The custodian descended into the 12-ton glass aquarium and all the garish lights of Times Square burned around her. She was young. She was determined. Her body language and colorful garb exuded a vital optimism. Bucket and mop in hand, she began to clean the glass walls of her enclosure — even as water rose above her ankles, knees, waist and shoulders. Despite her best efforts to press on with her labors, the deluge overtook her.
What the assembled crowd witnessed was a work of performance art: "Holoscenes," created by Lars Jan and his company Early Morning Opera for the 2017 World Science Festival. A whole cast of performers ventured into the tank over the days to follow, drawing the attention of over-stimulated Times Square tourists and presenting a vision of life transformed by climate change.
"They're having a visceral experience," Jan told the press at the May 31, 2017, opening. "They're having a visual experience and they're having a public experience for free in public space. And then hopefully that incites curiosity that leads them to ask questions and learn more about these issues."
Topical But Timeless
Jan's "Holoscenes" was the culmination of years of collaboration with performers, scientists and engineers. While the timing of its debut proved especially timely, the artist stressed that the problem runs deeper than the current news headlines.
"I think it's shortsighted to think too much about the Trump administration," Jan said. "Our habits have been bad habits for a long time, and we as a species, on whatever side of the political aisle you happen to be on, need to think about changing fundamentally our habits to adapt to the realities of climate science."
The writing on the wall is intimidating. Warmer temperatures and the prospect of a 6.5-foot (2-meter) rise in sea levels by the end of the century could have a disastrous effect on coastal areas and inland cities alike. As the vast majority of scientific investigation points to human causation, humanity is left to halt what it started.
The title of Jan's performance piece refers to the geologic Holocene epoch, though many scientists propose the term Anthropocene to cover the entire period of humanity's significant reshaping of the world. Certainly, life has always altered the Earth. Even our breathable atmosphere stems from the biologically induced Great Oxygenation Event 2.45 billion years ago. But the industrialized world has proven itself an act of unintended geoengineering, drastically changing our planet into a hotter world.
The "Holoscenes"performance played not only against the backdrop of American commercialism, but also against the news of the United States' looming withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. The news cast a shadow on much of the week's festivities, as leading scientists gathered to highlight such topics as the future of human evolution and creative machine learning. Yet in the spirit of the event, World Science Festival participants rallied to discuss the importance of science communication.
"Science is something that should unite the world," physicist and festival co-founder Brian Greene told the crowd. "Science is something that is our birthright as citizens of planet Earth and for citizens to not feel connected to these vital ideas, that is disastrous for the future. What's critical is that people feel that they can get these ideas — that they can engage with the true facts of how the world works and, based upon that, work out sensible policy that can drive us into the future."
Science in a Society Divided
Saturday's "Science in a Polarized World: A Global Town Hall" (watch the full discussion embedded below) explored the divide in depth. In addition to Greene, National Science Foundation director France Cordova, geneticist Sir Paul Nurse and science communication expert Dan Kahan examined the ways in which humans divide themselves over the scientific consensus of climate change, genetically modified foods and the deep geologic isolation of radioactive waste.
Kahan, a professor of both law and psychology, stressed that opposition to these topics is rooted in neither scientific unfamiliarity nor illogical thinking, but rather in identity-protective cognition (IPC). He defines IPC as the "tendency to selectively credit and discredit evidence in patterns that reflect people's commitments to competing cultural groups." In other words, while humans are certainly capable of united effort to combat global threats, our brains evolved with smaller problems in mind — such as survival within a social group. As a result, we subconsciously cherry-pick our experts and arguments to match our pre-existing beliefs and worldview. In the face of overwhelming scientific consensus, our social brains follow a more primal survival protocol.
Thankfully, cases of scientific polarization are rare, but notable breakdowns in such vital topics as pollution and vaccination can have profound impacts on society. The challenge, Kahan charges, is to predict toxic elements in the science communication environment before they occur. At what point does a scientific matter risk politicization? At what point does opposing scientific findings become a badge of belonging for one's cultural identity, rather than an exercise in logic?
As Sir Paul Nurse pointed out in the panel discussion, we have to understand the ever-tentative, ever-exploring and self-correcting nature of scientific endeavor — all while maintaining out trust.
"We need to have a society that respects the process of science and we also need trust in the scientists who are carrying it out," Nurse said. "So it's a trust in the process, and a trust in the scientists."