The refractive index of science communication

Caustics in blue. Photograph: Flickr/Jeremie Gisserot

Is there such a thing as the refractive index of science communication, a specific difference in how media ‘carry’ and ‘transport’ meaning? Refraction, the change in the speed of light when entering a different medium, transforms light and reframes information: the medium of presentation affects the way we see the world. To link the behaviour of light and information travelling in diverse media, I will explore a metaphor that has structured most of our discussions about communication – the conduit metaphor.

We usually say that messages ‘travel’ and are ‘sent’ from one place to another. But when making a phone call, sending a letter or an email, this use of ‘send’ is metaphorical. Literally, all we are sending is patterns of print, waves, or nowadays, digital code.

Linguists call this specific kind of metaphor the conduit metaphor. For example, I may say: “Your message does not come across, you need to be more clear.” Or: “This sentence carries no meaning at all!” These are examples of how words, sounds, texts, and images ‘carry’ a meaning from a sender to a receiver. We construe this process as if it actually happened, in the same way that a donkey carries a load of produce to the marketplace or water runs down a channel.

All kinds of things can happen on the way along this conduit channel. The wave patterns of shadows and bright spots that appear on the surface of clear shallow water when the sun is shining, called caustics, are a good example. This pattern effect is a result of refraction in the medium.

Caustics make it hard for us to observe fish in rippled water. Similar distortions not only affect the visual information we obtain of the world that surrounds us, but information in general. All information we receive has been refracted by a specific kind of medium – messages are constantly ‘refracted’. To get around such distortions, science often applies measuring devices in the hope of creating a more objective picture of reality. Is it, however, possible to avoid these distortions entirely, to see information directly? Or will we always face refraction and mediation when information is transferred from the world, or our fellow humans, to our eyes and ears?

The famous media science scholar Marshall McLuhan once said that the medium is the message: the form of information is part of the message. We cannot have a medium without a message nor a message without a medium. In this case, it seems direct access to ‘pure information’ is not possible.

We tend to talk about the relation between form and content, medium and message, as if these were two substances filling a container, like oil and water in a jar. We must let go of this image and realise that form and content are not like oil and water. Instead, they dissolve into each other, forming different solutions that can never be entirely purified as the form and the content.

Instead of assuming that form is the transparent conduit of substantial information, we should focus on the ripples of water, the reflections and the shadows it casts on our attempts to understand each other and the world we live in. By becoming more aware of the refraction of information, we can stop the pursuit of rendering media ever more transparent and instead focus on creating new and innovative forms of communication.

Nils Hanwahr is studying for a MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College.


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