To see a system or process as purely the sum of its parts, in scientific terms, is referred to as reductionism. It is common in all types of research, and involves, for example, studying neurons’ plasma membranes to better understand human consciousness. But this approach offers only a sliver of the whole picture of the human experience, which is inextricably linked to language, culture, art, and social sciences.
Knitting together different topics and disciplines expands scientific conversations and insights, and requires a holistic perspective. Bridging the divide between these two modes of thinking are science communicators, who break down complex and hyper-focused scientific studies into language laypeople can understand by translating jargon, drawing connections to other disciplines, and connecting cutting-edge research to potential impact on daily life.
It is with a holistic frame of mind that science communicator and neurophysiologist Dr. Kirsten “Kiki” Sanford works when sharing fascinating flashes of cutting-edge research to her audience of science enthusiasts and, as she puts it, “people who might have flunked chemistry.” Though reductionism is critical for researchers, who must undertake meticulous, isolated projects in their field, reaching an audience of non-scientists is better accomplished through the lens of holistic thinking.
“It was something I struggled with as a grad student,” Dr. Kiki said. Her research during her PhD involved dissecting birds’ brains. “I had to think hard about ‘How is this contributing to knowledge about the world?’” She acknowledged that a narrow focus is necessary for most types of research; however, for better or worse, funding is frequently tied into scientists’ ability to provide evidence of the broader impacts of their work, forcing a holistic viewpoint from the outset.
Dr. Kiki is the host of two science podcasts: The Stem Cell Podcast, and This Week in Science (TWiS), which she began as a radio program while she was attending graduate school at the University of California, Davis. The shows often focus on the absurd, humorous, or culturally topical. Past items of discussion have included insect evolution, the link between entropy and intelligence in humans, global warming’s impact on bird migration, and male newt kidneys (Sexy! Who knew?)
Science communicators have the opportunity to apply a holistic framework to polarizing issues, and tease apart politics from factual, observable evidence. Citing a recent study of 25 developed nations, Dr. Kiki explained that of all the countries that were studied, the United States was an outlier in having climate change denial so closely tied to a specific political identity. She mused, optimistically: “That makes me wonder if someone with the opposite agenda—if you could modulate identities…”
Vehement climate change deniers are a small but vocal minority. Many people have simply not yet made up their minds. Armed with an understanding of how global warming impacts our daily lives through effects on the economy, national infrastructure, and human health, scientists and science communicators can locate entry points in the wider conversation to de-emphasize the issue’s political aspects. Doing so also allows them to consider the range of effects people will have to contend with as climate change ramps up in coming years.
Katie Stromme is a writer and editor who has previously served as creative nonfiction editor of Mud Season Review and assistant editor of Hunger Mountain journal. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Instagram at @strommesalami.