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How To Reimagine Scientific Thinking

Three tips for communicating science to people who don’t do science–no lab coats required.

How To Reimagine Scientific Thinking

When you see the phrase “scientific thinking,” what pops into your head? Some white guy in a lab coat? Whatever it is, I’ll bet you don’t imagine yourself. Einstein himself said that “imagination is more important than knowledge,” but the truth is that unless you happen to be a working scientist, “science” is unofficially understood to be a mysterious, difficult something that only gets done by other, smarter people . . . somewhere else.

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Science Sandbox wants to change that. It’s a new educational initiative of the Simons Foundation—which makes grants to researchers studying everything from autism to the origins of life on earth—and it wants to “unlock scientific thinking” in everyone. Here’s what Science Sandbox thinks that looks like:

Look Ma, no lab coats! But it didn’t start out that way. I should know—Science Sandbox commissioned me to create this video. Originally, our approach was all ponderous voiceover, ethereal music, and perfect-looking nature footage—business as usual. Luckily, over the course of three months in 2016 (working alongside the creative team at the Article Group, which designed Science Sandbox’s identity), we course-corrected. Here are three things I learned along the way about how to reimagine scientific thinking for the rest of us.

1. Stop making sense.

I’ve been making films that make sense of “brainy” concepts for years, but on this project—oh, we had brains in spades. Top-shelf agency creatives. Multiple PhDs and experienced educators. Neil deGrasse Tyson even weighed in at one point. We all knew we were onto something by using the tardigrade—an oddly cute, nearly indestructible microorganism—as the film’s central metaphor. But as brainy people often do, we soon got bogged down in the details. We worried about whether a tardigrade could really “think.” We fussed over whether we should mention its scientific name. What does the tardigrade symbolize: the viewer? Her curiosity? Science itself? All of the above?

Later, as I sat idly watching Youtube and worrying about how this was all going to make left-brained sense, I discovered this:

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It turned my brain off. I forgot about metaphors. I couldn’t even understand the words—I just loved the vibe. Turns out, that sense of curious play was exactly what our film was missing. After all, that’s precisely what you do in a sandbox. And that’s what Science Sandbox’s vision of “scientific thinking” ultimately rests on. This vibe unlocked everything else about the film—from the made-up-but-somehow-appropriate verb “tardigrading,” to the fact that our typeface didn’t match anything else in Sandbox’s identity. Somehow, it all worked—we just had to get out of its way.

Does “real” science ever work this way? Go read how Einstein first came up with special relativity, and see for yourself.

2. Embrace the “lowbrow.”

A soundtrack borrowed from the French New Wave may seem out of left field for a science PSA, but at least it’s halfway respectable. My design inspiration for everything else, though, came from something that few people would ever associate with “scientific thinking”: Snapchat. Yes, you read that right. Where else can you expect to see emoji and all-caps text pasted on top of grainy footage of weird animals?

It was certainly a fun way to put visuals together. But what does it have to do with rethinking science communication? Well, regardless of whether you think Snapchat is the future of media or a 21st-century boob tube, here’s the truth: it’s where people already are. And part of Science Sandbox’s mission is to meet them there, rather than berate them for not watching more PBS. Embracing this vernacular visual style shows that Sandbox is willing to walk the walk. 

3. Have someone specific in mind.

“Scientific thinking” is about as lofty an abstraction as you can get. Even as we found ways to bring an authentic playfulness and welcoming attitude to it through music and design, we still needed to make it about something more meaningful than . . . well, than just itself. Sandbox says “you don’t have to be a scientist to think like one.” But what are they really talking about? And more importantly, who?

That’s where Sophia comes in. She’s the little girl I cast for the final shot, whose eyes look up into ours and then crinkle with a knowing smile. As the editing process went through its many iterations, she reminded me what the point of this whole damn thing was.

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As a viewer, you may identify with her or you may not. Regardless, there she is, looking you right in the eye: another real person, with a mind just like yours, who just saw the same things you did. And that eye contact makes a connection—not between you and “science”, but between you and her. It’s no coincidence that the final tagline—“Let’s Go Tardigrading”—implies a we, not just you or me. Because that’s all “scientific thinking” really is at its core: a powerful way of discovering things, together. And no PhDs necessary.

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.

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