Art

Is Science Becoming Cool?

To delve deeper into this question, I looked at the coverage of science in Dazed and Confused, a magazine that declares itself to be at the “forefront of youth fashion and culture.”

‘Cool’ is a slippery and much maligned concept. To many, the word is synonymous with the transience, vacuousness and exclusivity normally associated with the worlds of art, fashion and media. These are domains in which the new and the revisionary are prized above all else and taste is subject to ceaseless, mutable vogues, set by shady cabals of opinion formers in publishing, advertising and the arts.

The scientific community have collectively set themselves up in antithesis to these values. Science is perceived by those who practice it is as occupying a special place, removed from the fads and crazes that characterise much of popular culture. I suggest that science communicators are missing a trick by overlooking outlets that act as gatekeepers to popular culture; for example style, art and fashion magazines. Whilst these publications do not have the reach of the mainstream press, they are often well suited to cover innovative science and engineering and offer huge potential to engage new audiences and determine cultural attitudes.

With or without broad reciprocation, an increasing number of these ‘cool’ outlets—in print and online—are setting a trend towards greater engagement with the scientific world. Dazed and Confused is one example. The monthly, London-centric magazine has sought to cover emerging music, fashion, film, art, and literature for over twenty years. The Dazed empire now encompasses a print publication, with a global circulation of 90,000 copies in 2011, and a growing online presence.

Anecdotal evidence suggests an unexpected and growing inclusion of science and technology. This is surprising coming from a publication very concerned with its hip image and entrenched in the reputedly opposed world of music and fashion. In order to quantify this apparent change in attitude, I compared two six-month periods of the magazine’s history from 2003 and 2013.

Analysis

Comparing the levels of science and technology coverage in Dazed and Confused during 2003 and 2013

Associated

Topics (if any) associated with articles covering science in Dazed and Confused during 2003 and 2013

The most obvious question to ask was whether the levels of science coverage had changed in the past decade. The difference is stark, showing a seven-fold rise in the number of articles with scientific content.

Science

Scientific topics covered in articles covering science from 2003 and 2013

A more difficult question is the exact nature of the change in content. In the majority of cases, during both eras, scientific and technological themes were introduced in the context of more traditional topics. For example, science was often cited as a source of inspiration for artists, designers or social commentators. However, my most notable finding is that none of the articles from 2003 covered a scientific topic as the primary focus of the article, a stark contrast with the 30% of articles from 2013, which do.

This is remarkable because it implies that science content is not only creeping into the magazine on the coattails of other topics but is being included by editors on its own merit and represents an entirely new domain of coverage.

Focus_depth

(A) Focus and (B) depth of coverage in articles covering science from 2003 and 2013

Despite the fact that the majority of articles mention science in a secondary capacity to some other topic, it is also worth considering what types of science are being referenced. The breakdown shows, perhaps as expected, that a large proportion of the new science coverage is fuelled by an increased interest in computer technology. In contrast to the predominance of health coverage in newspapers, there is a remarkable lack of interest from Dazed and Confused during either period. The rise suggests that coverage of this kind might be a valuable and constructive addition to the media offering on science as a whole.

It seems incontrovertible that there has been paradigmatic shift in Dazed and Confused’s attitude to science. The magazine today covers a greatly increased, diversified and well reported array of science topics. But what can the dissection of one particular magazine tell us about science communication from non-traditional outlets in general?

Style magazines, such as Dazed and Confused are accepted as having a preoccupation with “announcing the new and the young talents of the time and mediating style as part of anti-establishment discourses.” Editors have often based their reputation on identifying the emerging fashions and proving to be successful gatekeepers of ‘cool.’ Whilst the sector will never have the significance in terms of circulation of the mainstream press, it has an important influence on a small audience of opinion formers and opinion leaders.

Yet, this trend has been largely disregarded by the science community, possibly because the new coverage is not immediately recognisable as traditional science reporting. Many scientists and traditional science journalists may be nervous about a consequential loss of control, as coverage moves away from the tightly controlled corral of journals and broadsheets.

I would argue that a rise in imaginative reporting from non-traditional outlets need not represent a decline in accuracy or quality. The recruitment of science advocates from new audiences should be embraced and encouraged. If science truly is becoming ‘cool,’ a huge opportunity exists to creatively communicate science and broaden its cultural penetration for the better.

Meredith Thomas is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.

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