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What Artists and Designers Can Teach Scientists About Preventing Climate Change

By: Archer K Hill II

The scientific method—which teaches us to question, collect data, test hypotheses and draw conclusions—has given humanity just about all the knowledge it possesses. From the theory of general relativity to evolution by natural selection, from plate tectonics to heliocentrism. It has allowed us, more recently, to prove without a shadow of a doubt that anthropogenic climate change is very much real and that its results will be disastrous. Despite all of this, the scientific method is fundamentally flawed. As, for all that it allows scientists to discover, it is terrible at communicating groundbreaking research to general public, as well as elsewhere in the scientific community.That is where art comes in, suggests Dr. Mika Tosca. Her lecture, as a part of the Miami University Department of Geography’s Data Science Lecture Series, posits that artists and designers can “help climate scientists prevent a climate apocalypse.” And she has spent the most recent part of her career proving this hypothesis.A widely published climate scientist who did her postdoc research at the NASA jet propulsion lab, Dr. Tosca now finds herself working mostly from the classrooms of an art school. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago might seem like an odd place to find a hardcore scientist, but perhaps it makes perfect sense. She is currently working on educating artists to think more about the license they have to change the world—and simultaneously working to convince scientists that they must do more to communicate their research.Her research is focused on the “MISR (satellite) Plume Height Project”. This project has long gathered important data on wildfires across the globe—a growing concern with increasing desertification and shifting precipitation patterns as a result of climate change. Unfortunately, barely any scientists were accessing the data. The reason? The website looked like it was created in Microsoft Paint. It possessed neither the functionality nor the design to direct visitors to relevant data, nor did it allow them to effectively view that information.Dr. Tosca is part of a team that has been working to fix that. By applying the design process—which calls for scientists to “understand, ideate, prototype and refine” their scientific work—they have successfully created a new website that adds usefulness, dynamism and accessibility of data to the scientists using it. They have involved artists and designers from the beginning, during the research phase, rather than just at the end to make everything “look pretty”. This has resulted in a much more useful website—and therefore much more useful science. Although still under development, much of the preliminary feedback it has received from its scientist users has been extremely positive. One of the biggest hurdles to addressing the rapidly changing climate is communicating the science in a way that other scientific professionals, governments and the general public have frictionless access to information. Otherwise, there will always be doubters impeding the large-scale changes that need to be effected immediately. Dr. Tosca and her team’s ongoing work on the MISR Plume Height Project is an example that more scientists, artists and designers should follow. As Dr. Tosca puts it, “Scientists can become better scientists, and do better science, if [we] think about design, art and aesthetics—the human aspects of our research.” If more scientists thought like this, perhaps the world would not be on fire.

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