Wednesday, May 28, 2014

How False Conviction Could Help Science Centers Be More Human

It’s not every day that a science center releases an ebook about wrongful conviction in rape and murder cases. Then again, the New York Hall of Science isn’t just any science center. For a long time, I’ve admired their ambitious work, from exhibitions on complex topics like network science to integration of contemporary art into their galleries to incredible dedication to advancing the careers of diverse youth in Queens. Now, NYSCI is experimenting in a new medium, with a very tough and adult content focus. The result is False Conviction: Innocence, Guilt, and Science

I sat down with Eric Siegel, NYSCI’s Director and Chief Content Officer, to learn more about False Conviction. This interview is not really about an ebook. It’s about thinking about science centers and the public understanding of science as a human problem.

How did this project come about? 

I was at a planning meeting for NISE-NET in St. Paul five years ago. NISE-NET is probably the single largest investment that the National Science Foundation has made in informal learning, with the intention of spreading knowledge about nano science. We tried to find ways to make nano science interesting to the public, but it was mostly shiny futuristic potential that seemed to leave people cold. I cut out from the meeting by myself to check out an exhibition called Open House, if These Walls Could Talk at the Minnesota History Center.

I was struck by the mortality, pathos, and sense of loss that pervaded the exhibition. Not that it was sad, but that it was human. Contrasting that rich human narrative with the kind of gleamy tweaky technology narrative that was emerging from the NISE-NET meeting made me realize that generally speaking, science museums ignore many of the aspects of life that are the most resonant--mortality, sex, humor, tragedy, pity, joy. If there was a way to engage these deep emotions in the context of science museums, then there is an opportunity to expand our impact.

Two years later, I met Peter Neufeld, the head of The Innocence Project. Peter started telling me this absolutely fascinating and deep take on the way in which the misunderstanding of science is fundamental to the false convictions that The Innocence Project helps to overturn. On one side is DNA evidence, which was developed through the scientific method, and on the other side are a raft of quasi sciences and unreliable memories. Eyewitness identification is considered the gold standard of evidence to find guilt. And yet the plurality of cases that the Innocence Project has overturned were based upon eyewitness evidence. Even more amazingly, people turn out to be very susceptible to manipulation and frequently confess to crimes they did not commit.

I am listening to Peter go through this litany like the brilliant lawyer he is, and I am thinking that this is an amazing opportunity to put science in a very human context. Like so many chance meetings at conferences, we expressed interest in working together, but unlike most, we actually stuck with it.

I keep in my head a Venn diagram that has three circles--one is passion, the second is funding, and the third is audience. I am always looking for projects in which the intersection of those three circles is substantial. This project had that feel. We engaged with the Sloan Foundation, a leading funder in public understanding of science, who made a first time grant to NYSCI to plan the project. Peter and I brought in two equally passionate partners, Jim Dwyer, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the NY Times; and Geralyn Abinader, the former head of digital media at the American Museum of Natural History. Finally we engaged Theo Grey, one of the first developers for the iPad who had started a British company called Touch Press. So we had the key players.

I always have a strong feel for the passion and funding part of the venn diagram, but I am less confident of my understanding of our audiences. However, I was encouraged by the popularity of forensic science and the widespread and growing awareness of the problem of false convictions in our criminal justice system. I felt, and our partners agreed, that there was a great potential for a large audience for the project.

Is there a target audience for the project? If so, whom? 

It clearly is a book for adults. When Touch Press was doing their planning, they identified the target audience for the book as "educated and lefty." I like that, though I know that libertarians will find a lot to appreciate as well. My hope is that we can find a way to get it into the science and humanities classrooms in colleges and universities, and I am working on that.

It is a bit too sexual for most high schools, though one high school philosophy teacher reported using it to great effect. One of his students reflected:
Using the interactive iPad book to test my own reliability in crime scenes and investigations was really powerful. Feeling involved and somewhat responsible myself made me take the interactions seriously and I was even emotionally invested and ultimately disappointed at my own inaccuracies. Now knowing how difficult it is to put actual evidence together, not circumstantial or through coerced confessions, I feel more strongly than ever that we have to rely as much as possible on science to do this work fairly and justly.
Teachers and science conference organizers have been very enthusiastic and the sparse reviews on the iBook store has been positive. Anyone we can get to look at it and devote the time to it really seems to love it. But the key part seems to be getting people’s attention for a sustained engagement of 4-5 hours with a deep, rich, and harrowing set of content.

That’s not easy. I was struck by how this is partly interactive, but within a structured, linear narrative. How did you make decisions about how to structure the story? 

From the beginning, we knew this was fundamentally a book. We want 5 hours of your time to read this book. No website can deliver that kind of sustained attention. Our interactives were carefully designed not to lead one too far or for too long from the narrative. We didn't want people wandering through youtube videos, etc., but rather we wanted the interactive portions to illustrate parts of the narrative. Jim is the author and he is so brilliant and addresses the subject with such clarity and authority that we had a lot of trust in his sense of the structure of the book.

Why are you using the iBooks platform? It seems to limit availability.  

This is our biggest problem right now. When we started the project, we chose to work with Touch Press because of the quality of their work, but also because they had long-standing and deep connections into Apple's digital media group. They felt confident and had some assurances that our project would get a lot of visibility on the Apple iBooks store. It hasn't. Apple has a long history of ambivalence about its forays into education, and right now False Conviction is not getting the kind of exposure we want and need. We have always planned to make a non-interactive version of the book, both for epub/kindle and on paper, so we are working on that right now. Peter, Jim, and I have been doing some science conferences, but we haven't found the right way to get this very compelling project out further. The iBook story is a bit of a mystery and backwater, nothing like the App store, though it seems so similar. So we have learned a lot, and are working on building readership for the iPad version and also creating versions for other platforms.

While the content is really compelling, the audience and format are obviously challenging. This whole project is kind of risky. How do you figure out how to explore a new project like this? 

In the Venn diagram I described above, our certainty about the curatorial passion and funding were strong, but our understanding of the audiences and distribution were more experimental. I have tried to be very transparent with my colleagues and other stakeholders about the benefits of undertaking these experiments, to mixed success.

So it is not so much where I judge to take it, but rather the team's success in demonstrating its value to the goals of the institution. This requires that we be honest about what we have achieved and not assert that something is worth doing solely because we can get funding for it or because one of the program team is hot for the project. We're getting better at this. All that said, man are these brand new approaches invigorating, food for the mind, and great for finding really remarkable and creative staff. I am grateful every day for the opportunity to do this.

How does this project fit into the broader context of NYSCI? 

All of our work is focused on ways of broadening the invitation into science. We want to make projects that have a broad public invitation, that are human and humane, that are brilliantly executed, and that bring new ideas to the table. We want to demonstrate that NYSCI is thinking broadly and energetically about informal STEM learning, and that we continue to be recognized as a laboratory where creative ideas can emerge and be deployed. That is what we are trying to do in all the projects we have been working on, whether Design Lab, Human +, Connected Worlds, or False Conviction.

What are you ultimately hoping to achieve with this project? 

A few things. First I think the power of the image of falsely convicted people spending a couple of decades in prison knowing that they are innocent is a haunting and nightmarish scenario, a kind of Pit and the Pendulum, buried alive horror. Can we leverage the empathy that we have with people who are in that horrific situation to make people think more about how science has a real impact on our lives? Can we re-integrate deeper feelings, more humanity, into how we approach thinking and teaching about science?

There is a 20 minute video--a real video--in False Conviction of a young man confessing that he committed a murder that he *did not* commit. The two detectives interrogating him slowly close the noose on him, and it has the fascination of watching a boa constrictor kill and eat a small mammal. But we are watching a boy ruin his own life, in real time.

I am also really interested in the question of sustained attention, and how we can combine the sustained attention that one gives to a book or a movie with the sense of interactivity and participation that one gets from a good science museum exhibition. This question continues to vex our field as we continue to "design for distraction," piling one experience on top of another.

So from the affect and emotion of the project to the form of the project, I am hoping it helps our field think through some new options.

Ultimately we want to move people with the reality of these stories and the deep way in which science is central to the possibility of preventing or minimizing false convictions. The Innocence Project is a tremendously participatory project, with hundreds of volunteers around the country. Our hope is that this book engenders even more active participation. This is real stuff, with real consequences on real people's lives. More and more cities around this country are re-opening entire classes of cases to look at the possibility of the misapplication of science resulting in the dual tragedy of decades of innocent people’s lives being wasted and real criminals continuing to commit violent crimes. It is as personal and compelling as science gets.

False Conviction can be purchased through the iBook store and read on an iPad or an Apple computer running Mavericks through the iBook program. You can find it here
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