Science and Non-Science

12 May 2013

Last week was the end of term at RIT, and this week is finals. With everything going on I haven’t had time to write an actual astrophysics post for today. So this post is a bit different. It’s about a video that has gone viral recently.

The video (above) is on RIT’s Escharian Stairwell. The Escharian Stairwell is a stairwell that loops back upon itself. So if you walk up a flight of stairs you find yourself back where you started. It’s inspired by M. C. Escher’s Ascending and Descending. At this point you probably recognize that the stairwell is nonsense. The video was created as the project of an RIT graduate student. It is well done, but clearly not real. Surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly) many people think it is.

I’ve watched this project unfold because Kevin in the video is my friend Kevin Schoonover. He’s an actor, photographer, puppeteer, and graphic designer, as well as the creative director for the Prove Your World project I’m a part of. As a result I’ve watched the video go from obscure post to viral hit. I’ve had students ask about the stairwell. I’ve been asked about how it works. While most people recognize it as nonsense, there are enough people taking it to be real that it now has its own Snopes page.

The video is an excellent demonstration of the power of visual storytelling. That power is part of the reason I’m a part of Prove Your World. But it also shows the challenge of communicating science to the general public. There are compelling videos that show evolution is wrong and global warming is false, for example, and it is much harder for the non-specialist to separate science from non-science in these videos. They can be countered by equally compelling videos on the science behind evolution and global warming, but are they enough?

In a world driven by social networks and visual presentations, how do we ensure that scientific literacy is enhanced rather than diminished? Is it enough to present honest science in a clear and understandable way?

I don’t really have an answer, but the success of this video makes me wonder if we should work harder to communicate science as an engaging story with powerful visuals.