Why is it so hard to give up on hoping that facts speak for themselves?

“Helvetica emerges in that period in 1957 where there’s felt to be a need for rational typefaces which can be applied to all kinds of contemporary information whether it’s sign systems or corporate identity and present those visual expressions of the modern world to the public in an intelligible way.”*

This is one of the opening descriptive passages of Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary Helvetica, which traces the meaning, history and importance of the near ubiquitous typeface. Think of a corporate brand that has a sleek minimal brand image? Chances are the typeface is Helvetica, from the AAs of American Airlines to the very recognizable G in the Gap, all Helvetica. Even the New York subway signs, designed by Massimo Vignelli, are Helvetica.  But what does that have to do with science communication and education?

As a teacher, researcher and writer, it’s really important to me to help people understand not only scientific ideas but also the culture and practices of science. In classes and workshops I try to share how important it is to think beyond just communicating scientific content. Catherine Anderson and I had great fun at last year’s Science Online conference moderating a session called Is encouraging scientific literacy more than telling people what they need to know? We chose a cultural practice (as good Canadians we chose the sport of curling) and explained the rules. We then passed out reading materials (various blog posts and articles about curling) and staged a funny conversation between two curling fans (HURRY HARD!). The idea was to get the audience thinking about how hard it was to engage with and participate in curling when they’d only just been told the rules. Kind of like expecting students to engage with science when all they’ve had the chance to do is memorize formulae and element properties. The discussion was terrific and the audience enthusiastic. This was really a preaching to the choir situation though. I’ve written before that the importance of a science education that includes more than facts has been recognized and advocated for much of the past century. For example, see this announcement from the Alberta Teachers Association Science Council archives:

Alberta Teachers Association Science Council Conference 1961

Thursday Afternoon Presentation and Discussion:
Consultant and Guest Speaker: Dr. Paul deHart Hurd,
Professor of Science Education, Stanford University, California USA
Topic: Recent Trends and Developments in Science Education
“Future emphasis will be on methods of science as opposed to verification of facts.”

I often wonder though why it’s sometimes so hard for the larger dialogue around science education and communication to change. Despite decades of efforts like deHart Hurd’s, why do discussions of science education and public understanding eventually circle back to the communication of facts? If only people knew more about science, then they would understand climate change and evolution or be better consumers. If only we could fix people’s scientific illiteracy. Even when it’s clear that things are not nearly that simple.

There are many reasons of course. Even when science teachers are dedicated to a broader view of science teaching, there are so many other forces in schools that can hold back their efforts. It’s bigger than that though. Deep down, sometimes I can’t even shake the feeling that maybe all that culture and process stuff is just extra and even worse a fear that it might actually take away from understanding the world. When someone argues that the facts should speak for themselves, despite dedicating myself to arguing against that, a little part of me says “Eep, maybe they should.”

Where does that feeling come from when I know from my teaching experience and from the research literature that facts can’t and don’t speak for themselves? For example, even when we focus directly on learning scientific ideas, students don’t learn difficult concepts well by just being told the facts. They need to be personally motivated to change their minds, to rethink the very nature of world (Everything is made of particles, what?!). Participating in the processes of science (such as making predictions and gathering evidence) and understanding the reasons why certain ideas are important (part of the culture of science) all contribute to that motivation. So why do I sympathize with and sometimes even fall back on thinking that maybe if we could just explain things clearly enough more people would understand and appreciate science?

It’s never been so clear to me how much that view and my own deep-down preconceptions are embedded in the mid-twentieth century modern world as when I watched Helvetica.

How and why the typeface developed is a textbook example of modernism: rejecting tradition and aiming for progress and social improvement. The typeface rejected the serif forms and other trappings of traditional typefaces and was developed with only one thing in mind: clarity of communication. Vignelli, talking about his choice to use it for the New York subway signs, talks about the instrumentality of typefaces. He shakes his head saying that there are only twelve good typefaces, if he’s generous, and he only uses three. They should be highly readable and not in any way distracting. Typefaces are not themselves communication. They are not for creating mood or generating emotions. They are only good if they disappear and let the message speak for itself. Wim Crouwel similarly scoffs and expresses dislike for contemporary designers who mix typefaces and use all sorts of different ones in search of a particular atmosphere: “I’m always interested in clarity. It should be clear; It should be readable; It should be straightforward.”*

Helvetica was meant to be neutral, not to have any symbolic meaning and idiosyncrasy. “The meaning is in the content of the text and not the typeface. It shouldn’t have a meaning of its own. That’s why we loved Helvetica very much.” Hey, that sounds a bit familiar doesn’t it? The science should speak for itself.

It’s the younger designers who make the obvious point: Maybe the designer doesn’t want to be aware of the typeface but “even if they’re not consciously aware of it they’ll always feel its effects.” Any typeface creates a mood, it communicates something about designer’s intention. It also elicits emotions tied to other uses of the same or similar type. Choose to use the same version of Helvetica as the NYC subway in a New York playbill to perhaps draw on the readers’ sense of the quotidian, the workaday life. Or do it in a rural storefront and evoke thoughts of excitement and bustling cities.

Of course the typeface always says something. How could the older designers not see that?, I thought to myself as I watched. It’s because the core of modernism–the importance of the message, of progress, of reaching people and making them think and understand better–isn’t just a passing idea, it’s part of who they are and everything they see and think about the world. And it’s part of who I am and who most of my science education and teaching colleagues, friends and students are too.

And it took another experience just to recognize how much. I’ve been working on this post for a while. I saw the documentary more than a month ago and have been working on it little by little but couldn’t quite get it right. I couldn’t get past just making the observation that struggling to change people’s views of typefaces and science education were kind of similar. It wasn’t until this past weekend that I really started to really get it.

On Sunday, I visited the Tate Modern Art Gallery in London. I was in the gallery, but no longer in that wing, when one of Mark Rothko’s Seagram murals was defaced. That’s just a side note though. The wing in which Rothko’s murals are hung is called Transformed Visions. It is in some ways the very essence of modern, filled with reactions and responses to the wars (cold and hot) that defined the 20th century. At the entrance way to the exhibit are two pieces meant to bookend the gallery. One is Germaine Richier’s Shepherd of the Landes (1951). It’s an eerie bronze sculpture of a small otherworldly shepherd on stilts. The found object used to mold the head has given him (or her) predatory close-set eyes when seen from the side and the open observant side-placed eyes of prey animals when seen from the front. It’s sickly, with twig-like arms and legs and a rotting chest all propped up on the traditional stilts of a Landes shepherd. It is thoroughly disturbing and screams of commentary about the destruction of French life and the rot of the occupation. The other is Thomas Hirschhorn’s Candelabra with Heads (2006). It is exactly as described, with plastic heads and bodies cocooned in packing tape and bubble wrap and mounted, seemingly haphazardly, on a messy wooden scaffold. Where Richier’s made me gasp, Hirschhorn’s made me raise a vague eyebrow and think “really?” That is until the enthusiastic gallery volunteer started to talk about the choice to place these two works together opposite each other.

He said all the expected things about Richier’s training and her reactions to the war around her but he was careful to say that her choice to sculpt the piece in bronze was deeper than her training and achieving the right look, deeper than rejecting tradition by sculpting grotesque figures in traditional materials. He explained that she and her contemporaries saw artists’ ideas as important, possibly transformative. They sculpted in metal so those ideas would last and the chaotic world could be changed. If they only spoke with enough power and impact, artists could change the way people thought and, in doing so, how they acted.

Hirschhorn’s whole view of art is different. He has something to say but seems resigned that art and ideas are temporary. Art hasn’t and probably won’t change the world. His is a piece that expresses one mans’ idea within the context that all of us will see and hear hundreds of ideas, maybe even just today. And it’s silly to think that a piece could change the world, so why not make it out of tape and bubble wrap.

Suddenly it was his that made me uncomfortable. That seemed so wrong, so pointless, so messy.

An art scholar would likely laugh at how simplistic I’ve made the difference seem but the experience said a lot to me about science education, about modernism, and about why I shouldn’t laugh at mid-century designers thinking that a typeface should disappear. Moving away from a strong modernist position that progress can be achieved if only ideas are presented clearly and strongly enough is really uncomfortable. It’s hard to truly accept that no amount of clarity in communicating scientific ideas will change the world. Developing scientific understanding is a messy, sometimes fleeting, sometimes happenstance affair that is the culmination of every experience individuals have with the world, with the people in their lives, and with science. And no matter how many times I say it to myself and others, it’s a bit like encountering Hirschhorn’s piece. The stark truth of what that actually means is hard to take. No wonder we continue to hope that the facts (and not the fonts) might speak for themselves.

I don’t have any answers and honestly thinking this all through has made me more rather the less uncomfortable in the way I see science education and communication. But maybe that’s a good thing.

Further reading of interest:

Kahan, D. M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Larrimore Ouellette, L., Braman, D. & Mandel, G. (2012). The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change, 2, 732–735. doi:10.1038/nclimate1547

Tobin, K., & McRobbie, C.J. (1996). Cultural myths as constraints to the enacted science curriculum. Science Education, 80, 223–241.

Pintrich, P.R., Marx, R.W., & Boyle, R.A. (1993). Beyond cold conceptual change: The role of motivational beliefs and classroom contextual factors in the process of conceptual change. Review of Educational Research, 63, 167-199. doi: 10.3102/00346543063002167


*All quotes were transcribed by hand while I watched the film. If you have a chance, do watch it. It’s excellent, and there’s so much more to it than the little pieces I’ve referenced here.


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