Batman and beyond: Using the middle-ground to communicate complex ideas

8 November 2013

Our guest blogger this week is 2003 MSFHR Scholar E. Paul Zehr. As a professor of neuroscience at the University of Victoria, Zehr uses topics related to pop culture (such as Batman and Iron Man) to engage the public and communicate complex scientific concepts about the human body.

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  • “The medium is the message…”
    — Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964)

I have been involved in many KT activities (writing, talks, blogs) for science promotion to the general public. Communicating science is a necessary and rewarding activity, but providing compelling, relevant and timely points of linkage between scientific concepts and the experiences and interests of the general public can be challenging.

Superhero movies and television shows are extremely popular and have been so for some time. They represent excellent opportunities for exploring scientific concepts in a middle-ground mental “landscape” that is comfortable and familiar.

I know the science I want to use may make my audience uncomfortable, so I try to make things as pleasant—and as fun—as possible. This maximizes the likelihood of my audience engaging with the science concepts through the middle-ground I’ve chosen because they want to.



An important part of this process involves translating what we want to communicate not just into simpler concepts for non-specialists, but into the context the target audience is ready to receive. This usually means going outside your comfort zone to more effectively enter the comfort zone of your audience.

It’s not enough simply asking yourself what your audience should, need, or ought to know. Instead the real questions are how will they know it, what is the medium through which they are ready to know it, and how do I translate my message into a comfortable message for them?

The medium is the message and to truly communicate with our audiences we have to be both.

“I knew that communicating with the public and popularizing science would be rewarding. What I had to think through was how best to provide relevant and timely links between scientific concepts and public interests, in an accessible and engaging way. Which is what brought me face to face with Batman and Iron Man.”

— E. Paul Zehr, “Batman, Iron Man, and Me” – The Chronicle of Higher Education

E. Paul Zehr, PhD, is professor, author, & martial artist at the University of Victoria. His innovative work as head of the Rehabilitation Neuroscience Laboratory focuses on the recovery of walking after stroke and spinal cord injury and spans over 100 scientific publications.

He uses superheroes as foils for exploring science, human achievement and ability. His recent pop-sci books include Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero (2008), Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine (2011), and the forthcoming The Superhero Project: The Diary of a Teen Superhero (2014).

Zehr won the 2012 Craigdarroch Award for Research Communications at UVic. He is a regular speaker at conferences and comic book conventions including San Diego International Comic Con and New York Comic Con and has presented to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences on the science of superheroes. Paul blogs at Psychology Today in “Black Belt Brain” and guest blogs at Scientific American.