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The basis of all good science is ‘spreading the word’ about scientific projects and findings. This is why it publishes in journals and scientists present their research at conferences. Communicating science to publics is in some cases no different although there are a number of filters between what scientists do and what publics learn about science (Illingworth and Allen, 2016). This is for a number of reasons but all or most of them have to do with the nature, style and presentation of scientific knowledge.
While science or natural philosophy as it was once known in Britain in some cases was a public affair – take for example Michael Faraday’s or Joseph Priestley’s electricity experiments – a myth still pervades that the sciences are only done behind closed doors, away from public view. But with the advent of public understanding of science (PUS) and public engagement with science and technology (PEST), and with topical areas of science reported in the news media, over time science has appeared more frequently in the limelight again.
There is a deeper question regarding why science is not communicated more widely, that is why is science not seen as a form of culture in its own right? C.P. Snow (2012) provides an excellent account of this in The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Today the reasons for science communication are many and incentives for it in Britain at least start from 1985 with the Royal Society’s committee report: The public understanding of science (Russell, 2010).
Their concerns can be summed up as the ‘three undesirables’ below:
These undesirables are perhaps as relevant today as more young people are studying STEM subjects in the UK since 2010 (DfE, 2019) (although there is more work to be done) and while support is increasing, some governments are doing little about climate change in light of its global consequences and despite public awareness. Whether more people should expand their view of the natural world and the universe through science remains an open question, but one that science communicators can certainly address.
The problem with these ‘three undesirables’ is that they rest on the notion that the more science people know or are acquainted with the more approving and positive they will be of the sciences in general. While this may hold true in some cases there has been some evidence to the contrary regarding public attitudes towards climate change risks (Kahan et. al 2012) and scientific or technological innovations (Allum et. al. 2008).
Where does this leave the science communicator? Surely, people communicate science because they want people to share its fascinating insights into the natural world and discoveries with others. Could it really be that the more people know about science the more critical they become of it? This is not so much a fault of science communication as a whole but an approach to it – the deficit model. Scientists do not develop within a cultural vacuum and neither should we expect publics to be. Without careful reading of your audience(s) and understanding of their concerns, needs and values, scientific facts, no matter how important, will receive little attention. The content of the message should be tailored to the characteristics of the audience in question (Russell, 2010). If they want to go a bit further, scientists must do more than merely communicate their work to non-scientists; they must form dialogue and engage with them.
Science is generally uncontroversial, but if you only received information about science from the mass media, likely you would receive a much different view. Controversy appears at home in the sciences from GM crops to nanotechnology, vaccines, nuclear power, alcohol consumption, cloning or human/animal hybrids and scientific fraud. But these topics which appear prominently in the news don’t usually reflect very well what scientists actually do. In her book Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology, Dorothy Nelkin gives an in depth view of how mass media convey science, including controversy. While controversy is normally avoided by scientists who want to keep their careers (with a minority of mavericks embracing it), it is a useful peg for science communicators who want to probe public thinking and reveal some of the misrepresentations, inconsistences and fallacies about the ways science is portrayed to publics.
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