One of the great paradoxes of contemporary society is that Americans by way of the Internet and specialized cable TV channels have greater access to scientific information than at any other time in history, yet knowledge of science and related policy matters remains very low. The problem is too many content choices. In a fragmented media system, strong “preference gaps” exist, as citizens not only select among media choices based on ideology or religious views, but also based on their preference, or lack thereof, for science-related content. As a result, with a wide diversity of infotainment and entertainment alternatives, traditional science communication efforts generally reach only a relatively small audience of science enthusiasts.
Simply put, the availability of information does not mean citizens will take advantage of it. According to a recent Pew report, although more than 65% of American adults report that they have Internet access, and 74% of these Internet users say they have received science news and information online, a sizable proportion stumbled upon this content incidentally while using the Internet for other purposes. Indeed, the vast majority of Internet users are neither daily nor weekly consumers of science-related information.
The challenge then is to find ways to “incidentally” expose audiences to science in places where they are not looking for it, playing on their strong entertainment-centric predispositions to guide Web surfers, channel jockeys, and book browsers back to science-rich content.
A leading model on how to do this, and turn a profit doing it, is the “Science of ______” genre of books that have sprouted up ever since the debut of Lawrence Krauss’ “Physics of Star Trek.” The latest in this genre is Jennifer Ouellette’s The Physics of the Buffyverse, reviewed today in The NY Times. Here’s the description from the book’s site:
In the tradition of Lawrence Krauss’s bestselling The Physics of Star Trek, The Physics of the Buffyverse uses the characters, concepts and plot lines of two popular television series–Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its successful spinoff, Angel–to illustrate a wide range of fundamental concepts in the physical sciences: everything from sound, electricity, materials science, and thermodynamics, to concepts of time (and time travel), wormholes, black holes, and string theory.
How does this translate to the Web? For one it means taking advantage of bloggers and their sites to lead Web surfers back to science-rich sites that they might not otherwise ever visit. And I’m not talking science bloggers or scienceblogs.com, as immensely popular as these sites continue to be among science-enthusiasts.
If museums, organizations, institutions, and universities want to break through to non-traditional audiences, they need, for example, to get information about evolutionary science and the teaching of evolution into blog sites about farming, gardening, or fishing (think “the science of invasive species). Or alternatively, take the “Science of ____” book model and start promoting science content at blogs that track the specific TV shows, stars, or film releases. What about blogging about the science of “Gray’s Anatomy” or the ethics of “House”? Here’s another example: What about the science of GMOs or cloned meat at cooking blogs? The science of wine making at Foodie and wine blogs? The list goes on and on.