The Trouble with Science Comics: Non-Critical Images and the Ideology of Research

Educators are increasingly using comic books to teach and communicate science, although strong, unbiased evidence of the effectiveness of doing so is lacking.

A recent review found that empirical research on the effectiveness of comics in science communication remains scarce and recommends further studies.

The underlying assumption in many such studies is that research is needed to find out how to convey scientific knowledge to readers, albeit comics.

What they often ignore or skim is the actual framework and ideology of science being communicated: the potential for uncritical promotion of science, scientism, as well as clichés and established top-down narratives that can be repeated through humor.

A major problem for science comics can be that they are often written by scientists who are eager to promote their work, and therefore can lack objectivity.

Farinella’s review finds that the creation and study of science comics is driven by some scientists, artists, and academics, who often use the same comics in their own practice of communication/education. The review also found that the quality of those studies is variable and that the analysis of results may lack objectivity.

Such studies often ignore the use of humor as an exciting way to communicate science. Farinella’s review, for example, strongly suggests that comics have great potential to engage a broad and diverse audience with science and recommends further research into strategies that work best in communicating science to the general public. does

These studies suggest that First All science is great and deserves to be promoted as widely as possible through comics, possibly leading us back to a non-critical downstream model of science communication. They rarely, if ever, actually address the content of these comics or science critically.

Also, they assume that producers of science should spread their findings and messages as they see fit, ignoring underlying personalities/agendas/biases etc. And, they believe that sugarcoating science content in this unusual and fun medium can be successful where more traditional methods are. Science communication fails.

In fact, since my major review in 2009 the field of science comics has been about evaluating its success in conveying many scientific facts and concepts: using comics as an additional way to fill the public’s ‘blanks’. Creating the most effective strategy for Vessel with scientific content, therefore potentially making comics another strand of the deficit model of science communication.

Science Comics

Comic books are often created, used, and studied by the same people who produce the science they want to communicate, often ignoring any independent evaluation of what is being communicated and how.

This means that science communication educators are rushing to ‘prove’ that science comics are effective, and figure out how to make them more effective, while forgetting to address a whole host of questions surrounding their use in science communication.

For example: What image of science do these comics portray and transmit? Who decides which image of science goes into such comics or how they are framed? How do these comics represent science and scientists, and how might this affect readers, beyond the reported enthusiasm of children around using comics in science classes?

There is a danger that the use of comics in science communication may backfire, promote clichés or become part of a deficit model rather than a more progressive means of engagement with the public.

My own study of science comics has found that comics present ambiguous images of science, with words and images often conveying contradictory meanings: for example, science is portrayed as both fascinating and disturbing. Rather than presenting a fixed view of science, academic science comics are an area where the public meaning of science is actively being worked on.

While scientists are often portrayed as men in lab coats and goggles, using clichéd tools of technology and knowledge, they are also often portrayed by diverse characters, thus perpetuating some stereotypes while eliminating others.

Scientists and comic book creators themselves are actively deciding what information and framing of science to include, without necessarily thinking or challenging their assumptions or aiming to present an objective, balanced view of science.

In summary, the field of science comics studies largely involves scientists and educators producing comic books themselves and studying their effects, without the necessary distance of a critical, detached observer.

Reference:

Farinella, M. (2018). The potential of humor in science communication. JCOM 17

Tatalovic, M. (2009), Science Humor as a Tool for Science Education and Communication: A Brief, Exploratory Study. JCOM

Tatalovic, M. (2009), Communication of Science and the Representation of Science and Scientists in Science Comics, Imperial College MSC Dissertation.

Mico Tatalovic
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