To Make Science Engaging, We Need a Sesame Street for Adults
This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.
In the mid-1960s, a documentary producer in New York City wondered if the addictive jingles, clever visuals, slogans, and repetition of television ads—the ones that were captivating young children of the time—could be harnessed for good. Over the course of three months, she interviewed educators, psychologists, and artists, and the result was a bonanza of ideas.
Perhaps a new TV show could teach children letters and numbers in short animated sequences? Perhaps adults and children could read together with puppets providing comic relief and prompting interaction from the audience? And because it would be broadcast through a device already in almost every home, perhaps this show could reach across socioeconomic divides and close an early education gap?
Soon after Joan Ganz Cooney shared her landmark report, "The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education," in 1966, she was prototyping show ideas, attracting funding from The Carnegie Corporation, The Ford Foundation, and The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and co-founding the Children's Television Workshop with psychologist Lloyd Morrisett. And then, on November 10, 1969, informal learning was transformed forever with the premiere of Sesame Street on public television.
For its first season, Sesame Street won three Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award. Its star, Big Bird, landed on the cover of Time Magazine, which called the show "TV's gift to children." Fifty years later, it's hard to imagine an approach to informal preschool learning that isn't Sesame Street.
And that approach can be boiled down to one word: Entertainment.
Despite decades of evidence from Sesame Street—one of the most studied television shows of all time—and more research from social science, psychology, and media communications, we haven't yet taken Ganz Cooney's concepts to heart in educating adults. Adults have news programs and documentaries and educational YouTube channels, but no Sesame Street. So why don't we? Here's how we can design a new kind of television to make science engaging and accessible for a public that is all too often intimidated by it.
We have to start from the realization that America is a nation of high-school graduates. By the end of high school, students have decided to abandon science because they think it's too difficult, and as a nation, we've made it acceptable for any one of us to say "I'm not good at science" and offload thinking to the ones who might be. So, is it surprising that a large number of Americans are likely to believe in conspiracy theories like the 25% that believe the release of COVID-19 was planned, the one in ten who believe the Moon landing was a hoax, or the 30–40% that think the condensation trails of planes are actually nefarious chemtrails? If we're meeting people where they are, the aim can't be to get the audience from an A to an A+, but from an F to a D, and without judgment of where they are starting from.
There's also a natural compulsion for a well-meaning educator to fill a literacy gap with a barrage of information, but this is what I call "factsplaining," and we know it doesn't work. And worse, it can backfire. In one study from 2014, parents were provided with factual information about vaccine safety, and it was the group that was already the most averse to vaccines that uniquely became even more averse.
Why? Our social identities and cognitive biases are stubborn gatekeepers when it comes to processing new information. We filter ideas through pre-existing beliefs—our values, our religions, our political ideologies. Incongruent ideas are rejected. Congruent ideas, no matter how absurd, are allowed through. We hear what we want to hear, and then our brains justify the input by creating narratives that preserve our identities. Even when we have all the facts, we can use them to support any worldview.
But social science has revealed many mechanisms for hijacking these processes through narrative storytelling, and this can form the foundation of a new kind of educational television.
Could new television series establish the baseline narratives for novel science like gene editing, quantum computing, or artificial intelligence?
As media creators, we can reject factsplaining and instead construct entertaining narratives that disrupt cognitive processes. Two-decade-old research tells us when people are immersed in entertaining fiction narratives, they loosen their defenses, opening a path for new information, editing attitudes, and inspiring new behavior. Where news about hot-button issues like climate change or vaccination might trigger resistance or a backfire effect, fiction can be crafted to be absorbing and, as a result, persuasive.
But the narratives can't be stuffed with information. They must be simplified. If this feels like the opposite of what an educator should be doing, it is possible to reduce the complexity of information, without oversimplification, through "exemplification," a framing device to tell the stories of individuals in specific circumstances that can speak to the greater issue without needing to explain it all. It's a technique you've seen used in biopics. The Discovery Channel true-crime miniseries Manhunt: Unabomber does many things well from a science storytelling perspective, including exemplifying the virtues of the scientific method through a character who argues for a new field of science, forensic linguistics, to catch one of the most notorious domestic terrorists in U.S. history.
We must also appeal to the audience's curiosity. We know curiosity is such a strong driver of human behavior that it can even counteract the biases put up by one's political ideology around subjects like climate change. If we treat science information like a product—and we should—advertising research tells us we can maximize curiosity though a Goldilocks effect. If the information is too complex, your show might as well be a PowerPoint presentation. If it's too simple, it's Sesame Street. There's a sweet spot for creating intrigue about new information when there's a moderate cognitive gap.
The science of "identification" tells us that the more the main character is endearing to a viewer, the more likely the viewer will adopt the character's worldview and journey of change. This insight further provides incentives to craft characters reflective of our audiences. If we accept our biases for what they are, we can understand why the messenger becomes more important than the message, because, without an appropriate messenger, the message becomes faint and ineffective. And research confirms that the stereotype-busting doctor-skeptic Dana Scully of The X-Files, a popular science-fiction series, was an inspiration for a generation of women who pursued science careers.
With these directions, we can start making a new kind of television. But is television itself still the right delivery medium? Americans do spend six hours per day—a quarter of their lives—watching video. And even with the rise of social media and apps, science-themed television shows remain popular, with four out of five adults reporting that they watch shows about science at least sometimes. CBS's The Big Bang Theory was the most-watched show on television in the 2017–2018 season, and Cartoon Network's Rick & Morty is the most popular comedy series among millennials. And medical and forensic dramas continue to be broadcast staples. So yes, it's as true today as it was in the 1980s when George Gerbner, the "cultivation theory" researcher who studied the long-term impacts of television images, wrote, "a single episode on primetime television can reach more people than all science and technology promotional efforts put together."
We know from cultivation theory that media images can shape our views of scientists. Quick, picture a scientist! Was it an old, white man with wild hair in a lab coat? If most Americans don't encounter research science firsthand, it's media that dictates how we perceive science and scientists. Characters like Sheldon Cooper and Rick Sanchez become the model. But we can correct that by representing professionals more accurately on-screen and writing characters more like Dana Scully.
Could new television series establish the baseline narratives for novel science like gene editing, quantum computing, or artificial intelligence? Or could new series counter the misinfodemics surrounding COVID-19 and vaccines through more compelling, corrective narratives? Social science has given us a blueprint suggesting they could. Binge-watching a show like the surreal NBC sitcom The Good Place doesn't replace a Ph.D. in philosophy, but its use of humor plants the seed of continued interest in a new subject. The goal of persuasive entertainment isn't to replace formal education, but it can inspire, shift attitudes, increase confidence in the knowledge of complex issues, and otherwise prime viewers for continued learning.
[Editor's Note: To read other articles in this special magazine issue, visit the beautifully designed e-reader version.]
A single shot — a gene therapy injected into the brain — dramatically reduced alcohol consumption in monkeys that previously drank heavily. If the therapy is safe and effective in people, it might one day be a permanent treatment for alcoholism for people with no other options.
The challenge: Alcohol use disorder (AUD) means a person has trouble controlling their alcohol consumption, even when it is negatively affecting their life, job, or health.
In the U.S., more than 10 percent of people over the age of 12 are estimated to have AUD, and while medications, counseling, or sheer willpower can help some stop drinking, staying sober can be a huge struggle — an estimated 40-60 percent of people relapse at least once.
A team of U.S. researchers suspected that an in-development gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease might work as a dopamine-replenishing treatment for alcoholism, too.
The idea: For occasional drinkers, alcohol causes the brain to release more dopamine, a chemical that makes you feel good. Chronic alcohol use, however, causes the brain to produce, and process, less dopamine, and this persistent dopamine deficit has been linked to alcohol relapse.
There is currently no way to reverse the changes in the brain brought about by AUD, but a team of U.S. researchers suspected that an in-development gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease might work as a dopamine-replenishing treatment for alcoholism, too.
To find out, they tested it in heavy-drinking monkeys — and the animals’ alcohol consumption dropped by 90% over the course of a year.
How it works: The treatment centers on the protein GDNF (“glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor”), which supports the survival of certain neurons, including ones linked to dopamine.
For the new study, a harmless virus was used to deliver the gene that codes for GDNF into the brains of four monkeys that, when they had the option, drank heavily — the amount of ethanol-infused water they consumed would be equivalent to a person having nine drinks per day.
“We targeted the cell bodies that produce dopamine with this gene to increase dopamine synthesis, thereby replenishing or restoring what chronic drinking has taken away,” said co-lead researcher Kathleen Grant.
To serve as controls, another four heavy-drinking monkeys underwent the same procedure, but with a saline solution delivered instead of the gene therapy.
The results: All of the monkeys had their access to alcohol removed for two months following the surgery. When it was then reintroduced for four weeks, the heavy drinkers consumed 50 percent less compared to the control group.
When the researchers examined the monkeys’ brains at the end of the study, they were able to confirm that dopamine levels had been replenished in the treated animals, but remained low in the controls.
The researchers then took the alcohol away for another four weeks, before giving it back for four. They repeated this cycle for a year, and by the end of it, the treated monkeys’ consumption had fallen by more than 90 percent compared to the controls.
“Drinking went down to almost zero,” said Grant. “For months on end, these animals would choose to drink water and just avoid drinking alcohol altogether. They decreased their drinking to the point that it was so low we didn’t record a blood-alcohol level.”
When the researchers examined the monkeys’ brains at the end of the study, they were able to confirm that dopamine levels had been replenished in the treated animals, but remained low in the controls.
Looking ahead: Dopamine is involved in a lot more than addiction, so more research is needed to not only see if the results translate to people but whether the gene therapy leads to any unwanted changes to mood or behavior.
Because the therapy requires invasive brain surgery and is likely irreversible, it’s unlikely to ever become a common treatment for alcoholism — but it could one day be the only thing standing between people with severe AUD and death.
“[The treatment] would be most appropriate for people who have already shown that all our normal therapeutic approaches do not work for them,” said Grant. “They are likely to create severe harm or kill themselves or others due to their drinking.”
On the savannah near the Botswana-Zimbabwe border, elephants grazed contentedly. Nearby, postdoctoral researcher Alida de Flamingh watched and waited. As the herd moved away, she went into action, collecting samples of elephant dung that she and other wildlife conservationists would study in the months to come. She pulled on gloves, took a swab, and ran it all over the still-warm, round blob of elephant poop.
Sequencing DNA from fecal matter is a safe, non-invasive way to track and ultimately help protect over 42,000 species currently threatened by extinction. Scientists are using this DNA to gain insights into wildlife health, genetic diversity and even the broader environment. Applied to elephants, chimpanzees, toucans and other species, it helps scientists determine the genetic diversity of groups and linkages with other groups. Such analysis can show changes in rates of inbreeding. Populations with greater genetic diversity adapt better to changes and environmental stressors than those with less diversity, thus reducing their risks of extinction, explains de Flamingh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Analyzing fecal DNA also reveals information about an animal’s diet and health, and even nearby flora that is eaten. That information gives scientists broader insights into the ecosystem, and the findings are informing conservation initiatives. Examples include restoring or maintaining genetic connections among groups, ensuring access to certain foraging areas or increasing diversity in captive breeding programs.
Approximately 27 percent of mammals and 28 percent of all assessed species are close to dying out. The IUCN Red List of threatened species, simply called the Red List, is the world’s most comprehensive record of animals’ risk of extinction status. The more information scientists gather, the better their chances of reducing those risks. In Africa, populations of vertebrates declined 69 percent between 1970 and 2022, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
“We put on sterile gloves and use a sterile swab to collect wet mucus and materials from the outside of the dung ball,” says Alida de Flamingh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
“When people talk about species, they often talk about ecosystems, but they often overlook genetic diversity,” says Christina Hvilsom, senior geneticist at the Copenhagen Zoo. “It’s easy to count (individuals) to assess whether the population size is increasing or decreasing, but diversity isn’t something we can see with our bare eyes. Yet, it’s actually the foundation for the species and populations.” DNA analysis can provide this critical information.
Assessing elephants’ health
“Africa’s elephant populations are facing unprecedented threats,” says de Flamingh, the postdoc, who has studied them since 2009. Challenges include ivory poaching, habitat destruction and smaller, more fragmented habitats that result in smaller mating pools with less genetic diversity. Additionally, de Flamingh studies the microbial communities living on and in elephants – their microbiomes – looking for parasites or dangerous microbes.
Approximately 415,000 elephants inhabit Africa today, but de Flamingh says the number would be four times higher without these challenges. The IUCN Red List reports African savannah elephants are endangered and African forest elephants are critically endangered. Elephants support ecosystem biodiversity by clearing paths that help other species travel. Their very footprints create small puddles that can host smaller organisms such as tadpoles. Elephants are often described as ecosystems’ engineers, so if they disappear, the rest of the ecosystem will suffer too.
There’s a process to collecting elephant feces. “We put on sterile gloves (which we change for each sample) and use a sterile swab to collect wet mucus and materials from the outside of the dung ball,” says de Flamingh. They rub a sample about the size of a U.S. quarter onto a paper card embedded with DNA preservation technology. Each card is air dried and stored in a packet of desiccant to prevent mold growth. This way, samples can be stored at room temperature indefinitely without the DNA degrading.
Earlier methods required collecting dung in bags, which needed either refrigeration or the addition of preservatives, or the riskier alternative of tranquilizing the animals before approaching them to draw blood samples. The ability to collect and sequence the DNA made things much easier and safer.
“Our research provides a way to assess elephant health without having to physically interact with elephants,” de Flamingh emphasizes. “We also keep track of the GPS coordinates of each sample so that we can create a map of the sampling locations,” she adds. That helps researchers correlate elephants’ health with geographic areas and their conditions.
Although de Flamingh works with elephants in the wild, the contributions of zoos in the United States and collaborations in South Africa (notably the late Professor Rudi van Aarde and the Conservation Ecology Research Unit at the University of Pretoria) were key in studying this method to ensure it worked, she points out.
Genetic work with chimpanzees began about a decade ago. Hvilsom and her group at the Copenhagen Zoo analyzed DNA from nearly 1,000 fecal samples collected between 2003 and 2018 by a team of international researchers. The goal was to assess the status of the West African subspecies, which is critically endangered after rapid population declines. Of the four subspecies of chimpanzees, the West African subspecies is considered the most at-risk.
In total, the WWF estimates the numbers of chimpanzees inhabiting Africa’s forests and savannah woodlands at between 173,000 and 300,000. Poaching, disease and human-caused changes to their lands are their major risks.
By analyzing genetics obtained from fecal samples, Hvilsom estimated the chimpanzees’ population, ascertained their family relationships and mapped their migration routes.
“One of the threats is mining near the Nimba Mountains in Guinea,” a stronghold for the West African subspecies, Hvilsom says. The Nimba Mountains are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but they are rich in iron ore, which is used to make the steel that is vital to the Asian construction boom. As she and colleagues wrote in a recent paper, “Many extractive industries are currently developing projects in chimpanzee habitat.”
Analyzing DNA allows researchers to identify individual chimpanzees more accurately than simply observing them, she says. Normally, field researchers would install cameras and manually inspect each picture to determine how many chimpanzees were in an area. But, Hvilsom says, “That’s very tricky. Chimpanzees move a lot and are fast, so it’s difficult to get clear pictures. Often, they find and destroy the cameras. Also, they live in large areas, so you need a lot of cameras.”
By analyzing genetics obtained from fecal samples, Hvilsom estimated the chimpanzees’ population, ascertained their family relationships and mapped their migration routes based upon DNA comparisons with other chimpanzee groups. The mining companies and builders are using this information to locate future roads where they won’t disrupt migration – a more effective solution than trying to build artificial corridors for wildlife.
“The current route cuts off communities of chimpanzees,” Hvilsom elaborates. That effectively prevents young adult chimps from joining other groups when the time comes, eventually reducing the currently-high levels of genetic diversity.
“The mining company helped pay for the genetics work,” Hvilsom says, “as part of its obligation to assess and monitor biodiversity and the effect of the mining in the area.”
Of 50 toucan subspecies, 11 are threatened or near-threatened with extinction because of deforestation and poaching.
Identifying toucan families
Feces aren't the only substance researchers draw DNA samples from. Jeffrey Coleman, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin relies on blood tests for studying the genetic diversity of toucans---birds species native to Central America and nearby regions. They live in the jungles, where they hop among branches, snip fruit from trees, toss it in the air and catch it with their large beaks. “Toucans are beautiful, charismatic birds that are really important to the ecosystem,” says Coleman.
Of their 50 subspecies, 11 are threatened or near-threatened with extinction because of deforestation and poaching. “When people see these aesthetically pleasing birds, they’re motivated to care about conservation practices,” he points out.
Coleman works with the Dallas World Aquarium and its partner zoos to analyze DNA from blood draws, using it to identify which toucans are related and how closely. His goal is to use science to improve the genetic diversity among toucan offspring.
Specifically, he’s looking at sections of the genome of captive birds in which the nucleotides repeat multiple times, such as AGATAGATAGAT. Called microsatellites, these consecutively-repeating sections can be passed from parents to children, helping scientists identify parent-child and sibling-sibling relationships. “That allows you to make strategic decisions about how to pair (captive) individuals for mating...to avoid inbreeding,” Coleman says.
Jeffrey Coleman is studying the microsatellites inside the toucan genomes.
Courtesy Jeffrey Coleman
The alternative is to use a type of analysis that looks for a single DNA building block – a nucleotide – that differs in a given sequence. Called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, pronounced “snips”), they are very common and very accurate. Coleman says they are better than microsatellites for some uses. But scientists have already developed a large body of microsatellite data from multiple species, so microsatellites can shed more insights on relations.
Regardless of whether conservation programs use SNPs or microsatellites to guide captive breeding efforts, the goal is to help them build genetically diverse populations that eventually may supplement endangered populations in the wild. “The hope is that the ecosystem will be stable enough and that the populations (once reintroduced into the wild) will be able to survive and thrive,” says Coleman. History knows some good examples of captive breeding success.
The California condor, which had a total population of 27 in 1987, when the last wild birds were captured, is one of them. A captive breeding program boosted their numbers to 561 by the end of 2022. Of those, 347 of those are in the wild, according to the National Park Service.
Conservationists hope that their work on animals’ genetic diversity will help preserve and restore endangered species in captivity and the wild. DNA analysis is crucial to both types of efforts. The ability to apply genome sequencing to wildlife conservation brings a new level of accuracy that helps protect species and gives fresh insights that observation alone can’t provide.
“A lot of species are threatened,” Coleman says. “I hope this research will be a resource people can use to get more information on longer-term genealogies and different populations.”