Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Historians of Science and Public Understanding of Science

Posted by Darin Hayton on 09/22 at 10:05 AM

Randy Olson’s recent book Don’t be Such a Scientist argues that scientists need to lighten up if they want to communicate what they are doing to a broader audience and to have any significant impact on society.1

One might argue that scientists already have a tremendous impact on society through their command of resources, their role as technical experts in government and industry, their contributions to bio-medical research and the pharmaceuticals industry, etc. Here I am not terribly interested in assessing the impact scientists have on society. Instead, I want to raise some questions about whether scholars trained in the history of science should be participating in discussions about science and its place in society.

First, are we better off in a society that leaves to scientists the task of communicating their activities? Does this stray too close to Juvenal’s cynical worry: “Sed quis costodiet ipsos custodes?” Olivia Judson has recently raised some issues about the importance of science journalism for offering a critical evaluation of the science. These comments echo those by David Brown on Science Reporting and Evidence Based Journalism.
Second, are scientists the best placed scholars to situate their work within broader themes and histories? Jane Maienschein cites the example of “stem cell experiment” in 1907 as evidence that scientists don’t even know the histories of their own subfields. Do we want to rely on them to tell us broader histories about the role of their science in society?
Third, can we leave communicating science up to journalists? Here I’m thinking of a distinction between science journalists who focus on writing about science and journalists more broadly who might write the occasional story on a scientific discovery. I fear that the press releases from Futurity are just such journalism.2
Finally, why aren’t historians of science involved in communicating science? In one sense, we make our living doing just that. And while we might not be able to contribute to contemporary research, at least in the way scientists do, we certainly have the expertise and knowledge to analyze how that science relates to politics, society, culture, etc.

I am not suggesting that historians of science replace other channels of communication, but that we should be participating in the process of communicating science. We have a particular expertise not shared by scientists or even most science journalists. Maybe its time we celebrated that expertise a little. Maybe, as Olson encourages the scientists to do, we need to lighten up a little bit and start telling stories.

1There is a positive review of Olson’s book at The Island of Doubt.
2Futurity has been receiving considerable attention since its official launch last week. It claims to be “an online research magazine, [that] highlights the latest discoveries from leading universities in the United States and Canada.” In an effort to combat the “decline in science and research covered by traditional news outlets,” Futurity aggregates research results from “North America’s leading research universities.” All the stories seem to have been written by the corresponding university’s public affairs and media relations departments. In other words, Futurity is an aggregate for press releases.

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