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What does avant-garde theater look like in 2023? There’s no reason to think that it should resemble the avant-garde in 1912 or 1935 or 1969. After all, what was cutting edge or transgressive then is old hat today.

Patrick Olson’s Emergence: Things Are Not What They Seem offers one example of what “genre-defying and form-breaking” experimental theater looks like now. It’s a “transformative journey at the crossroads of art, science, [philosophy] and music” where scientific knowledge and artistic expression meet. The titles of the show’s songs reveal the show’s ambitions: “Time,” “In My Mind,” “Energy” and “Becoming.”

Among other topics, the piece offers CliffsNotes-like discussions of “time, matter, energy, human perception and love,” cosmology and consciousness. It “challenges our human tendency to think in convenient shortcuts when observing the world around us.” It reminds us that “Ninety-nine percent of the mass of the human body is made up of six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, iron and phosphorus. Since none of these elements is animate, the performance asks: ‘What is life, then?’”

Part monologue, part science lecture, part New Agey philosophizing, part rock concert, part modern dance performance, Emergence is a psychedelic mind trip that combines music, spoken word and dance with hallucinogenic lighting and immersive, mind-expanding video projections in an attempt to provide an all-senses experience.

A critic aptly describes the show as Mr. Wizard meets David Byrne. As for the songs, they’re “Peter Gabriel meets Nine Inch Nails.” As for Olson, the show’s creator, he calls “to mind Walter White when he was just a science teacher who had not yet broken bad.” It’s Bill Nye the Science Guy on steroids.

(If you think the academic job market is bad, the theatrical world is worse. One hundred and seventy dancers auditioned for three Off Broadway parts, for a total compensation of $15,000 for 15 weeks of performances.)

During the show, Olson, who was once a science textbook editor, wants the audience to sense the awe and wonder of scientific discovery. He riffs about consciousness, the space-time continuum and perceptions of color. His larger theme: “that while the deepest aspects of reality and human experience may appear self-evident and obvious, many are actually not at all as they seem.”

Although one reviewer deemed Emergence “quirky, whimsical, profound and mind-blowing,” the show is not everyone’s cup of tea. One critic laments its lack of “emotional power and revelatory poetry.” Some with strong science backgrounds may well consider the show little more than a collection of factoids and “pseudo-intellectual claptrap.” Here is one reviewer’s acid assessment: “Patrick Olson lectures about 3rd-grade-level science concepts as though they are revolutionary ideas he has just come up with and then he sings about them … a plotless, atonal, children’s-science-museum-worthy musical revue.”

Another reviewer recaps the show’s ideas this way:

“There is no intrinsic color, he tells us. When we see a yellow tulip, it’s actually yellow light reflecting off the flower’s surface. We say we’re alive, but there’s nothing living inside of us. We’re made up of inanimate elements. What is consciousness but electrical and biochemical signals on the brain. He talks about spatial paradigms and the relativity of time and space, making it impossible to pinpoint exactly when and where we are in the universe.”

I’d liken the show to a jazzed-up TED Talk that examines the mysteries that contemporary science has uncovered and the way that the arts and humanities imbue an unfathomable, supremely indifferent universe with meaning, purpose and direction.

My sense is that most of the audience found the show an accessible and appealing discussion of serious scientific issues.

Why, you might well ask, is the piece entitled Emergence? The answer is this: the concept of emergence occupies an important place in the contemporary physical, life and social sciences. Indeed, according to one recent university press book, theories of emergence have “become arguably the most popular conceptual tools in scientific and philosophical attempts to explain the nature and character of global organization observed in various biological phenomena, from individual cell organization to ecological systems.”

The concept refers to the way that complex entities, systems and patterns arise out of simpler interactions, leading to new properties or behaviors that are not predictable from the nature of their individual components. This concept underscores the importance of studying systems holistically as well as reductively.

Emergence involves different levels of organization. For example, consciousness is an emergent property of the brain’s neural network. While each neuron exhibits relatively simple behavior, the collective interactions of neurons produce the complex experience of consciousness.

Derek Cabrera, a systems scientist and a member of the International Academy for Systems and Cybernetic Sciences, offers another example. Within foraging ant colonies, “no single ant possesses intelligence, but collectively, their adherence to one simple rule—‘no crossing a pheromone trail’—gives rise to intelligent behavior at the colony level.”

Emergent properties are often nonlinear and unpredictable, meaning that they do not have a straightforward relationship with the properties of their individual components.

In biology, the life processes of an organism are emergent properties of the complex interactions among individual cells and their components. In physics, phenomena like superconductivity arise from the collective behavior of electrons in a material, which cannot be understood just by studying individual electrons. In chemistry, the properties of chemical compounds emerge from the bonding and interactions of atoms. In sociology and economics, collective behaviors like market trends or social movements are emergent outgrowths of individual actions and interactions.

The concept of emergence challenges the idea that a complex system can be understood merely by analyzing its component parts. While understanding the parts is crucial, it’s also important to study how they interact at higher levels of organization.

Let me return to this column’s topic of the day: how to enhance the public knowledge of science.

American adults, we are repeatedly told, lack a host of literacies: civic, cultural, financial, geographical, historical and mathematical. But especially worrisome is the extent of scientific illiteracy.

I don’t simply mean unfamiliarity with the sound scientific methods: investigations and observations conducted by trained researchers who use valid, empirical and data-driven methods to rigorously test hypotheses and produce verifiable results and conclusions. I mean a basic level of understanding of scientific findings involving precisely the kinds of topics that Patrick Olson’s Emergence addresses.

This society does a far better job of instilling certain kinds of psychological literacy than scientific literacy—even if, in all too many instances, greater familiarity with psychological concepts doesn’t necessarily translate into a deeper or more accurate understanding of the field.

We all know why: psychology, with its emphasis on emotions, behavior, relationships and mental health, seems far more relevant to people’s everyday experiences. Adults feel a strong personal and emotional connection to psychology that they don’t associate with other scientific fields of study.

Then, too, popular culture—especially the vast market for self-help and advice about personal development well-being—has led to a greater familiarity with psychological concepts, even if these constructs are often portrayed inaccurately or in an oversimplified manner. As a result, these concepts seem more understandable and accessible than they actually are, in contrast to the principles and findings of the physical and life sciences, which seem less relatable and accessible and more complex and often counterintuitive.

Scientific illiteracy isn’t a victimless crime. Its consequences include:

  • The prevalence of doomerism, an extremely pessimistic, negative and fatalistic mind-set that discourages practical actions to alleviate potential societal and environmental harms.
  • A susceptibility to misinformation, pseudoscience and conspiracy theories; uninformed and misguided personal and policy decisions; and fear-based responses to new technologies, like genetic engineering or artificial intelligence.
  • The closing off of employment options that will serve to entrench economic disadvantage and inequality.

What steps can this country take to enhance the public’s scientific literacy?

Some are obvious.

  • Train scientists to communicate effectively, enabling them to explain complex concepts in an accessible, relatable manner.
  • Engage the public through various media and online platforms. Examples abound, including Ira Flatow’s Science Friday, Eric Topol’s Ground Truths, John Lienhard’s Engines of Our Ingenuity and Art Markman, Bob Duke and Rebecca McInroy’s Two Guys on Your Head.
  • Encourage informal learning about science in museums and through science salons and public lectures.
  • Expand schoolchildren’s access to science academies and summer programs.

But, in my view, the change most needed is to reimagine the college curriculum, especially for non-STEM majors.

Colleges can implement several strategies to ensure that nonscience majors acquire greater familiarity with the scientific method, the frontiers of scientific investigation and basic scientific principles and findings.

Consider reconceptualizing the general education requirements in science. Instead of Chemistry or Physics for Poets, consider more interdisciplinary, problem-focused courses that examine a scientific controversy from multiple points of view. Thus, a class on climate change might examine not only the relevant science, but economic, ethical, legal, policy and political issues as well.

Or offer frontiers of science courses that highlight recent advances and emerging fields in various scientific disciplines. These courses should give students an overview of the cutting-edge research and potential future directions of science. Topics might include: artificial intelligence and machine learning, genomics and biotechnology, climate science and sustainability, nanotechnology, quantum computing, neuroscience and the study of consciousness, exoplanet discovery and advances in astrophysical theories, and data science and data analytics.

Offer more hands-on learning opportunities. Give more students opportunities to work in faculty labs. Or ask students to reproduce scientific experiments and revalidate and evaluate the results. Or have more students engage in citizen science, for example, through data collection and data analysis; environmental monitoring; categorizing astronomical images; conducting bird sightings, collecting soil, water and air samples; and transcribing historical weather data.

Enhance instruction in scientific communication. Offer dedicated courses and workshops that focus on scientific communication through writing, public speaking and digital media. Make the ability to explain complex concepts clearly and engagingly a topic in existing science courses by providing opportunities for students to practice their communication skills through presentations, writing assignments and creating media content.

Collaborate with rhetoric and composition and communication experts to introduce STEM students to effective storytelling, narrative development and media engagement. Implement a system of peer review and feedback to refine students’ communication skills. Encourage participation in community outreach programs, science fairs and public lectures where students can practice communicating science to diverse audiences. Educate students about career opportunities in science communication, including roles in media, government, industry and academia.

Reach out to nonscience majors. Hold symposia or workshops on current scientific controversies that target nonscience as well as science majors. Encourage participation in campus-wide science events, including research fairs and discussion forums. Promote scientific clubs and societies that are open to all students. Also, consider holding a day when the campus is invited to visit research labs and ask questions about the research that is being undertaken.

Host relevant events. These might include events that critically analyze specific instances of scientific misinformation and scientific misconduct and that examine how scientific expertise and evidence-based approaches can contribute to public policy and decision-making.

With steps like these, campuses can cultivate an environment where nonscience majors are encouraged and enabled to engage with science in a meaningful way, leading to a greater understanding and appreciation of scientific principles and methodologies.

Yes, Houston, we have a problem. We need to take steps to bridge the two-cultures problem and restore public confidence in science and scientific expertise. Trust in science should not be a matter of faith. It requires cultivating a scientifically literate and informed student body. We can do that, and it won’t require strobe lights, psychedelic sound effects, rock music or modern dance. But it will require campuses to radically rethink how they expose those outside STEM fields to science.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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