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Lecture 23:  Communicating Science

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The debate about the public understanding of science
[ … ] confounded by confusion over method and content.
What should be explained is methods of science,
but what most people concerned with the issues want the public to know about
is the truth about the natural world
—that is, what the powerful believe to be the truth about the natural world.
The 'public understanders', as we might call them, seem to think that
if the person in the street knows more science
—as opposed to more about science—
they will be able to make more sensible decisions about these things.
How strange that they should think this;
it ranks among the great fallacies of our age.

H Collins and T Pinch, The Golem: What you should know about Science.
2nd ed., Cambridge UP, 1993, 1998. p. 142 .



  • To illustrate the claim quoted in the epigraph, Collins and Pinch propose a scenario quite common in science classes at any level of the educational system:
    "Every classroom in which children are conducting the same experiment in unison is a microcosm of frontier science [ … ] Think about what happens: the teacher asks the class to discover the boiling point of water by inserting a thermometer into a beaker and taking a reading when the water is steadily boiling. One thing is certain: almost no-one will get 100°C unless they already know the answer, and they are trying to please the teacher. Skip will get 102°C, Tania will get 105°C, Johnny will get 99.5°C, Mary will get 100.2°C, Zonker will get 54°C, while Brian will not quite manage to get a result; Smudger will boil the beaker dry and burst the thermometer. Ten minutes before the end of the experiment the teacher will gather these scientific results and start the social engineering. Skip had his thermometer in a bubble of superheated steam when he took his reading, Tania had some impurities in her water, Johnny did not allow the beaker to come fully to the boil, Mary's result showed the effect of slightly increased atmospheric pressure above sea-level, Zonker , Brian and Smudger have not yet achieved the status of fully competent research scientists. At the end of the lesson, each child will be under the impression that their experiment has proved that water boils at exactly 100°C, or would have done were it not for a few local difficulties that do not affect the grown-up world of science and technology, with its fully trained personnel and perfected apparatus.

    That ten minutes renegotiation of what really happened is the important thing [ … ] For that ten minutes illustrates better the tricks of professional frontier science than any university or commercial laboratory with its well-ordered predictable results [ … ] It is the scientific community (the head teacher?) who brings order to this chaos, transmuting the clumsy antics [ … ] into a neat and tidy methodological myth. There is nothing wrong with this; the only sin is not knowing that it is always thus."
    [ from H Collins and T Pinch, op. cit., p. 148-9 ]
    It is interesting to note that a propos the 1998 National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Indicators, Jon Miller, who conducted the survey, remarked:
    "The awareness and interest in science continues on an upward path, but most Americans still don't understand the scientific process very well, and that affects their views on the nation's science policy." [ quoted in Science and Engineering Indicators '98 Survey Shows Americans' Interest in Science is Growing ]
  • The issue of science and communication is very complex, first of all because science is communicated by and to a whole range of social groups, and, second, because these various kinds of communication have different goals and purposes. For example, in an often cited article, M Cloître and T Shinn (Expository practice: social, cognitive and epistemological linkages, in T Shinn and R Witley, eds., Expository Science, Dirdrect, Reidel: 31-60 (1985)) "identify four main stages in the process of scientific communication:

    1. Intraspecialist Level. This is the most distinctively esoteric level, as typified by the paper published in a specialized scientific journal …
    2. Interspecialist Level. Pertaining to this level are various kinds of texts, from interdisciplinary articles published in 'bridge journals' like Nature and Science to papers given at meetings of researchers belonging to the same discipline but working in different areas.
    3. Pedagogical Level. This is the level that Fleck calls 'textbook science' [ … ] The emphasis is on the historical perspective and on the cumulative nature of the scientific endeavour.
    4. Popular Level … articles on science published in the daily press and the 'amateur science' of television documentaries."

    [ from Massimiano Bucchi, Science in Society. An Introduction to Social Studies of Science. Routledge, London, 2004, pp. 114-5 ]

    Notice that the four stages outlined above interact with each other in several, and sometimes surprising, ways. Bucchi points out that articles or press releases of the 'popular level' kind "in some cases resemble certain forms of political discourse in that [ they are ] only apparently 'public.' [ They are ] really not addressed to the public but [ are ] instead intended to reach a large number of colleagues rapidly. To do so, [ they use ] the public level as a shared 'arena' where it is not necessary to comply with the constraints of specialist communication [ … ] Communication at the public level enabled the French physiologist [ Pasteur ] to underplay still unclear theoretical issues by emphasizing practical ones—of great importance to some groups in the audience, e.g. farmers and politicians—such as the effectiveness and cheapness of his method [ … in such cases ] we can speak of a 'deviation' to the public level, because the discourse did not follow the usual trajectory but passed directly at the public level, to then influence specialist ones." [ from Massimiano Bucchi, op. cit., p. 118-9 ]

    A similar position is taken by Bart Simon in a very interesting paper on Public Science: Media Configuration and Closure in the Cold Fusion Controversy (in Public Understanding of Science 10 (2001) 383Ė402. The article is also available on line at staff.science.uva.nl/~cmulder/vd/coldfushion/pu1403.pdf) :
    "The role of the mass media in the process of doing science has received an increasing amount of attention in recent years as scholars work to bring the insights of media studies and science studies together. Much of this work has focused on revising our understanding of the public communication of science as being about more than successful or unsuccessful diffusion of expert knowledge to a lay public. This 'standard' or 'canonical' model of science communication has been refined to more closely consider the reciprocal or feedback effects of lay publics on the making of scientific knowledge. As a result, mass media communication comes to figure importantly in the transmission of facts and as a mediator of fact production accomplished across a broad set of social relations that complicate the distinction between experts and their publics."
    The rest of this lecture will have a more modest scope and will focus primarily on the 'popular level.' For this I will rely heavily on Collins and Pinch's marvelous book, which reaches the conclusions reported here only after a very detailed and careful review of a number of important episodes in the history of science. I urge you to read this book.
  • Scientific popularization has a long and illustrious history. Although the concept of 'science' has undergone profound changes over such history, and should always be carefully considered when dealing with the attendant issues, works popularizing the science of the times have appeared practically everywhere in every historical period. The work by D Raichvarg and J D E Jacques, Savants et Ignorants. Une Histoire de la Vulgarisation des Sciences (Seuil, Paris, 1991) provides a wealth of information on the history of scientific popularization.
    Research some famous examples: Herodotus, Socrates, Aristotle, Lucretius, Roger Bacon, Galileo, Diderot, D'Alembert, etc.

    Beginning roughly with the nineteen century, the forms of popularization became more varied. In addition to the print medium, fairs and exhibitions began showcasing the achievements of science. A somewhat different angle is provided by I Moreira and L Massarani's study of The Naturalists and the Popularization of Science:
    "The naturalists' trips were an important process for the acquisition and construction of scientific knowledge and lead to significant progresses in natural history. The voyage books, where are described personal adventures, naturalistic observations and aspects of local cultures constituted an interesting literary style with high repercussion in Europe. An aspect that is not usually considered is the role they carried out as tools of science popularization, since they exposed to the readers the knowledge of the time on scientific themes and also scientists' reflections on the new lands, flora, fauna and cultures."
    Victorian England saw long debates on the issue of sientific and technological communication, which must be seen in the context of the move toward the institutionalization of science. A good starting point is Bibliography: Literature, History & Culture in the Age of Victoria, which is part of The Victorian Web. Examples of interesting, specific studies: Julie Sparks, At the Intersection of Victorian Science and Fiction: Andrew Lang's "Romance of the First Radical", J A Secord's Quick and Magical Shaper of Science, etc.

    A conference on Popular Science: 19-Century Sites and Experiences was held at York University, on August 2-3, 2004. The conference websites includes the abstracts of the papers.

    The variety of today's media complicates the landscape of the relationships between science and the public. For example, the notion of 'entertainment' is playing an increasingly prominent role in communication in general. See the good article by M C Nisbet et al., Knowledge, Reservation or Promise? A Media Effects Model for Public Perception of Science and Technology (in Communication Research 99, October 2002, 584-608). Here is the abstract:
    "This study introduces a media effects model specific to public perceptions of science and technology. Analysis of the National Science Boardís Science and Engineering Indicators Survey provides evidence that different media—newspapers, general television, science television, and science magazines—do affect perceptions differently. These media effects are direct but also indirect, as mediated through effects on science knowledge. Although newspaper reading, science television viewing,and science magazine reading all promote positive perceptions of science, given the relative size of its audience, the impact of general television viewing remains the most compelling finding. The negative images of science on television appear to cultivate scientific reservations, whereas televisionís portrayal of science as sometimes omnipotent, and offering hope for the future, appears to also promote a competing schema related to the promise of science. Televisionís direct effect on reservations is reinforced through the mediumís negative relationship with science knowledge."

    Given that science is popularized, 'how' is the 'translation' done? how 'successful' is it? what does it demand of the public? is the public only a 'passive recipient' of popularized science? etc.

    It seems pretty clear that "it is impossible to separate science from society, yet preserving the idea that there are two distinct spheres is what creates the authoritarian image so familiar to most of us. How is it made to seem that the spheres are separate?" [ from H Collins and T Pinch, op. cit., p. 140 ] The answer is not easy. In part, the blame rests with the scientists, who have not disabused the public of the notion that science is certainty. It is not. Science is expertise, not absolute truth. Yet, most works of popularization fail to convey the 'messiness', the uncertainties, the disagreements that characterize scientific research. In part, this may be explained by the necessity of sparing the public technicalities that it might not be in a position to understand or appreciate. In part, especially nowadays, the 'politics' of science (e.g. funding, competition, commercial exploitation, etc.) can be seen to lead to what Collins and Pinch call "triumphalism," a sort of optimism that hides everything that may appear unsightly, and turns even a controversial result into a 'fact.' The consequence of such an approach is indeed that science is often considered a sort of dogmatic system, and the citizen forgets that "science is part of a culture that belongs to all of us. [ from H Collins and T Pinch, op. cit., p. 152 ] This is true also of M Cloître and T Shinn's 'pedagogical level' (textbooks, for example). The only antidote to this view is for scientists to remember that 1) "to understand how science works [ … ] we must understand science which fails as well as science which succeeds"; and that 2) "the citizen has great experience in the matter of how to cope with divided expertise—isn't this what party politics is? What the citizen cannot do is to cope with divided expertise pretending to be something else." [ from H Collins and T Pinch, op. cit., p. 143 ]
    "The history of physics that is important outside of physics has to be accurate about the process by which physicists reach their conclusions. While there is no harm for physicists, as physicists, having the history of their subject reduced to a series of pocket-sized myths, these myths must not be allowed to give the impression outside of physics that reaching a conclusion within disputed physics is a simple, straightforward matter that does not involve choice, argument and interpretation over an extended period. What is important about physics for physicists is the outcome of a series of experiments; what is important about physics for non-physicists is the way that outcome is reached [ … ] Textbook history, official history or reviewers' history gives an impression of simplicity and success which misleads when we are faced with the scientific and technological dilemmas that are found in contemporary life."
    [ from H Collins and T Pinch, op. cit., p. 161, 167 ]
  • Having briefly examined the role of the scientist in the process of communicating science, let's now look at the public. Here is a good starting point:
    "Consider the lay person's knowledge of relativity. Such a person may know from reading the newspapers (in 1919) that starlight is bent in its passage near the Sun; they might be able to chant 'E = mc2', and they might have an inkling that this saying accounts in some way for the power of the atomic bomb; they might know that it is impossible to travel faster than the speed of light. On the other hand there may be a group of television viewers for whom faster than light travel is as commonplace as it is on the Starship Enterprise. One of these groups has hold of the truth and one does not, yet we can see immediately that both groups have reached their views through broadly similar means—listening to what they have been told, reading what they have read, and viewing what they have viewed. Neither group has any direct experience of the world which has touched on relativity [ … ] If, then, we want to discribe ourselves as making a 'judgement' when we endorse relativity, it is society that is being judged. We know the way society is organized and so we know where the experts in this kind of thing are located; we know they are in physics departments in universities and similar institutions. Those for whom Star Trek is as salient as special relativity are not making a mistake in their physics—they have no physics, or virtually no physics—they are misunderstanding the way society is organized [ … ] They do not know that it is physicists who are found in the right locations, not script-writers." [ from H Collins and T Pinch, op. cit., p. 173-4 ]
    The use of the term "citizen" in the preceding quotations is quite intentional, as it calls attention to the right and duty we have to take part in the democratic process of our society.
    "In fact, it's possible that the current debate relative to science can draw upon valuable research focused on why people participate in politics generally, and why people trust (or distrust) various government institutions. This research shows that knowledge, trust, efficacy, and deliberation are all closely related. Enhanced knowledge of politics leads to an increased belief among individuals that they can make a difference in politics, and also leads to increased trust in political institutions. Deliberating or discussing politics with others enhances knowledge, but also gets people involved.

    There is little reason to believe that science is an exception when it comes to the generalizability of these findings, yet to date, this research from political science and political communication has been barely applied to science-related issues or settings. It's likely that increased science literacy makes a difference in public support for science, at least indirectly, through its connection to public trust and efficacy. To completely dismiss either knowledge or trust in shaping public opinion about science is where both sides can get it wrong." [ from Who's Getting It Right and Who's Getting It Wrong in the Debate About Science Literacy? ]
    The issue of science 'literacy' must therefore be discussed from a broader perspective.
  • I would like to conclude this lecture with a brief discussion of the impact that the web, and more generally the internet is having on scientific communication. A very good resource is Communicating Science Online. This site offers chapter 14, The Online World: Using the Internet, of the The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science. Here is the opening paragraph:
    "Let us begin again with history. It shows us two things: first, that the forms for communicating knowledge have evolved continually from the birth of writing, about 3200 B.C., to the present; second, that there have been times when specific new media have appeared—the scroll, the codex, the printed page, and now electronic display—and changed profoundly how people record and exchange learning. These realities suggest that the Internet will continue to develop for some time, and it will do this alongside existing forms of exchange, not as a full-fledged replacement of them [ … ] there can be no question that the Internet is an innovation of enormous impact and thus import—to science, perhaps most of all.

    Why science, above all? There are several reasons. One is the enhanced contact among researchers throughout the world, enabling new collaborations and the transfer of information to a much wider audience. What has been termed 'the invisible college' of science has therefore expanded tremendously, with many productive results for research. Another reason is the Internet's ability to distribute research in almost any form, including text, video, audio, and any type of image, fixed or animated. This is a crucial factor, not to be underestimated: the role of various media in science is more important than ever, and has been greatly expanded by the advent of digital ways of embodying knowledge. Various types of complex visualization, for example, are now at the heart of many fields.

    As a new mode of communication, the Internet may well be 'revolutionary,' but like all revolutions, it is messy, changeable, and beyond the control of any single entity. Scientists (like everyone else) should be aware that however smooth and magical it may seem, the Internet is not really virtual—it is the expression of people performing certain tasks, with certain equipment, under certain conditions. It is no more 'without walls' than a laboratory."
    I will mention here (and discuss more fully in class) a couple of aspects of communicating science on the internet. The internet introduces two features that affect the communication process directly: interactivity and hypertextuality.

    Interactivity allows the reader (or surfer) to participate in the process of communication by establishing an often live link with the author (scientist or reporter), for example via email, discussion forums or blogs. Such participation may well lead to revisions, clarifications, etc. To use M Cloître and T Shinn' terminology, this is an essentially new form of 'deviation.'

    Hypertextuality allows a form of presentation which can focus on the core of what is communicated, while keeping supporting documentation, background material, alternative results and interpretations within easy, often instantaneous reach. In a real sense, hypertextuality allows the public to experience much more directly the world of science as an organic whole, with its messiness and tentativeness, with its sometimes discordant views.

    Of course the dangers of scientific communication we discussed earlier (presentations distorted by intellectual property rights issues, funding and competitiveness in general, etc.) find new expressions on the internet, and the public must be aware and weary of them. On the other hand, the internet also provides ways (which must be learned) to cross-check information, to expose estraneous factors, and in general to validate the available information.

Readings, Resources and Questions


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Last Modification Date: 28 March 2006