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Science Goes Guerilla in the U.S.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This is an invited guest post by Olivia Koski, graduate of the NYU program for science, health and environmental reporting. She is a laser engineer turned journalist living in New York City, and a producer for Guerilla Science’s first U.S. event at Escape 2 New York.

Five years ago, some British scientists decided to do something drastic to change the perception that science is boring. They founded an organization called “Guerilla Science,” and went on a mission to introduce scientific principles in unconventional ways to audiences who weren’t expecting it. Call it science by stealth. “We set science free by taking researchers out of the lab and into novel venues such as art galleries and music festivals,” says Zoe Cormier, a journalist with a background in zoology and one of the organization’s directors.

Nothing is too radical for the Guerilla Scientists – their programs range from an evening of body mapping with a sex scientist, to audio tours of the universe, to dramatizations of treatments for psychiatric disorders (like electroconvulsive therapy). They set music on fire, perform alien autopsies, set up mock Decontamination Units, and dine on insects—all in the service of showing how fascinating science really is.

During the summer months, the team of Guerilla Scientists invade music festivals all over the U.K., including the famed Secret Garden Party, which has been described as embodying “the creative ambition of Burning Man without the dust.” Such environments feel like home to these unique scientist performers.

I learned about this incredible organization last February at the first ever International Public Science Events Conference.

At the event, Mark Rosin, a British physicist at UCLA and Guerilla Scientist himself, described his team’s outrageous science conquests and showed this video:

Afterwards he cautiously asked if anyone thought people in the U.S. would be open to this type of avant-garde approach to public science outreach. “Absolutely!” I told him.

Four months later, I got a very exciting call. Guerilla Science was invited to a music festival called Escape 2 New York, and needed help setting up a program. Escape 2 New York is the first American foray for the producers of the UK festival the Secret Garden Party, which bills itself as “a party unlike any other”. Heavily focused on art, the festival encourages everyone to take part in the fun, rather than posing as passive spectators. Previous years highlights have included hills lined with bubble-wrap, giant mud pits surrounded by hay bale coliseum style seating, and giant kinetic iron gin cocktail fountains.

Now, the inaugural U.S. Guerilla Science event at Escape 2 New York is just one week away. Alongside Patti Smith, The Psychedelic Furs, an incredible line-up of musicians, artists and DJs, in the first-ever sanctioned music festival on the Shinnecock Indian reservation in Southampton, New York, we will celebrate science Guerilla style. The program includes death-defying feats by a sideshow artist who has to know his science to survive, physics experiments from Rutgers University, brain trickery with a neuroscientist, vegan-taxidermy, the sociology of the nightclub explained by a professional DJ, instructions on how to destroy things using light, and much more.

Just a two-hour train ride east of New York City, Escape 2 New York promises to be an epic event. Whether you come for one day or all three, indulge in “glamour camping” or rough it on the dirt, be sure to stop by and say hello to Guerilla Science!

If you can’t make it to the festival, find out about future events by following us on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr or via our website.

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  1. 1. candide 6:28 pm 07/29/2011

    “their programs range from an evening of body mapping with a sex scientist, to audio tours of the universe, to dramatizations of treatments for psychiatric disorders (like electroconvulsive therapy). They set music on fire, perform alien autopsies, set up mock Decontamination Units, and dine on insects”

    IMO, this is exactly what is WRONG with science. Attempts like this to cover science in anything BUT science.

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  2. 2. Bora Zivkovic 8:25 pm 07/29/2011

    Can you elaborate? Explain why it’s wrong, perhaps provide data about its (in)effectiveness as an approach? Or is fun a priori prohibited from ever touching the dead-serious domain of science?

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  3. 3. candide 9:00 pm 07/29/2011

    First, this is just my opinion, but I have thought about it a lot.

    I think that actions like those described above, and others, ultimately send the wrong messages:

    “We know you cannot understand science:
    so we will dumb it down
    so we’ll pretty it up
    we’ll drmatize it in a funny way
    etc, etc, etc.

    In the end these actions only take away from the actual science itself. Too much effort goes into the way to present it, as opposed to the subject itself.

    I try to watch some science related programs on TV and most of the time I turn them off, not because I am not interested but because all the things done “to make it easier, more likeable, etc.” really turn me off. The music, dramatizations, quirky presenter – ALL of that ultimately takes away from the material.

    I understand the motive but think it alienates more people than it draws in.

    If you want I would be willing to discuss offline, I can send to your email address.


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  4. 4. Bora Zivkovic 9:37 pm 07/29/2011

    I don’t like offline. I like discussing in public. I am sure you have read the various discussions we were having over the years on this very topic, e.g., in regard to Science Rockstars, Science Cheerleaders, etc. Each one of those efforts reaches some people, and leaves others cold. People differ – different strokes for different folks. Some things are great for kids. Some are great for showing people afraid of science that science is fun. And some things are good for recruiting people into science itself (something we should do with some thought, as the career does not have that many jobs left). More approaches, the better: more people get ‘hooked’.

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  5. 5. rgcorrgk 2:24 am 07/30/2011

    The “candide” remark resonates with me; however, that may be because the “carnival side show” aspect of “Guerilla Science” is a distraction for some of us who are already addicted to the pure unadulterated stuff of science. However, if you want to “hook” average folk, who may view science as about as fun as watching paint dry, “Guerilla Science” is a winner!
    (PS: I got the science bug as a kid watching silly B/W science-fiction movies.)
    Richard Carlson

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  6. 6. DNLee 10:35 am 07/30/2011

    I attended the International Public Science Events Conference, too! It was a great meeting and lots of ideas were shared. I was inspired by Mark Rosin & Guerrilla Science.

    I think it is awesome and EXACTLY what science needs to reach people. Candide & rgcoorgk, it’s fine for such novel outreach approaches to not appeal to you. Frankly, I find some science & engineering festivals in all of their ‘straight & narrow’ glory to be quite boring, corny and unappealing to me; and judging by the participating demographics, unappealing to other people like me.

    However, I disagree with Candide’s response that Guerilla Science outreach is what is WRONG with science. It’s not fair to assume that people who go great lengths to share science with the public thinks the audience is unsmart. To me, it sounds like you are projecting your own opinions of those audiences for whom those programs are directed. I don’t know, but in reading your words, that’s how I perceive it. As if your opinion of what makes a ‘quality’ science outreach program is the standard and these other approaches don’t add up.

    Guerilla Science isn’t wrong and doesn’t (necessarily) send the wrong message. No, it’s absolutely right, and right on time. Outreach is about relating to people – that means making it relevant to them, every single one of them and bringing it to their level; which is NOT the same as dumbing down. Simplifying, being enthusiatic or interactive isn’t less intelligent (or implies that the audience is less intelligent); those are techniques, each appropriate to making the information/subject palatable and consumable by people and reaching them where THEY are, not where you are or where you think they ought to be.

    And by all people I mean to include people beyond the typical demographies who attend or self-select to attend science events or appreciate traditional, straight forward science presentations like Candide prefers – like people of color, children (outside of those being held captive by their teachers), folks without a college education, who make less than $75K a year, women, immigrants, teens and young adults.

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  7. 7. candide 10:44 am 07/30/2011

    “More approaches, the better: more people get ‘hooked’.”

    Sounds like a simplistic, assumed approach to me. “We do not really know what works – so we try everything.”

    That might be splitting resources (spreading too thin), confusing or even alienating “more people.” Do you have any research or evidence to show that more people are getting “hooked” or is that just an assumption that “iot works”? Does not sound very scientific to me.

    The US is losing its ranking in science to many other countries, so clearly something is NOT working.

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  8. 8. candide 10:52 am 07/30/2011

    “However, I disagree with Candide’s response that Guerilla Science outreach is what is WRONG with science.”

    I disagree, though not with 100% of the approaches, perhaps my statement was too broad.

    I think the overall approach to make it “entertaining” has major faults. Some science just may not be entertaining, but it is still interesting (at least to some people).

    “It’s not fair to assume that people who go great lengths to share science with the public thinks the audience is unsmart.”

    Agree somewhat. I think it is more of an implicit feeling, rather than a conscious decision. People that specialize and focus can easily fall into that trap.

    The other problem is the LCD issue. If a presentation is geared for the LCD it will necessarily be far less effective to those above that.

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  9. 9. candide 11:15 am 07/30/2011

    LCD = Least Common Denominator

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  10. 10. candide 9:25 am 08/10/2011

    So much for “public debate” – ONE response?

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  11. 11. terrymac 8:20 am 08/22/2011

    Everyone learns in their own way. I’m all for such efforts, with one proviso: keep them as honest as possible.

    Years ago, my son, then aged 3, asked “what is gravity.”

    My reply included all the essential features of F=gM1M2/r^2 – in terms which he understood and enjoyed. I used a drawing of the earth and vectors to explain why people in China are not “upside down”, from their POV.

    In deference to his lack of mathematical skills at the time, I left out only one component: the squaring of the radius. I figured we’d some back later – and we did, just a few years afterward.

    Keep it honest. Keep it clear. Children and adults enjoy science. They want to know “how the world works.”

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