Science Policy & Funding Opinion

Transcending Science: Can Artists Help Scientists Save the World?

The artistic process begins with human engagement. Perhaps the revolution we need to address climate change begins by making it an integral part of the scientific method.

By Mika Tosca

Our climate crisis is more desperate than ever—ice caps are melting, disease is spreading, heat waves are multiplying, droughts are laying waste to crops and ecosystems, tropical storms are strengthening—and politicians continue to ignore the warning signs. It is no secret that the current administration in the United States is doing nothing to slow the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere every year, a decision that promises to have dire consequences.

Our collective understanding of human-caused climate change dates back over a century, beginning in 1896 when the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first wrote of the link between carbon dioxide (which he called carbonic acid) in the atmosphere and global temperatures via the greenhouse effect.

In the past half century, sophisticated computer models have consistently demonstrated that the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the lower atmosphere—carbon dioxide that got there because of burning fossil fuels—has raised the globally averaged surface temperature by over a degree Celsius. This temperature rise, attributed almost entirely to human activity, has precipitated massive and rapid changes across the globe, and these changes are forecast to worsen in the future.

In 2018, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we had about 12 years (11, now) to make massive, large-scale, revolutionary changes to our global economy to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Proximity to Revolutionary History

As a transgender woman living in America, I am no stranger to revolutionary movements. Fifty years ago, a group of queers, led in part by a few brave trans women of color, started a riot at a bar in New York City. That uprising ultimately initiated the LGBT rights movement, a movement that has seen many monumental successes punctuated by several devastating losses and setbacks.

After considering my proximity to this revolutionary history, in 2017 I left a position as a research climate scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to teach climate change at an art institution, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

I made the switch for several reasons, but first and foremost, I wanted to dedicate the remainder of my career to exploring nontraditional ways of bridging divides between scientists, artists, and the public. I took this opportunity as a conscious effort to contribute to a solution to the climate crisis.

Now my career is dedicated to exploring ways artists and designers can help scientists both communicate climate science to the public more effectively and be better scientists.

Collaboration and Engagement

This excerpt from David George Haskell’s “Notes on Ecological Aesthetics and Ethics” inspires me in this effort, daily:

Once we—collectively—have an integrated sense of aesthetics, we can begin to discern what is beautiful and what is broken about a place, and, from there, I believe we can begin to form an objective—or near-objective—foundation for ethical discernment. Answers emerge from the community of life itself, filtered through human experience and consciousness.

In recent decades, though the knowledge of climate change has continued to expand, much of this knowledge remains abstruse, cumbersomely documented, and unintuitively presented, making engagement with it by “nonscientists” difficult. Perhaps this is the reason why a large segment of the general population remains convinced that human beings have not caused the observed 20th and 21st century climate change.

There exists, therefore, an exciting and necessary opportunity for scientists to collaborate with artists. Many scholars learn that the scientific method begins with a hypothesis, progresses through research and analysis, and concludes with a result. The design process, in contrast, begins with human engagement and inquiry, progresses through ideation and prototyping, and concludes with a refined artifact.

It is precisely through the initial step of human engagement where artists and designers distinguish themselves from (most) scientists. And, as Haskell writes above, “once we…have an integrated sense of aesthetics, we can begin to discern what is beautiful and what is broken about a place.” Perhaps artists can, in fact, help scientists be better scientists.

I maintain that the unique insights of artists, designers, and makers present an opportunity for scientists to collaborate in the creation of evocative visual and auditory artifacts that invite the public to share in both the research process and the scientific conclusions of a study. These collaborations ultimately engender a more thorough and straightforward understanding of scientific knowledge.

In this moment, especially in the field of climate science, we need, more than ever, for the public to engage with science. Through inviting and evocative designs that tell the story of the data in a more intuitive way, we can better foment the magnitude of the climate crisis in the public psyche and, ultimately, encourage people to invest in the necessary solutions. This public buy-in would go a long way toward productively addressing the climate dilemma.

Data Visualization and Better Science

It is perhaps intuitive that art and design can help scientists better communicate their results to the public.

However, I maintain that improvements in data visualization (through collaboration with artists and designers) can also facilitate exploratory research and help researchers ask qualitatively “better” scientific questions. Exploratory analysis, or a precursory evaluation of data with the intent of generating a research inquiry or hypothesis, is often hampered in efficacy by an arduous data-parsing process or incomplete and confusing data visualization.

As a case study, I worked with Adrian Galvin, a designer at JPL, to develop a data interface and visualization tool for the Multi-angle Imaging Spectroradiometer (MISR) smoke plume project, a unique and valuable data set often overlooked because of its inaccessible interface. Together, we conducted a thorough workflow inquiry and iterative prototyping sessions to refine interactions and visual representations. The interface redesign that resulted from this process streamlined exploratory investigation and reduced the time taken to generate visualizations and correlations on the order of days. The result of these efforts facilitated better science.

Through this project, Adrian and I hypothesize that similar human-centered art and design processes can critically enhance the practical value of many Earth and climate science data sets. As we update our understanding of the environment, we must also update the tools we use to study it and the methods we use to present it to the public. There is real potential for art and design to dramatically improve the way climate research is conducted and communicated.

A New Chance to be Truly Revolutionary

Fifty years ago, queer folks began a revolution that demanded that we be respected as equals—both in life and in law—and that revolution has resulted in enormous progress for LGBT+ people everywhere.

On the last day of class, I tell all my students that the climate dilemma offers another opportunity for us to be truly revolutionary. Through collaboration with artists and designers, we can work toward the demystification of climate science because when science becomes understandable to the public, people become interested in not only the results but the scientific process, discussions, and, most importantly, solutions.

It is my hope that we will follow in the footsteps of our revolutionary ancestors and solve the climate crisis, together.

—Mika Tosca (@climategal84), School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Ill.

Citation: Tosca, M. (2019), Transcending science: Can artists help scientists save the world?, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO127493. Published on 02 July 2019.
Text © 2019. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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