Science – A Trivial Pursuit?

The ninth in our series on this year’s group projects by Sci Com students . This week’s offering is by Siobhan Chan, Lucía de la Riva and Helen Wilkes, who wanted to tackle a controversial question about science and the search for truth.

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Science pursues the discovery of truth: but truth is not an easy concept to define. This is partly because our understanding of nature is mainly based on interpretations instead of direct observations. Scientists must describe the world around them, but in many cases, this is not as simple as looking at what they want to describe. This is often because our senses cannot perceive all phenomena in nature – for example, our sight does not allow us to see structures as small as electrons.

The unobservable can be studied by using instruments and techniques that allow scientists to visualise phenomena and explain them. This raises an important question: how distorted is the truth science discovers? This controversial question fascinated us, and encouraged us to make the board game A Trivial Pursuit?

As a game for anyone curious about the scientific method, we wanted A Trivial Pursuit? to encourage players to reflect on how we interpret the world around us. We hand-crafted a board, game cards and an instruction sheet influenced by the iconic design of the original Trivial Pursuit game. We also had a lot of fun presenting our game in the style of a shopping channel segment, complete with our very own theme tune and questions from callers.

A journey through science

We were drawn to the idea of creating a board game to represent the journey that scientists make: interpreting nature, working with (and sometimes against) others and solving problems. Players compete alone or in teams to interpret images of science and collect facts about how non-scientists can provide valuable knowledge. The aim of the game is to reach the centre of the board, where their ‘destiny’ is decided when they pick up a ‘Destiny Card’. Through the use of images, we hoped to show that nature can often only be seen through the use of instruments, which can make it tricky to recognise and identify objects.

A Trivial Pursuit? playing cards, showing scientific images from 6 categories

Players move around the outside of the board, gathering knowledge, until they can progress to the middle of the board and the pivotal moment: answering one final question to determine whether they have won the game or not. This correlates with our view that scientific knowledge isn’t simply gathered in an easy, logical way, and sometimes along the way you receive help from unusual sources, as reflected in our ‘Citizen Science’ category, which included information on culturally specific practices.

Example of a Citizen Science card (text below)

Honey has a long tradition of use for wound healing and has been referred to extensively in the medical literature of Egypt, Greece, in the Ayurvedic traditions of India, and also in the Koran. Two honeys derived from tea trees in Australia and New Zealand, Medihoney and Manuka Honey, have enhanced antibacterial activity, and have been approved for marketing as therapeutic honeys. Manuka is the common name of Leptospernum scoparium, the floral source from which the honey is derived.

Perception and truth 

Human perception is limited, and instruments and techniques solve this issue. Many scientific procedures attempt to ‘scale up’ phenomena that occur at an imperceptible scale. A clear example is gene expression, where the colours of the spots in a DNA microarray are indices of the level of gene expression. Scientific symbols are created to define a language that allows scientists to approach nature, and this language should be consistent, regardless of the scientist’s status, field, or location.

The meaning a particular sign conveys to a particular reader will depend on how familiar they are with it. In science, this means that interpretations of observations in a particular field will depend on the expertise the reader has in that field.  In our game, the answer a player gives depends on their background knowledge. Multidisciplinary teams will therefore have a better chance of giving the right answer, and therefore progressing faster to the centre of the board.

Deciding on destiny

As we developed the game, we found the ending to be a major sticking point. We recognised that any ‘pursuit of truth’ is not as simple as a route with a start and an end, and many factors are involved in the outcome of the journey. Thus, we introduced the idea of Destiny Cards to provide a launch pad for further discussion. Some cards advised that further work was needed, hinting at the idea that while science is not a trivial pursuit, it can often be a long one.

Destiny card outcomes, both positive and negative

MSc Science Communication students enjoying the Destiny Cards

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Siobhan Chan, Lucía de la Riva and Helen Wilkes are all currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College, London

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