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Evidence-based Science Filmmaking Initiative

Can the craft of science filmmaking be enhanced by the use of evidence-based methods?

Award-winning film produced by Initiative member Sonya PembertonIf the answer is “yes,” the reason isn’t that such methods supply a substitute for professional judgment. An interconnected web of intuitive powers of discernment and critical reasoning proficiencies, professional judgment enables the specialist to match the critical elements of a decisionmaking task to the inventory of insight and skills she has acquired through experience. There is no alternative to the adroit exercise of professional judgment in science filmmaking, or in any other field that admits of expertise.

The question, then, is only whether the empirical tools that evidence-based methods supply can equip the expert science filmmaker to exercise her professional judgment to even greater effect.

The reasons to think they can are two.  One is the role of information plays in the exercise of professional judgment. Information about the nature of curiosity, about the materials a particular science topic supplies for satisfying this appetite, and about the narrative devices suited for transporting the former to the latter is the currency of the science filmmaker’s craft.

The otherAward winning film produced by Project member Katie Carpenter reason to believe that evidence-based methods might be of value to the science filmmaker is the inevitability of persistently hard questions. Persistently hard questions are those that defy confident resolution with the information on hand.  Some (the most comprehensible format, say, for presenting a piece of quantitative information) will be specific to particular projects. But others  (e.g.,  how to prevent political or cultural controversy from stifling engagement of curious people with a topic like evolution or climate change) are recurring, and provoke disagreement among experienced filmmakers themselves.

In collaboration with individuals whose own professional judgment pertains to empirical methods, science filmmakers can design studies specifically tailored to these issues.  They can use that evidence to help them make production decisions.  And they can share with one another the insights gained from doing so as they participate in the process of collective interaction through which their craft norms evolve.

That evidence-based practice could enhance and enrich the exercise of science filmmaker professional judgment in this manner is the animating conjecture of the Cultural Cognition Evidence-based Science Filmmaking Initiative (ESFI).

But the fundamental premise of ESFI is that evidence-based methods can’t help science filmmakers unless it operates to inform, not displace, their professional judgment. For this reason, too, it is a basic tenet of evidence-based practices that science filmmakers must themselves play a key role in designing and evaluating studies.  Award-winning evolution documentary "Your Inner Fish," produced by Initiative collaborator Tangled Bank Studios and the focus of the Initiative's study of science curiosity and viewer engagement..They might not be experts on empirical methods. But they are the only ones who can tell those who possess that expertise what questions merit investigation and what study designs are genuinely suited to generating evidence that can make a filmmaker  more confident when she has to choose between competing courses of action.

The science communication professionals and researchers associated with ESFI hypothesize that evidence-based methods can improve the craft of science filmmaking by these means.  By modeling such practice, ESFI is intended to itself supply evidence that can help science filmmakers infer for themselves whether this hypothesis is correct.


ESFI Links:

ESFI members
Science Curiosity
The "Missing Audience" Hypothesis
The (non)relationship Between "Believing in" Evolution and Being Engaged by Evolutionary Science
ESFI Study No. 1
Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing