Communicating Popular Science
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Communicating Popular Science

From Deficit to Democracy

S. Perrault

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eBook - ePub

Communicating Popular Science

From Deficit to Democracy

S. Perrault

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Technoscientific developments often have far-reaching consequences, both negative and positive, for the public. Yet, because science has the authority to decide which judgments about scientific issues are sound, public concerns are often dismissed because they are not part of the technoscientific paradigm they question. This book addresses the role of science popularization in that paradox; it explains how science writing works and argues that it can do better at promoting public discussions about science-related issues. To support these arguments, it situates science popularization in its historical and cultural context; provides a conceptual framework for analyzing popular science texts; and examines the rhetorical effects of common strategies used in popular science writing. Twenty-six years after Dorothy Nelkin's groundbreaking book, Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology, popular science writing is still not meeting its potential as a public interest genre; Communicating Popular Science explores how it can move closer to doing so.

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Ciencias sociales

Part I



Popular Science Writing: Problems and Potential

In studying science communication, especially popular science writing, I have found that two cultures exist on either side of a divide. I speak not of the two-cultures gap between science and literature that C. P. Snow lamented in 1959, but of a gap within the ranks of those who write about scientific issues for nonspecialist readers.
On one side are the science boosters, advocates who see science communication as public relations, with success measured in terms of how well the public’s priorities and concerns align with those of scientists. This side is represented by scientists, such as Alan Sokal, Norman Levitt, and Paul R. Gross; historians of science, such as John C. Burnham; and science writers, such as Richard Dawkins, Lars Lindberg Christensen, and Timothy Ferris. Ferris offers a fine example of how these science boosters view the purpose of science communication. First, he says that ‘Science, though young, has already transformed our world, saving over a billion people from starvation and fatal disease, striking shackles of ignorance and superstition from millions more, and fueling a democratic revolution that has brought political liberty to a third of humankind. And that’s only the beginning’ (‘Foreword’ in Blum et al., p. v). Then, having listed its accomplishments, he describes the public’s alleged views of science:
Yet few understand science, and many fear its awesome power. To the uncomprehending, the pronouncements of scientists can sound as opaque as the muttered spells of magicians…Technophobes warn that science must be stopped before it goes ‘too far.’ Religious fundamentalists enjoin the righteous to study only one (holy) book, consulting what Galileo called the book of nature only insofar as it serves to confirm their beliefs. Fashionable academics teach that science is but a collection of socially conditioned opinions, as changeable as haute couture. (p. v)
In other words, science is wonderful; the public are idiots for not recognizing this; and anyone who questions any aspect of science is acting from fear, fundamentalism, or (my personal favorite) the keen fashion sense that apparently causes academics to follow hot intellectual trends rather than thinking for themselves. Against this deplorable state, one in which even popular culture is the enemy of science, Ferris offers the work of science writers. Although they are ‘few in number, relatively unheralded, and often underestimated’, they offer their ‘cure for fear and loathing of science’ by telling ‘the most momentous, important, and startlingly original stories’ available to any writer (p. vi).
I might be tempted to dismiss Ferris’s worshipful view of science as anomalous were it not for two things. First, the above quotation is from Ferris’s foreword to A Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers (second edition). Although not all of the fifty-two pieces in the book take this view of science, the foreword sets a tone that is echoed in many other sections. Second, Ferris’s views are repeated in many places besides A Field Guide, including in scholarly works. For example, in a recent special issue of Science focused on science literacy, science education specialist Paul Webb describes the exigence for increased science education as ‘concern around the apparent inability of science education to counter current negative perceptions of science in both developing and industrial countries’ (p. 448, emphasis added). An older, but widely cited, text, How Superstition Won and Science Lost, delivers the same message that the goal of science communication is to promote science, here characterized as ‘a way to truth, civilization, morality, and other constructive values’ (Burnham, p. 261). These examples represent a belief that science communication exists to extol science’s virtues to the ignorant and hostile masses arrayed against it.
In contrast with the science boosters are the science critics, who, in a role parallel to that of other professional critics (art critics and historians, literary critics, and so on), combine appreciation for science with the kind of critical analysis that characterizes good scholarship, as well as good critique. On this side of the divide I found scientists, such as Michael Gibbons and Robert Winston; historians of science, such as Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, Daniel Patrick Thurs, and John M. Ziman; sociologists of science, such as Alan Irwin and Brian Wynne; philosophers of science, such as Don Ihde; and rhetoricians and communication scholars, such as Peter Broks, Davida Charney, Jeanne Fahnestock, Dorothy Nelkin, and Michael Zerbe (to name just a few). In the following example from Winston—Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies and Professor of Science and Society—we see a call for critical engagement implicit in his concern about ethics and applications and in his plea for increased public involvement with science:
… if we are to avoid harm from the increasingly powerful tools we have, we need to have much better methods of control. This control cannot be exercised solely by governments: history shows…that governments do not always use scientific knowledge wisely. Nor can control simply be left to my community—the scientists…[Instead] people from all sections of the community have a responsibility to learn and understand more about science in order that, in democratic societies at least, they will have a more powerful say in how science is used. (pp. 10–11)
Winston’s aim is shared—that is, democratic—control, and he urges his fellow scientists to improve their communication skills in order to foster a healthy skepticism about science and its uses. ‘We should try to communicate our work as effectively as possible’, Winston writes, ‘because ultimately it is done on behalf of society and because its adverse consequences may affect members of the society in which we all live’ (p. 518).
Winston is writing to scientists about their own communication practices, but the critical role he recommends also applies to popular science texts by anyone. Although popular science writing, broadly defined, is science-related writing that is aimed at nonspecialist audiences, science boosters tend to see popular science writing as a form of public relations, while critics believe it should promote democratic engagement. Proponents of the latter approach note that people in a technoscientific society are asked constantly to make decisions affecting their day-to-day lives, and to make informed judgments and weigh in on decisions about technoscientific issues more broadly.
On the individual level, for example, people wonder about questions like whether synthetic motor oil really makes a car get better gas mileage; about which fruits carry less of a pesticide residue and can be bought commercially, and which carry more and should be organic whenever possible; about what kind of birth control has the least risky long-term side effects; about what kinds of exercise maintain the best cardiovascular fitness; and so on. As citizens, people are asked questions such as whether we should continue to use nuclear power, and, if so, where new power plants should be built and where waste should go; what kinds of policies we should implement to combat climate change; whether NASA should fund human space travel; whether we should permit or ban offshore drilling for oil in certain areas; and so on.
These examples demonstrate that both boosters and critics are correct in saying that science permeates our lives, and that nonspecialists are routinely called upon to make decisions about science and science-related issues. However, these examples also demonstrate the gulf between the boosters and critics regarding the basis on which people should decide. In the boosters’ minds, experts should not just inform, but determine, policy in areas such as nuclear power, whereas critics argue that the locus of decision-making is properly with a critically engaged citizenry. These two points of view can be summed up in terms of two models:
  • boosters advocate for the deficit model, also known as the PAST (Public Appreciation of Science and Technology) model;
  • critics argue for a model that fosters democratic engagement with science; adopting a term from historian Peter Broks, I call this the CUSP (Critical Understanding of Science in Public) model.

Social Contracts

The tension between PAST and CUSP approaches to popular science writing reflects a broader tension about the nature of the relationship between the scientific and public spheres. This relationship is often discussed in terms of a tacit ‘social contract’ between the scientific and social spheres, with different people supporting different versions of it—the traditional contract that has been in place since the post-World War II era, or a new social contract that takes into account the changing social climate in which science takes place.
The traditional social contract was articulated in a 1945 report by presidential advisor and agency head Vannevar Bush. The report, Science: The Endless Frontier, describes scientific knowledge as a reservoir from which knowledge flows to society, a metaphor that encapsulates the following beliefs about science:
  • that all science, regardless of its aims, is inherently (if indirectly) beneficial to society because science produces an ever-growing store of knowledge, and from that store come applications that benefit society;
  • that separation of science from society is not only possible, but necessary for science to do its job well; as Byerly and Pielke observe, Bush’s metaphor depicts ‘a linear model of the relation between science and society in which social benefits occur “downstream” from the reservoir of knowledge’ (Byerly and Pielke, p. 1531).
  • that society should provide science with resources and otherwise allow it autonomy, and in return science will provide society with knowledge and with consumer goods.
This social contract, formulated in the post-war climate of ‘extraordinary faith in science as the basis of technological progress’ (Nelkin, Selling Science, p. 117) has, in the more skeptical climate of recent decades, ‘proved vulnerable to questions about the public value of the science and technology it produced’ (Doubleday, p. 20). Science boosterism is one response to this increased skepticism, especially from those who hold onto the Bush model view of science as separate from and ‘above’ society.
The other response is to call for a new social contract, one based on an understanding of science as a cultural institution (or, rather, set of institutions) that must be accountable to the larger society of which it is a part. This is a ‘socially contextualized science’ (Trench, ‘Towards,’ p. 126) in which the internal validity of the science is no less important than in the old model, but is subsumed within the larger context in which the scientific work takes place and the scientific knowledge is used. This emerging social contract is based on the principle of socially robust knowledge, the production of which is ‘both transparent and participative’ (Gibbons, p. C81), and on a belief in public engagement with scientific issues, that is a belief in CUSP.

Why Popular Science Writing Matters

Popular science writing matters in these and other areas of public interest because of the discursive work it does. Kamler and Thomson define a discourse as ‘a particular formation of stories and practices, which constructs both knowledge and power relations’ (p. 11); applying this to science popularization, it is clear that they do both.
In terms of information, popular science writing, by definition, tells readers about scientific findings. For example, Trevor Corson’s ‘Stalking the American Lobster’ informs readers about the life cycles and reproductive habits of Maine lobsters. Popular science writing also informs readers about the nature and working of sciences themselves. Corson’s article, in addition to sharing lobster-related facts, also talks about the advantages and drawbacks of field-based versus laboratory-based research methods, and about how a scientist’s choice of tools will influence what he or she learns (points I return to in Chapters 5 and 8). Additionally, popular science writing can help readers—scientists, nonscientists, and scientists working outside their areas of expertise—understand how a given area of research affects and is affected by other social institutions. In Corson’s case, the expertise of the Maine lobstermen turned out to be essential to developing a more accurate understanding of changes in the lobster populations. Here, the text functions discursively by providing readers with a story about the nature of knowledge production in a particular area of research.
A discourse also, in Kamler and Thomson’s words, influences ‘how we talk about an object of knowledge, and it influences how ideas are put into practice’ (p. 11). Popular science writing does so by contributing to the store of meanings that people draw upon in talking about science and science-related issues. Although we have many ways of experiencing the world—cognitively, emotionally, physically—our shared understandings of the world are created through language. Texts are part of this creation, as they represent the world—socially, as well as materially—and so provide us with schema for understanding situations and phenomena we encounter in our lives. For popular science texts, this means they provide stories about how science works and should work, of what science’s relationship with society is or should be, of whose opinions about science are valid and whose aren’t, and so on. These then become available as ways of talking about and understanding science-related issues; when those understandings translate into action, they become solidified in social practices.
Given the discursive power of popular science texts, communication scholars and rhetoricians agree that popular science writing can and should contribute to civic engagement. This belief is summed up by rhetorician Alan Gross’s hope that science popularization will aid ‘the appropriate integration of science into the general culture’ (‘Science and Culture’, p. 170). Rhetorician Greg Myers furthers this vision, suggesting that popular science writing can help us understand how science is always ‘a part of public culture, drawing on and contributing to ideas about nature, the place of humans in nature, the direction of history, the nature of government and economy’ (‘Discourse Studies’, p. 271). Al Gore’s Nobel-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, illustrates how this kind of communication can bring together the social, political, and scientific, all of which blur together when we look at scientific issues not in and of themselves but in the context of the public spheres that make up civil society. As Hauser explains, public life involves interactions with others, and in those interactions many factors ‘influence and are influenced by’ each other, with these reciprocal influences including other people, ‘the climate for communication…the resources of language available to us…the situation in which we communicate and the impulse for communication it contains, and…the myriad of conditioning factors that mark our human existence’ (‘Aristotle on Epideictic’, p. 14). As one provider of such linguistic resources, popular science writing can have a profound, albeit indirect, effect on conversations about science in society.
Unfortunately, hopes for critical popular science writing are more honored in the breach than in the observance. Although popular science writing spans a spectrum from science boosterism to insightful critique of scientific issues, the emphasis is still at the booster end of the continuum. Sociologist Dorothy Nelkin explains that ‘Science often appears in the press today as an arcane and incomprehensible subject…And scientists still appear to be remote but superior wizards, above ordinary people, culturally isolated from the society’ (Selling, p. 15). Although this shows most clearly in mass media, she says ‘the mystique of science as a superior culture is also conveyed in the promotion of science literacy, in the coverage of scientific theories, and even in stories about scientific fraud’ (Selling, p. 15). Nelkin wrote this gloomy overview in 1987, but communications research (e.g., Bauer and Bucchi, ‘Introduction’; Huntington; Cheng et al.; Bucchi; Russell, N. J.) suggests that not much has changed, except perhaps to have grown worse. Bauer describes how the phenomenon of science communication as ‘science public relations’ has actually ‘gained a critical mass’ as Nelkin first pointed out the problem (‘Selling’, p. 11). Other research shows ‘a general trend to represent science as consensual, linear, and uncontroversial’ (Bauer and Bucchi, ‘Introduction’, p. 3), and documents ‘the shifting power balance between public relations and journalism’ (Bauer and Bucchi, ‘Introduction’, p. 6), with the publicity approach gaining ground over the last two decades.

How Rhetoric of Science Can Help Improve Popular Science Writing

Rhetoric of science can help improve popular science writing by providing an analytic and heuristic framework for understanding popular science texts’ PAST and CUSP functions. This work has begun in existing studies of popular science writing that talk about what...


  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. Copyright
  4. Contents
  5. List of Figures
  6. Preface
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. List of Abbreviations and Acronyms
  9. Part I Foundations
  10. Part II Applications
  11. Part III Final Words
  12. Notes
  13. References
  14. Index