Focusing on Sparking Curiosity in SciComm Audiences May Be Killing It, Actually

Title: “Science Communication as Emotion Work: Negotiating Curiosity and Wonder at a Science Festival”

Author(s) and Year: Sarah R. Davies, 2019

Journal: Science as Culture (closed-access)

​TL;DR: Although it’s one of the staple “scientific emotions,” curiosity is an exhausting emotion to maintain – and our insistence on sparking curiosity in our scientific audiences may be burning them out.

Why I chose this paper: Good science communication isn’t flat and emotionless; it’s a conversation. But we tend to overlook how we make our audiences feel in favour of how we want them to feel. Having been burnt out by research talks I found uninteresting or I don’t entirely understand, I empathized with the audience in this article. I found it offered excellent insight in understanding how SciComm audiences actually connect with content, both emotionally and intellectually.

Curiosity. Wonder. Awe. Excitement. They’re familiar emotions for those of us who’ve chosen to pursue a career in science – everyone has that one experience that made them wonder more about the world. They’re such ubiquitous emotions, in fact, that public science communication efforts embrace them wholeheartedly. Science museums boast taglines like “Awe-inspiring exhibits” and “Dare to dream;” and it seems common knowledge at this point that encouraging more students to enter and remain in STEM programs must emphasize getting them excited about science.

But how effective are science communicators in eliciting these emotions in their audiences? What do people actually feel when engaging with science?

These are the questions Dr. Sarah R. Davies poses in her 2019 article, “Science Communication as Emotion Work: Negotiating Curiosity and Wonder at a Science Festival.” In this study, Dr. Davies examines the emotional framework behind Science in the City, a six-day festival that ran in Copenhagen in 2014. She collected data in three ways: interviews with the organizers to understand their emotional aims for attendees; author’s field notes from exhibit planning and attending the festival; and responses to a post-event survey that asked attendees where they spent their time and what emotions were elicited by the event activities.

The Details

The organizers structured Science in the City to elicit the usual science emotions: curiosity, wonder, excitement, and empowerment. In fact, they even planned the festival site around these emotional themes rather than by the scientific content, with exhibition halls named verbs like “Inspire,” “Discover,” and “Wonder.” Although the organizers created vastly different exhibits, they were united in their belief that, by inspiring these emotions, they could drive active engagement with the content and foster a lasting impact on their audience beyond the event.

Attendees’ emotional responses were decidedly more mixed. Most activities were described as “interesting” – which, given no additional context, only imparted vague positive feelings. The strong positive descriptors used were words like “fun” and “entertaining” – and were used to describe the way content was presented.

Similarly, negative emotions were tied to presentation: visitors “didn’t understand the point” of some exhibits or were confused by what they were supposed to actually take away from the experience. Some felt “out of place” because they felt it was an activity for kids, or because there were too few or too many people in the room. These emotional responses were tied to the content aesthetics and delivery, not the content itself.

These findings indicate a significant disconnect between the emotional attitudes that science communicators expect of their audiences, and what their audiences actually feel. In trying to create a specific emotional response to content, science communicators may be overlooking how people actually engage with it.

The Impact

Engaging in science is laborious. It takes cognitive effort to tackle new and complex ideas, but science communicators also expect their audiences to show up curious, excited, and full of wonder – and these aren’t passive emotions by any means.

In expecting these attitudes, Dr. Davies argues that science communicators are placing unexpected emotional burdens on their audience, which may increase negative attitudes when the content is confusing. It’s hard to be excited about science you don’t fully understand, and no one can really be curious about everything. More importantly, Dr. Davies notes that the attendees didn’t want to engage with everything. They conserved their emotional and mental energy for the content that really sparked their interest, and avoided content that they felt might take too much effort to engage with. A viewer may not feel comfortable being an active, curious, excited participant, but may still be overall interested in science. As communicators, it’s important to meet our audience where they are – both in what they know, and in how they feel.

Dr. Davies notes that her questionnaire didn’t ask what brought attendees to the festival in the first place. It’s possible that the organizers succeeded in their aim of sparking curiosity just by getting people in the door. But her work poses critical points of reflection for the science communication community: we are requiring both mental and emotional labour from people who engage with our content. Rather than assuming that an audience will want to engage with SciComm by virtue of how exciting the science is, we need to make it worthwhile if we want them to actively engage, and present content in a way that makes them excited to engage with it. By remaining cognisant of our audience’s emotional state and the emotional labour we are asking of them, we can foster better connections among science, science communicators, and science consumers.

Edited by Tony Van Witsen and Niveen AbiGhannam

Cover image credit: Photo by chenspec from Pixabay