GSI Seminar Series – Victor Leshyk: Philosophy of Science Art; a tool for building science literacy

Reposted from Daneen Cowling’s blog

For our second seminar of our summer series (11/05/2021) Victor Leshyk gave an art-filled talk on his philosophies for the creation, use, and power of Science Art. Victor led the audience through an extensive portfolio of his jaw-dropping work, exemplifying it’s importance of getting Science Art right to improve science literacy, but also fight back against the progress-limiting conspiracists.

Victor Leshyk is the Director of Science and Art at the Centre for Ecosystem Science and Society, Northern Arizona University. Victor has over 20 years experience expressing scientific knowledge through fine art. He has used this alliance to help scientists have means to be better communicators, and for the public to have the means to be better learners. Through this experience Victor has developed philosophy to apply to creating, developing and applying Science Art.

Victor explained his found philosophy through his artwork. To see examples of his work, please visit his website (we definitely recommend you check it out!). Victor started to question what Science Art can do and what we are aiming for, starting with the conjured images and meanings of a ‘worldview’. From this exploration, Victor took us how these views and depictions have changed overtime. These depictions have been limited by the edges of knowledge, but as Victor scaled down from the world view, to cells to particles – it is clear the frontiers of knowledge opened by science discoveries, have created new bounds to what we can understand and what we now compromise for a worldview.

Victor then highlighted the quote by Neil Degrasse Tyson: “The good thing about science is that it is true whether or not you believe in it”. But using the pandemic and the protests against orders to stay home backed by science, the science is still irrelevant if you can’t communicate the science to the other people. Hence, Victor proposes an alternative of: “A great thing about Art is that is can help determine whether people do believe in Science”.

Victor backed the ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ phrase with the stats – pictures can be understood 60000 times faster than words. Then told the importance of this during the Renaissance period, whereby much of scientific knowledge was stored through art, which has increased in detail. Scientific knowledge, artistic detail and storytelling accuracy have increased in tandem.

Victor then told the story of his own journey with Science Art. But soon discovered that simply making more art does not make the world more scientifically literate. Highlighted by the prevalence of conspiracy theorists and flat-earthers, Victor stated we are living in a crisis of science literacy. SciArt is hope to address this – existing as a spectrum. On one end ‘Found Art’ – the beauty in this existing in nature, or ‘Fine Art’ – free-form abstract art creating experiences. SciArt has capacity to create new worldviews – to communicate the breadth of life, the different behaviours, the diversity of past life and environments, mass extinction events and the biogeochemical changes that caused them. Victor demonstrated how he has used SciArt to ultimately help us learn from the past using these lenses. Learning from the past helps inform the present, which is especially true in the context of anthropogenic climate change and the pressures we are putting on the earth systemm. As Victore displays through his art – this is in parallel to the atmospheric and oceanic chemical changes that have happened before.

But what about data visualisation? Can’t graphs serve the same purpose as art to communicate science and data? Victor proved otherwise, arguing that the data can speak for itself but still not be heard. Reading graphs and understanding attributes is not accessible or as instantaneous as absorbing art. Word-less art can still communicate the same message of a comprehensive graph.

Science Art also lets us see through an experts eyes. Victor used the example of how, through the eyes of an expert, a lump of chert is rich evidence of past environments and life. SciArt can tell the story visible to the expert and reveal it to the world.

Science Art helps us care about things we cannot see, e.g. ecosystems exchanging and cycling matter. Victor also highlighted the power AciArt has to communicate the danger and urgency of a changing landscape. He has used the case of peatlands, which to view the landscape as is, it’s a peaceful, beautiful thing. But through the ‘x-ray’ of SciArt, erupting CO2 from thawing, dynamic movement of the peat, methane bursting through ice – this can all be revealed to show the true dangerous nature of the landscape.

As real as mud is – it’s a personality, this can be conveyed through SciArt. Responsible personification can help bring the process of microbe behaviour change with thawing, we can then easily see these real mechanisms. SciArt can therefore help build responsible drama with accurate passion. Science does not have to be emotionally sterile, the passion behind the work and it’s importance should also be illustrated. Victor shows the impact of this when climate change impacts such as wildfires, unlock legacy carbon that has been buried for geological-scale time. This gives emotion to the irreversibility of these tipping points.

The ‘Trowl Problem’, as Victor describes it, is the case of media communications of science that use a trowl to illustrate the finding. A missed opportunity and failure of imagination; use of SciArt instead would add tenfold to the article to help put the science into peoples understanding. This is evidently a current barrier to the application of SciArt.

Victor also explored the role of SciArt as invoking our intuitive visual reasoning – how we respond best and have done through history, to props and visuals to communicate and understand things. He exemplified this with mapping supply chains, and the additions of simple toy-like graphics can have for the digestibility of the science. Intuitive thinking also helps the use of SciArt to help us see into the future. Either through the pressures that will amount of services with future climate changes, or how iconic landscapes are projected to change. This helps reinforce changes to be very real and comprehendible further than statistics of temperature and precipitation change.

Popularisation of science in TV, movies etc. has also helped give science a face – but as a double-edged sword. It has portrayed scientists in a certain way that creates distrust and sensationalism. Victor argues, science fiction is another avenue for SciArt to create accurate portrayals and repair the trusts.

Victor finished on two services of SciArt: How it allows us to keep updating our ideas, we can continually add and develop past and current understandings through art and developments of it’s various mediums. Finally, Science Art helps us see our place in the world. The world is big, it is old and it is complex. SciArt helps make sense of the parts and processes of the world and the role we play amongst it all.

Victor Leshyk introduced, explained and demonstrated the power, potential, and inspirational beauty of Science Art. As well as demonstrating his portfolio and progression of science art, Victor also shared his courses he’s run with students to help these scientists be better communicators through SciArt. For information on this course, the questions posed to Victor and his seminar in full, the recording is available here.

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