A new study found that using art to convey environmental data eased political perceptions about climate change. As wildfires rage in Canada and New York City recovers from a week of smoke, the study’s findings could help scientists more effectively communicate their research at a pivotal point in the future of the planet.
Nan Li, Isabel I. Villanueva, Thomas Jilk, and Dominique Brossard of the University of Wisconsin and Brianna Rae Van Matre of the nonprofit EcoAgriculture Partners conducted the research, published May 31 in the journal Communications Earth & Environment. Li conceptualized the project two years ago when she heard artist Diane Burko speak during a webinar; the artist, whose practice centers on climate change, was pondering the real-world impact of her work.
Burko depicts the consequences of Earth’s warming atmosphere, such as melting glaciers and disappearing coral reefs, and often accompanies them with scientific maps and charts. Li and her colleague Dominique Brossard developed a study to answer Burko’s question — how does the artist’s work affect its viewers? The team chose Burko’s 2020 mixed-media work “SUMMER HEAT, I and II.” The graph at the lower left depicts the Keeling Curve, a visualization of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since 1958. The blue represents melting glaciers, and the red figure is Europe, which suffered an intense heat wave in 2020 when Burko created the work.
In Li’s study, which surveyed a total of 671 people, participants were asked to look at both the Keeling Curve on its own and Burko’s artwork. The scientists also showed the viewers the works as Instagram posts. In one striking finding, the researchers discovered that participants perceived Burko’s artwork to be just as credible as the standalone graph. People also felt more positive emotions when they saw “SUMMER HEAT, I and II” than when they saw the Keeling Curve alone.
The study notes that some evidence suggests that emotion changes the way people think about climate change, which led the scientists to the final portion of their research: Would people be less politically polarized about climate change when they looked at and thought about Burko’s artwork than when they looked at the Keeling Curve?
The results verified the team’s hypothesis: People on both ends of the political spectrum moved toward the middle. This effect, however, was only observed when the scientists asked the participants to reflect on how Burko’s artwork made them feel — simply looking at “SUMMER HEAT, I and II” did not change viewers’ ideas about climate change.
Nonetheless, the recent study’s findings posit art as a promising alternative to raw graphs and data. Previous research has found that data visuals by themselves can actually elicit skepticism and amplify biases. (One study even found that liberals and conservatives even moved their eyes differently along climate graphs.) Mona Chalabi, an artist known for her cartoons and graphics that humanize data, won the Pulitzer Prize this year for her drawings illustrating the incomprehensible wealth of Jeff Bezos. Her artworks translate mind-boggling numbers into familiar analogies.
Speaking of her team’s discovery, Li told Hyperallergic that the findings highlight “the need to move beyond using art to merely adorn science,” encouraging “deeper introspection” on art’s role in the field.
“This study could pave the way for a transformative shift in climate communications and science communications in general,” Li continued. “Highlighting the power of art to provoke emotions and promote self-reflection.”