readers through comics.

What they often overlook or ignore is the actual framing and ideology of science being communicated: the potential for uncritical promotion of science, even scientism, as well as stereotypes and established top-down narratives which are reproduced through comics.

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

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

These studies often uncritically embrace the use of comics as an exciting way to communicate science. Farinella’s review, for example, strongly suggests that comics have great potential to engage a wide and diverse audience with science and simply recommends more research to find out what strategies will work best to communicate science to the masses.

These studies assume first that all science is great and deserves to be promoted as widely as possible through comics, which may lead us back to the non-critical science communication model. They rarely, if ever, critically address the content of these comics or the science itself.

Furthermore, they assume that producers of science should disseminate their findings and messages in any way they wish, regardless of inherent subjectivity/agenda/bias, etc. And they assume that sugary science content in this unusual and fun medium can succeed where more traditional forms of science communication fail.

Indeed, much of the science comic field since my main review in 2009 has focused on evaluating its success in conveying scientific facts and concepts: devising the most effective strategy for using the comics as one more way to fill the “void” of the public. vas” with scientific content, therefore potentially turning comics into another part of the deficit model of scientific communication.

Science comics

Comics are often being created, used and studied by the very 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 rush to “prove” science comics are effective and figure out how to make them even more effective, they forget to address a whole host of questions on its use in scientific communication.

For example: what image of science do these comics portray and convey? Who decides what image of science these comics include or how it is framed? How do these comics represent science and scientists, and how might that affect readers, other than the enthusiasm of kids who use comics in science classes?

There is a danger that the use of comics in scientific communication ends up counterproductive, promoting clichés or becoming part of a deficit model instead of 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 conflicting meanings: for example, science is presented as both enchanting and disenchanting. Rather than presenting a fixed view of science, educational science comics are a space where the public meaning of science is actively being worked out.

While scientists are often portrayed as people in lab coats and goggles, using clichéd tools of technology and knowledge, they are also often portrayed by diverse characters, thus maintaining some stereotypes while dispelling others.

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

In short, the field of science comics largely comprises the scientists and educators themselves who produce comics and study their impacts, without the necessary distance of a critical, detached observer.

References:

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

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

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

Miko Tatalovic
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