Art, science and the perceptions of promise

Author: Stem Cell Network, 03/07/11

What role does art play in communicating science? It’s a question that has been asked and studied rather extensively and it was one of the topics raised during the POP/SCIENCE panel discussion at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary last Thursday. The event was held in conjunction with the Perceptions of Promise art exhibit, currently running at the Glenbow until March 20.

Scientists themselves are wary and somewhat concerned about the accuracy of artistic and pop culture interpretations of stem cell science. But, when it comes to newspaper reporting of stem cell and genetic research, studies have found that reporters are not doing a bad job, overall. As Timothy Caulfield suggested in his talk at the Understanding Stem Cell Controversies course, the over-optimism often begins with the scientists themselves, who are required to demonstrate or promise applicable results in order to compete for smaller slices of the research funding pie. So if 24’s Jack Bauer can be cured of his prion disease using stem cells, is this error necessarily the fault of the script writers? No, but nor can the scientists be blamed, suggests Caulfield. In describing a clear path to the clinic, they are simply doing what is requested by the funding agencies, who are acting on dictates of government, who, in turn, are responding to the needs and desires of the public. And around it goes.

The bigger question is whether artists and mainstream media are required to be accurate in their portrayals of science. As the panel pointed out, the job of artists is not to relate the science accurately (and as panelist Karen Rothenberg intoned, if artists did represent science in a factual manner, the resulting artwork would be very boring), but to interpret and reflect on science through the lens of society. This is a question that has permeated society for a very long time — and the boundaries are not always entirely clear. Consider, for instance, the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, which presented an entirely new way for people — including the scientists of the day — to look at science and art in the context of their everyday lives.

Nor are the roles of scientists and artists always so polarized and the Perceptions of Promise exhibit demonstrates this quite clearly. The workshop that launched the project brought artist and scientists together to explore, connect and ultimately to collaborate. Perhaps the most illustrative example of this are the stunning paintings by Daniela Schlüter, which incorporated the procedural sketches of stem cell scientist Paul Cassar.

Art and popular media may not get it right, but they do get us thinking and talking about science in ways that cannot be achieved through traditional scientific channels. As art and science are both driven primarily by curiosity and a desire to understand, such opportunities for discussions should be welcomed — no, encouraged — as a means to provoke new and better scientific and artistic pursuits.

– Lisa Willemse, SCN Director of Communications

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