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.]
There’s a growing need to slow down the aging process. The world’s population is getting older and, according to one estimate, 80 million Americans will be 65 or older by 2040. As we age, the risk of many chronic diseases goes up, from cancer to heart disease to Alzheimer’s.
BioAge Labs, a company based in California, is using genetic data to help people stay healthy for longer. CEO Kristen Fortney was inspired by the genetics of people who live long lives and resist many age-related diseases. In 2015, she started BioAge to study them and develop drug therapies based on the company’s learnings.
The team works with special biobanks that have been collecting blood samples and health data from individuals for up to 45 years. Using artificial intelligence, BioAge is able to find the distinctive molecular features that distinguish those who have healthy longevity from those who don’t.
In December 2022, BioAge published findings on a drug that worked to prevent muscular atrophy, or the loss of muscle strength and mass, in older people. Much of the research on aging has been in worms and mice, but BioAge is focused on human data, Fortney says. “This boosts our chances of developing drugs that will be safe and effective in human patients.”
How it works
With assistance from AI, BioAge measures more than 100,000 molecules in each blood sample, looking at proteins, RNA and metabolites, or small molecules that are produced through chemical processes. The company uses many techniques to identify these molecules, some of which convert the molecules into charged atoms and then separating them according to their weight and charge. The resulting data is very complex, with many thousands of data points from patients being followed over the decades.
BioAge validates its targets by examining whether a pathway going awry is actually linked to the development of diseases, based on the company’s analysis of biobank health records and blood samples. The team uses AI and machine learning to identify these pathways, and the key proteins in the unhealthy pathways become their main drug targets. “The approach taken by BioAge is an excellent example of how we can harness the power of big data and advances in AI technology to identify new drugs and therapeutic targets,” says Lorna Harries, a professor of molecular genetics at the University of Exeter Medical School.
Martin Borch Jensen is the founder of Gordian Biotechnology, a company focused on using gene therapy to treat aging. He says BioAge’s use of AI allows them to speed up the process of finding promising drug candidates. However, it remains a challenge to separate pathologies from aspects of the natural aging process that aren’t necessarily bad. “Some of the changes are likely protective responses to things going wrong,” Jensen says. “Their data doesn’t…distinguish that so they’ll need to validate and be clever.”
Developing a drug for muscle loss
BioAge decided to focus on muscular atrophy because it affects many elderly people, making it difficult to perform everyday activities and increasing the risk of falls. Using the biobank samples, the team modeled different pathways that looked like they could improve muscle health. They found that people who had faster walking speeds, better grip strength and lived longer had higher levels of a protein called apelin.
Apelin is a peptide, or a small protein, that circulates in the blood. It is involved in the process by which exercise increases and preserves muscle mass. BioAge wondered if they could prevent muscular atrophy by increasing the amount of signaling in the apelin pathway. Instead of the long process of designing a drug, they decided to repurpose an existing drug made by another biotech company. This company, called Amgen, had explored the drug as a way to treat heart failure. It didn’t end up working for that purpose, but BioAge took note that the drug did seem to activate the apelin pathway.
BioAge tested its new, repurposed drug, BGE-105, and, in a phase 1 clinical trial, it protected subjects from getting muscular atrophy compared to a placebo group that didn’t receive the drug. Healthy volunteers over age 65 received infusions of the drug during 10 days spent in bed, as if they were on bed rest while recovering from an illness or injury; the elderly are especially vulnerable to muscle loss in this situation. The 11 people taking BGE-105 showed a 100 percent improvement in thigh circumference compared to 10 people taking the placebo. Ultrasound observations also revealed that the group taking the durg had enhanced muscle quality and a 73 percent increase in muscle thickness. One volunteer taking BGE-105 did have muscle loss compared to the the placebo group.
Heather Whitson, the director of the Duke University Centre for the study of aging and human development, says that, overall, the results are encouraging. “The clinical findings so far support the premise that AI can help us sort through enormous amounts of data and identify the most promising points for beneficial interventions.”
More studies are needed to find out which patients benefit the most and whether there are side effects. “I think further studies will answer more questions,” Whitson says, noting that BGE-105 was designed to enhance only one aspect of physiology associated with exercise, muscle strength. But exercise itself has many other benefits on mood, sleep, bones and glucose metabolism. “We don’t know whether BGE-105 will impact these other outcomes,” she says.
BioAge is planning phase 2 trials for muscular atrophy in patients with obesity and those who have been hospitalized in an intensive care unit. Using the data from biobanks, they’ve also developed another drug, BGE-100, to treat chronic inflammation in the brain, a condition that can worsen with age and contributes to neurodegenerative diseases. The team is currently testing the drug in animals to assess its effects and find the right dose.
BioAge envisions that its drugs will have broader implications for health than treating any one specific disease. “Ultimately, we hope to pioneer a paradigm shift in healthcare, from treatment to prevention, by targeting the root causes of aging itself,” Fortney says. “We foresee a future where healthy longevity is within reach for all.”
Discarded nylon fishing nets in the oceans are among the most harmful forms of plastic pollution. Every year, about 640,000 tons of fishing gear are left in our oceans and other water bodies to turn into death traps for marine life. London-based non-profit World Animal Protection estimates that entanglement in this “ghost gear” kills at least 136,000 seals, sea lions and large whales every year. Experts are challenged to estimate how many birds, turtles, fish and other species meet the same fate because the numbers are so high.
Since 2009, Giulio Bonazzi, the son of a small textile producer in northern Italy, has been working on a solution: an efficient recycling process for nylon. As CEO and chairman of a company called Aquafil, Bonazzi is turning the fibers from fishing nets – and old carpets – into new threads for car mats, Adidas bikinis, environmentally friendly carpets and Prada bags.
For Bonazzi, shifting to recycled nylon was a question of survival for the family business. His parents founded a textile company in 1959 in a garage in Verona, Italy. Fifteen years later, they started Aquafil to produce nylon for making raincoats, an enterprise that led to factories on three continents. But before the turn of the century, cheap products from Asia flooded the market and destroyed Europe’s textile production. When Bonazzi had finished his business studies and prepared to take over the family company, he wondered how he could produce nylon, which is usually produced from petrochemicals, in a way that was both successful and ecologically sustainable.
The question led him on an intellectual journey as he read influential books by activists such as world-renowned marine biologist Sylvia Earle and got to know Michael Braungart, who helped develop the Cradle-to-Cradle ethos of a circular economy. But the challenges of applying these ideologies to his family business were steep. Although fishing nets have become a mainstay of environmental fashion ads—and giants like Dupont and BASF have made breakthroughs in recycling nylon—no one had been able to scale up these efforts.
For ten years, Bonazzi tinkered with ideas for a proprietary recycling process. “It’s incredibly difficult because these products are not made to be recycled,” Bonazzi says. One complication is the variety of materials used in older carpets. “They are made to be beautiful, to last, to be useful. We vastly underestimated the difficulty when we started.”
Soon it became clear to Bonazzi that he needed to change the entire production process. He found a way to disintegrate old fibers with heat and pull new strings from the discarded fishing nets and carpets. In 2022, his company Aquafil produced more than 45,000 tons of Econyl, which is 100% recycled nylon, from discarded waste.
More than half of Aquafil’s recyclate is from used goods. According to the company, the recycling saves 90 percent of the CO2 emissions compared to the production of conventional nylon. That amounts to saving 57,100 tons of CO2 equivalents for every 10,000 tons of Econyl produced.
Bonazzi collects fishing nets from all over the world, including Norway and Chile—which have the world’s largest salmon productions—in addition to the Mediterranean, Turkey, India, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Pakistan, and New Zealand. He counts the government leadership of Seychelles as his most recent client; the island has prohibited ships from throwing away their fishing nets, creating the demand for a reliable recycler. With nearly 3,000 employees, Aquafil operates almost 40 collection and production sites in a dozen countries, including four collection sites for old carpets in the U.S., located in California and Arizona.
First, the dirty nets are gathered, washed and dried. Bonazzi explains that nets often have been treated with antifouling agents such as copper oxide. “We recycle the coating separately,” he says via Zoom from his home near Verona. “Copper oxide is a useful substance, why throw it away?”
Still, only a small percentage of Aquafil’s products are made from nets fished out of the ocean, so your new bikini may not have saved a strangled baby dolphin. “Generally, nylon recycling is a good idea,” says Christian Schiller, the CEO of Cirplus, the largest global marketplace for recyclates and plastic waste. “But contrary to what consumers think, people rarely go out to the ocean to collect ghost nets. Most are old, discarded nets collected on land. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I find it a tad misleading to label the final products as made from ‘ocean plastic,’ prompting consumers to think they’re helping to clean the oceans by buying these products.”
Aquafil gets most of its nets from aqua farms. Surprisingly, one of Aquafil’s biggest problems is finding enough waste. “I know, it’s hard to believe because waste is everywhere,” Bonazzi says. “But we need to find it in reliable quantity and quality.” He has invested millions in establishing reliable logistics to source the fishing nets. Then the nets get shredded into granules that can be turned into car mats for the new Hyundai Ioniq 5 or a Gucci swimsuit.
The process works similarly with carpets. In the U.S. alone, 3.5 billion pounds of carpet are discarded in landfills every year, and less than 3 percent are currently recycled. Aquafil has built a recycling plant in Phoenix to help divert 12,500 tons of carpets from the landfill every year. The carpets are shredded and deconstructed into three components: fillers such as calcium carbonate will be reused in the cement industry, synthetic fibers like polypropylene can be used for engineering plastics, and nylon. Only the pelletized nylon gets shipped back to Europe for the production of Econyl. “We ship only what’s necessary,” Bonazzi says. Nearly 50 percent of his nylon in Italy and Slovenia is produced from recyclate, and he hopes to increase the percentage to two-thirds in the next two years.
His clients include Interface, the leading world pioneer for sustainable flooring, and many other carpet producers plus more than 2500 fashion labels, including Gucci, Prada, Patagonia, Louis Vuitton, Adidas and Stella McCartney. “Stella McCartney just introduced a parka that’s made 100 percent from Econyl,” Bonazzi says. “We’re also in a lot of sportswear because Nylon is a good fabric for swimwear and for yoga clothes.” Next, he’s looking into sunglasses and chairs made with Econyl - for instance, the flexible ergonomic noho chair, designed by New Zealand company Formway.
“When I look at a landfill, I see a gold mine," Bonazzi says.
“Bonazzi decided many years ago to invest in the production of recycled nylon though industry giants halted similar plans after losing large investments,” says Anika Herrmann, vice president of the German Greentech-competitor Camm Solutions, which creates bio-based polymers from cane sugar and other ag waste. “We need role models like Bonazzi who create sustainable solutions with courage and a pioneering spirit. Like Aquafil, we count on strategic partnerships to enable fast upscaling along the entire production chain.”
Bonazzi’s recycled nylon is still five to 10 percent more expensive than conventionally produced material. However, brands are increasingly bending to the pressure of eco-conscious consumers who demand sustainable fashion. What helped Bonazzi was the recent rise of oil prices and the pressure on industries to reduce their carbon footprint. Now Bonazzi says, “When I look at a landfill, I see a gold mine.”
Ideally, the manufacturers take the products back when the client is done with it, and because the nylon can theoretically be reused nearly infinitely, the chair or bikini could be made into another chair or bikini. “But honestly,” Bonazzi half-jokes, “if someone returns a McCartney parka to me, I’ll just resell it because it’s so expensive.”
The next step: Bonazzi wants to reshape the entire nylon industry by pivoting from post-consumer nylon to plant-based nylon. In 2017, he began producing “nylon-6,” together with Genomatica in San Diego. The process uses sugar instead of petroleum. “The idea is to make the very same molecule from sugar, not from oil,” he says. The demonstration plant in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has already produced several hundred tons of nylon, and Genomatica is collaborating with Lululemon to produce plant-based yoga wear.
Bonazzi acknowledges that his company needs a few more years before the technology is ready to meet his ultimate goal, producing only recyclable products with no petrochemicals, low emissions and zero waste on an industrial scale. “Recycling is not enough,” he says. “You also need to produce the primary material in a sustainable way, with a low carbon footprint.”