Study examines link between cultural diversity and scientific understanding

Olivia Exstrum, Assistant Campus Editor

A new Northwestern study looks at different ways to communicate scientific information to various cultural groups while remaining aware of cultural differences, the University announced Wednesday.

The study, titled “The Cultural Side of Science Communication,” was carried out in collaboration with the University of Washington, the American Indian Center of Chicago and the Menominee tribe of Wisconsin.

Psychology Prof. Douglas Medin, lead author of the study, noted how ineffective it is to try to convey scientific ideas without taking culture into account.

“We argue that science communication … necessarily makes use of artifacts, both physical and conceptual, and these artifacts commonly reflect the cultural orientations and assumptions of their creators,” Medin and his co-author, Megan Bang of the University of Washington, wrote in the study.

The new study correlates with previous research on how cultural differences affect scientific interpretation. For example, this research showed that Native Americans generally have an ecological-based approach to science and focus on connections between humans and nature, Medin said. In contrast, the research found that European-Americans tend to concentrate less on the human-nature relationship, and more on classification.

Medin said these differing perspectives are evident in media, such as children’s books.

“Books authored and illustrated by Native Americans are more likely to have illustrations of scenes that are close-up,” Medin said. “The text is more likely to mention the plants, trees and other geographic features and relationships … The European-American cultural assumption that humans are not part of ecosystems is readily apparent in illustrations.”

Medin and his team have also created a program series at the American Indian Center of Chicago that suggests children can learn about humans’ relationship with nature in urban areas.

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