One day, in the middle Sixth century, the English politician and writer Samuel Pepys stopped by his favourite bookshop. A really unusual book caught his attention “it was so beautiful that I order a copy straight off”. The book was Micrographia by Robert Hooke, the curator of the experiments of the newborn Royal Society. Samuel Peps was amazed by more than sixty pictures taken with the microscope, showing enlarged parts of the living beings: lice, fleas, fleas’ heads, bees’ stingers and so on. The innovation of the observations and the extraordinary quality of Hooke’s drawings made this book a best-seller, appreciated not only by his colleagues but also by the general public of that time.
Today we are bombed by visual images involving techno-scientific contents. In the academic environment if you want to publish a paper about Physics, Astronomy or Life Sciences you should have beautiful and high quality pictures, while outside the walls of research institutions people seek for infographics in order to gain scientific knowledge.
But do people really have the skills to decode these complicated and elaborated information? Massimiano Bucchi, professor of Sociology of Science at University of Trento and Barbara Saracino, researcher at University of Firenze, run a study in collaboration with the Observa Science in Society to investigate the visual scientific literacy of the Italian population. By Computer Assisted Web Interviewing participants were asked to state the scientific content shown by the pictures.
Do the test yourself! (Italian version)
The results showed that participants were more accurate in identifying the right scientific content from pictures (80% accuracy) rather than from multiple choices questions regarding the same topic (60% accuracy). Visual information has indeed a huge potential in Communication of Science that should not be underestimated.