Avengers Assemble! Using pop-culture icons to communicate science

Adv Physiol Educ. 2014 Jun;38(2):118-23. doi: 10.1152/advan.00146.2013.


Engaging communication of complex scientific concepts with the general public requires more than simplification. Compelling, relevant, and timely points of linkage between scientific concepts and the experiences and interests of the general public are needed. Pop-culture icons such as superheroes can represent excellent opportunities for exploring scientific concepts in a mental “landscape” that is comfortable and familiar. Using an established icon as a familiar frame of reference, complex scientific concepts can then be discussed in a more accessible manner. In this framework, scientists and the general public use the cultural icon to occupy a commonly known performance characteristic. For example, Batman represents a globally recognized icon who represents the ultimate response to exercise and training. The physiology that underlies Batman’s abilities can then be discussed and explored using real scientific examples that highlight truths and fallacies contained in the presentation of pop-culture icons. Critically, it is not important whether the popular representation of the icon shows correct science because the real science can be revealed in discussing the character through this lens. Scientists and educators can then use these icons as foils for exploring complex ideas in a context that is less threatening and more comfortable for the target audience. A “middle-ground hypothesis” for science communication is proposed in which popculture icons are used to exploring scientific concepts in a bridging mental landscape that is comfortable and familiar. This approach is encouraged for communication with all nonscientists regardless of age.

MeSH terms

  • Cartoons as Topic*
  • Communication*
  • Courage
  • Culture*
  • Humans
  • Information Dissemination
  • Learning
  • Metaphor*
  • Public Opinion*
  • Science / education*
  • Teaching / methods*