Spring 2024


A painting showing glaciers and wildfires over a graph depicting rising global carbon dioxide levels.
This painting by Diane Burko, titled “Summer Heat, 2020,” depicts red, orange, and blue motifs of wildfires and melting glaciers that overlap with maps that appear to drip over a graph of global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Research from the Department of Life Sciences Communication shows that combining climate data with visually engrossing art can make data more meaningful to viewers and bridge political divides related to climate science.


Communicating science to a general audience can be challenging. Successfully conveying research on polarizing topics such as climate change can be even more difficult. But there are tools that could make it all a little easier, and a research team led by Nan Li has identified at least one.

In their recent study, the team shows that intentionally integrating art with data visualizations can help non-expert audiences more meaningfully engage with the issue of climate change. It can also bridge political divides in ways that data alone cannot. In fact, the study shows, data graphs on their own can exacerbate political division on climate change.

As an assistant professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication (LSC), Li studies how innovative visual representations of science can shape people’s understanding and opinions about various scientific issues. For this study, she teamed up with LSC graduate students Isabel Villanueva and Thomas Jilk, LSC professor and chair Dominique Brossard, and LSC alum Brianna Rae Van Matre BS’20, MS’22 from EcoAgriculture Partners. Through a survey of people across the political spectrum, they gauged responses to a painting by Diane Burko titled “Summer Heat, 2020.”

The painting depicts red, orange, and blue motifs of wildfires and melting glaciers that overlap with maps that appear to drip over a graph of global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. It’s not just art and science side-by-side or pretty colors added to a graph: The two are combined to tell a larger story that makes people stop and think about climate change.

An screenshot of a mock Instagram post featuring the painting "Summer Heat, 2020."
A mock Instagram post used in the study. Image courtesy of Nan Li

Li thinks this intentional integration of the data into the piece of art is part of its success.

“For art to maximize its potential as a tool for public engagement, you really need to use it as a catalyst for triggering self-reflection,” Li says. “People use this piece of art as a starting point to think about what this all means to themselves.”

For the study, published in Communications Earth & Environment, the team divided 671 survey participants from across the U.S. into groups and showed each group one of four different presentations of the painting and the data it contains: the original painting, a detailed version of the graph it includes, simplified version of that same graph, or an edited version of the painting with a detailed graph.

In the first iteration of the survey, participants were instructed ahead of time to reflect on the meaning of the visuals and the emotions they evoke. Survey participants who saw the paintings reported stronger positive emotions — such as happiness, awe, inspiration, and hope — than participants who were shown just the graphs. The researchers then used a digital editing tool to represent what it would look like if “Summer Heat, 2020” and other visuals were posted to an Instagram feed. The caption contained more details about the painting and facts about climate change.

Participants felt the artwork post was as credible a source of information as the data graphs post. This finding supports the idea that galleries aren’t the only way these kinds of artwork can be successful, Li says. Bringing them to a larger audience through social media is beneficial as well.

In general, when people see graphs about climate change, their self-identified political ideology (conservative or liberal) influences how they perceive the relevance of the issue. But in the new study, Li’s team noted a reduction in the gap between political affiliations when survey participants saw the painting in a social media format. In other words, when liberals and conservatives both see artistic representations of climate data rather than data alone, they are more likely to share the perception that climate change is relevant to them.

Another iteration of the survey did not instruct participants to reflect on the meaning and emotions the visuals inspired before seeing them. Instead, they viewed the simulated Instagram posts and then later reported their perceived relevance of climate change. This time, participants’ perceived relevance of climate change was equally polarized along their political ideology despite the different visuals they were shown. To Li, this suggests that priming people for introspection is important for breaking down political barriers.

While the findings are exciting, Li also recognizes this case study is very specific. The study is limited to the use of one painting in one style from one artist.

Moving forward, she and her team hope to complete additional studies that tease out what element of a piece makes communicating the scientific information more successful. They want to expand the study to consider reactions to other styles by artists from varied backgrounds as well as reactions from participants in other countries. Li and her team also highlight that it’s important for scientists and artists to be aware of their audience’s interest level in art and recognize that not everyone will react emotionally or cognitively to a piece in the same way.

Even though communicating these polarizing concepts can be challenging, Li believes in the ability of art to bridge the gap between a lay audience and scientific data. “When you show art, I think it sort of makes people think, ‘Hey, wait a minute. What is this all about?’ ” Li says. “It fills in people’s imaginative deficit of what data means without taking a lecturing approach. It actually engages people to explore the meaning themselves.”

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