Art can help bridge the gap between climate science and the public

A recent study conducted by Nan Li, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, suggests that integrating art with data visualizations can effectively engage non-expert audiences and bridge political divides when communicating climate change. Li’s research focuses on innovative visual representations of science and their impact on understanding and opinions about scientific issues.

In collaboration with other researchers, Li surveyed individuals across the political spectrum to evaluate their responses to a painting titled “Summer Heat, 2020” by Diane Burko. The artwork combines motifs of wildfires and melting glaciers with maps and a graph depicting global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The integration of data into the artistic piece aims to trigger self-reflection and prompt viewers to contemplate the implications of climate change.

The study involved showing participants four different presentations of the painting and its data: the original painting, a detailed graph, a simplified graph, and an edited painting with a detailed graph. Participants who saw the paintings reported stronger positive emotions such as happiness, awe, inspiration, and hope compared to those who viewed only the graphs. This finding highlights the power of art to evoke emotional responses and engage viewers on a deeper level.

Furthermore, when the researchers simulated Instagram posts featuring the artwork and accompanying captions with climate change facts, participants perceived the artwork post as equally credible as the data graphs post. This suggests that social media platforms can play a crucial role in reaching a wider audience and effectively communicating scientific information through art.

Interestingly, the study also found that when participants viewed the artwork in a social media format, the political divide regarding the relevance of climate change was reduced. Both liberals and conservatives were more likely to share the perception that climate change is relevant to them when they saw artistic representations of climate data rather than data alone. This indicates that art has the potential to bridge political barriers and foster a shared understanding of climate change.

However, the study acknowledges its limitations, as it focused on one painting in one style by one artist. To further explore the effectiveness of art in communicating scientific information, Li and her team plan to conduct additional studies involving different styles of art by artists from diverse backgrounds and survey participants from various countries. They also emphasize the importance of considering the audience’s interest in art and recognizing that different individuals may react differently to art both emotionally and cognitively.

Despite the challenges of communicating polarizing concepts like climate change, Li believes that art can serve as a powerful tool to bridge the gap between scientific data and the general public. By stimulating people’s imaginations and encouraging them to explore the meaning themselves, art has the potential to enhance understanding and engagement with complex scientific issues.

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison

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