PACHSmörgåsbord

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Is popular science “simplified”?

Posted by Bruce Lewenstein on 08/16 at 10:16 PM

I study public communication of science.  Mostly in America, mostly since World War II.  That’s the era when “science literacy,” “public understanding of science,” and, more recently, “public engagement in science” have come of age. 

But there’s a deep flaw in most discussions of those topics.  They usually treat “science” as a complicated thing, which is to be “popularized” or “disseminated.” Even sophisticated understandings that public discussions are about bringing in different values, political perspectives, lay knowledges, etc., still tend to assume that the “science” is simply being…well, simplified…as it moves into public discourse.

But if we take seriously the idea that science is “Public Knowledge” (the title of a wonderful book by the late John Ziman), then every instantiation of reliable knowledge about the natural world is different knowledge. 

For example, in my teaching, I use a set of materials that a behavioral ecologist colleague gave me.  They include his field notes while observing a species of birds (white-fronted bee-eaters) nesting in Kenya; the computer printouts of those observations transformed into systematic data linking specific birds with specific behaviors; the technical peer-reviewed article that resulted; the Living Bird Magazine article about the research (the magazine goes to bird enthusiasts who belong to Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology); the Ranger Rick article written by his teenage daughter about the research; and the Nature half-hour television documentary on the research.

Is each version just a simplified version of the one before it?  No.

The peer-reviewed article is a test of “Hamilton’s rule,” an evolutionary biology prediction about kin selection and altruism.  It concludes that the behavior of the birds—birds that are more closely related are more likely to help raise the offspring of their kin than more distantly related birds – confirms Hamilton’s rule.  At the end of the article, what we “know” is that Hamilton’s rule has survived a test.

The Living Bird article explores the natural history of the white-fronted bee-eaters: their habitat, their diets, their social behavior.  One part of the article talks about the ways that family members who are not breeding in a particular season will help feed the chicks of another family member, but that is only one of many topics.  At the end of the article, we “know” something about this breed of bird.

The daughter’s Ranger Rick article (well, actually, it was ghostwritten by the researcher’s wife, but we’ll ignore that for now) is also about family relationships.  Human relationships.  It’s all about how cool it is to live out in the African bush with your parents, helping them do science about these birds who are also families.  Children who read the article (or have it read to them by their parents) know that doing science is fun!  And you can do it with your parents!  And birds are neat!

Finally, the Nature documentary is the story of a breeding season, showing much of the same natural history information as the Living Bird article, but structured as a time-bound narrative from the laying of the eggs to the successful flight of surviving chicks.  As with the Living Bird article, we know something about the white-fronted bee-eaters.  But our knowledge is quite visceral, and very much tied to the vision of a family struggle against the odds through a tough African summer in order to survive.

If we are to understand the different meanings that different audiences take away from different presentations of the same “science,” we need to move away from thinking of science (or knowledge) as existing independently of how it’s presented.  Popularization isn’t dumbed-down science.  It’s different science.

And if you want a different understanding of the story I just told, I’ll be using it in class next February.

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