How poetry can help bring science to a more diverse audience

When people think of science communication, they often imagine strategies for drawing a large audience to see the world’s research. But in fact, scientific communication exists across a broad spectrum, from the transfer of knowledge in one direction of the world to the public to the development of dialogue and participation in the other. In moving across this spectrum, science communication presents an opportunity for scientists to listen to other members of the community. It also enables non-scientists to use their knowledge, experience and live experience to develop diverse solutions.

Imagine if you were a scientist tasked with mitigating flood risks in your local community. In addition to collecting data (precipitation measurements, detailed ground maps, satellite images, etc.), I may also share the community itself. These people will have decades of experience, including awareness of specific areas that may be prone to flooding. We can collaborate and use this local knowledge and experience to make any solutions more effective. This would also give agency to the community, making them more likely to effectively support current and future flood defense measures.

Unfortunately, this type of dialogue is not always possible, often due to the perceived “hierarchy of intelligence”. These hierarchies occur when the non-scientific audience feels they are “non-experts”, or when their knowledge and experience are seen as less than scientific “experts”. This is especially likely to happen when relying on tacit knowledge, by which I mean those skills and abilities acquired through experience that are often difficult to describe in words. As I discussed in my recent book Scientific Communication Through Poetry, poetry is one way we can break down these barriers.

we write together

Collaborative poetry workshops between scholars and non-scholars help flatten these hierarchies. This approach is particularly effective when working with audiences that have previously been marginalized by science. I know this because of the workshops he runs. From discussing environmental change with refugees to exploring how religious communities are addressing the climate crisis, poetry offers a unique opportunity to listen, share, and reconnect.

Scholars can engage non-scientific communities in poetry that derives from and enhances their research.
iVector / shutterstock

Take this poem by a participant as we explore steps we might take to reduce our carbon footprint:

Plant a tree
Go to Barbados and plant
Palm tree
turn off the water
drinking wine
Take a bath with
another person
Take a bath with
Rihanna

The author of this poem wanted to explore the possibility that their individual actions could make a difference. Or if doing so is as likely as sharing a shower with a global superstar.

Reframing the flag

Poetry can also be a powerful tool at the other end of the science communication spectrum. Good publication can be vital, as it provides reliable information that can be used to challenge falsehoods. However, because scientific research is written primarily for a scientific audience, many non-scientists may miss this information.

Here poetry can also serve as a conduit between science and a wider audience, paraphrasing research in accessible language and form. Initiatives like The Sciku Project, Consilience, or my Science and Poetry blog and podcast aim to do just that.

Hands are trimmed with different tools.
A poem about recent research conveys the danger of chemicals used in manicures to more diverse audiences.
iVector / shutterstock

For example, the following poem is inspired by recent research that found unexpectedly high levels of dangerous chemicals in nail salons. As a result of writing this poem, more than 60,000 new people have learned about this research and the impact it could have on their lives.

GIVE me your hand
While I hide my fears,
Sit back and relax
With concerns about the skin
As I remove the old polish
(How do we talk)
cutting nails
and reproduction.
Polish the surfaces
we do not know
push the skin back
We cross our palms.
Let me apply the primer
with chemicals,
acrylic
with toxins,
the color
with vehicles
and heat waves
which do not belong.
GIVE me your hand,
take a breath
photo shoot.
Soon you will go
to share my craft,
I will stay here
keep the finish.
Inhalation of fumes.

Perhaps the biggest challenge lies in using poetry to help communicate the science of its diversity. Many people feel left out (or even bored) with the hair they encounter. It is therefore essential to work with these audiences to determine which poetry they like and which they feel speaks to and for them. Doing so helps reinforce the importance of their knowledge, experience, and lived experience.

When done right, poetry can help make science more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Not just as a square exercise because making sure that all kinds of people are involved in science so that original, community-driven solutions to the complex problems that science is committed to solving can be found.

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