Communicating science also communicates cultural orientations

By Suzanne Perin - November 2015


Medin, D. L., & Bang, M. (2014). The cultural side of science communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111, 13621–13626. doi:10.1073/pnas.1317510111

What do images communicate about humans’ place in nature? Medin and Bang argue that the physical and conceptual artifacts used to communicate science—including words, photographs, and illustrations—commonly reflect the cultural orientations and assumptions of their creators. This study reveals differences in ways Native Americans and European Americans view their place in the world and reflects on the consequences these views have for engagement with science and environmental issues. The authors argue that Native Americans traditionally see themselves as part of nature and focus on ecological relationships, while European Americans perceive themselves as outside of nature and think in terms of taxonomic relationships.

Research Design 

The authors draw on data collected over many years to argue that scientific communication reflects cultural values and goals. This article results from a presentation at a colloquium at the National Academy of Sciences. The research presented in the articles draws on partnership of the American Indian Center of Chicago, Northwestern University, the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, and the University of Washington. The partners have engaged in scholarship on biological cognition and to implement culturally based science education in Chicago and on the Menominee reservation. The data in the studies they draw on come from interviews, cognitive tasks, and observations in informal learning contexts, and from the analysis of artifacts.

Research Findings 

The distance between humans and nature described by people’s words and pictures has consequences for how people think about their role in natural systems. For example, one Bang et al. (2007) study found that European American parents and grandparents typically described nature as external, saying things like “I want my children to respect nature and know that they have a responsibility to take care of it.” In contrast, Native American adults were more likely to say things like “I want my children to realize that they are a part of nature.”

This separation from nature is apparent in other ways. In a previous study, the authors examined images of nature in the results of a Google image search for the term “ecosystem.” In the first 400 images that came up in the search, 98.2 percent did not include humans. Only 1 percent showed humans as part of the ecosystem; another 0.8 percent showed children outside of the ecosystem, observing it through a magnifying glass.

The authors also examined illustrations and text from influential children’s books, finding differences in the presentation of nature and natural things in books authored by Native Americans and European Americans. The books by Native Americans tended to have more close-up images and to include images from multiple perspectives—close-up, panoramic, wide- and medium-angle—throughout. Compared to the books by European Americans, those by Native Americans were more likely to mention specific plant names, inanimate natural objects, and native animals; they depicted seasons, cycles, and events such as rain. Medin and Bang argue that these features help children approach stories from multiple perspectives and reflect an epistemological orientation, or way of viewing the world, that shows an intimate engagement with nature.

Implications for Practice

Science communication necessarily involves presenting images and representations of nature and humans’ relationship with the natural world. These images both directly and indirectly influence how people think about environmental issues. Medin and Bang remind us that the ways in which the natural world is presented may alienate people who come with a different cultural worldview, so that they cannot identify with science as it is presented in school, museums, or other mainstream settings. This limits their success in school and in jobs – and in turn limits their potential to contribute to the furtherance of knowledge. The challenge, the authors note, is to identify effective ways of communicating information to culturally diverse groups in ways that avoid polarization. They end with questions for reflecting on how science and nature are presented in relationship with humans: Are humans on the outside looking in, or part of a complex system? How is this relationship presented and how might that presentation expand our perceptions of nature and knowledge?

Related Briefs:

  • Wingert, K. (2014). Designing programs that value traditional ecological knowledge: An ISE research brief discussing Hamlin, “‘Yo soy indígena’: Identifying and using traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) to make the teaching of science culturally responsive for Maya girls.”
  • Perin, S. M. (2011). Combining literacy lessons and science inquiry: An ISE research brief discussing Howes et al.’s, "Journeys into inquiry-based elementary science: Literacy practices, questioning, and empirical study."