THURSDAY, 27 JANUARY 2022
If progress in science has provided a rich jungle of tools for understanding the world, what still lies before us is the wasteland between its history of development and our history of culture. From journals to textbooks to Science Parks, the metamorphosis of scientific to public knowledge is becoming more exaggerated and abstruse as research specialises. Meanwhile, the potentials of popularising science are ever widening with the leaps in quality of our best theories. Whilst much of modern western thinking is still dominated by Darwinism and Newtonianism, quantum uncertainty nibbles at the periphery of our intellectual assurance.
The dominant view of popularisation is twofold: scientists create scientific knowledge, then popularisers disseminate it. This is, however, grossly simplified. The process of popularisation—which includes the exchange, translation and rejection of ideas—is recursive and cannot be gleaned from developments in science alone. Models for understanding popularisation are inseparable from beliefs about what knowledge is and how it is created. The very idea of studying “the popularisation of science”, for instance, emphasises the division between spheres of public and scientific knowledge and the transformation that must occur between.
Immediately problematic is the blurry distinction between popular and “genuine” knowledge. Most will recognise the difference between a Nature journal and television news. But if they were to precisely locate the boundary between where scientific knowledge ends and popularised depiction starts, the task becomes increasingly muddled by the fact that knowledge is constantly re-embodied from its creation to spread, each time undergoing some change of unknown significance. This resembles the classic philosophical puzzle of the ship of Theseus, which imagines a ship with its components gradually replaced and questions whether its identity changes. Popularisation is comparable to the replacement of technical jargon, complex statistics and methodological details. As the precision of a statement varies continuously, one can make many cases for whether, when or how the meaning of a scientific statement is affected by the loss of precision.
At one extreme, one can argue that genuine scientific knowledge only exists at creation, like in journals, and all downstream representations are popularised. From this stems the pervasive diffusionist model of popularisation, which treats knowledge as something that is created by an elite group of scholars and becomes diluted as it trickles down into public consumption. To borrow Swift’s satire on “the aping of elites” as historians Cooter and Pumfrey have, scientific culture is “like fashions… always descending from those of Quality to the middle sort, and thence to the vulgar, where at length they are dropped and vanish”.
Fundamentally, such elitism is based on the view that producing scientific knowledge requires special training and should be protected from the untrained public, who can only add disturbances. Scientific vigour should thank and demand that science is an esoteric practice. This perhaps finds consolation in regarding knowledge as the models we conjecture that happen to coincide with the implicit models in nature. These rare congruences can be taught to the minds of the public but only conceived by trained minds of scholars. Science, as the product of this exercise, is therefore boxed off to academia wherein the real source of productivity lies.
This view grants scientists a particular authority over knowledge. Hilgartner compared it to the right to print money. Scientists behold the exclusive “gold standard” for producing genuine knowledge. The idea of appropriate simplification also gives them a right to authorise a “currency” of simplified knowledge for public consumption. When this goes astray, scientists may appeal to the notion of distortion to deem mutants as “counterfeits”. The distinction between scientific and popular knowledge therefore gives scientists tools, both conceptual and rhetoric, to control the use of scientific knowledge in public and political discourse. This seems sensible given that we believe in their expertise (as we should). Often, policymakers headline their cause with a simplified statistic, thus adding false certainty to a tentative scientific conclusion. This becomes harder to correct the more it circulates as such presentations are designed to be pithy and memorable. A scientist can only report misrepresentations and reassert the uncertainty that stems from methodological weaknesses, of which only scientists are painfully aware. Undoubtedly, it would also be naïve to assume that scientists are impartial in this choreography. “Appropriate simplification” often fits conveniently into some commercial pitch, political stance or grant proposal.
A more poignant objection to the diffusionist rejection of popularisation is that science is cultural. The diffusionist view capitalises on the belief that creating scientific knowledge is self-contained within academia. This is scarcely probable. Popularised knowledge inevitably feeds back into research, for one because it is hard to define a boundary within what is known. Moreover, science’s take-off depends on a suite of values being in place like respect for evidence, rational incredulity, wariness of authority as well as connections that link scientific communities with its allies and audiences. The scientific revolution occurred once under very particular climates at the end of the Renaissance. It is a major goal of historians of science to understand its catalysing interplays. Cooter and Pumfrey suggested that both the permissiveness of elites and receptiveness of the public towards science were indispensable. The latter underlines the significance of popularisation.
Above is perhaps still a weaker appeal of examining science in culture as opposed to the stronger interpretation of science as culture. This broadens science to a mode of thinking. “We live inside the world built for us by science”, said philosopher Bruno Latour, a comment less about the engineering value of science than its cognitive transformation. Latour proposed that scientific knowledge is constructed through the collective transformation of statements rather than any singular discovery. This echoes the precursor concept of a thought collective from bacteriologist Ludwik Fleck, who proposed it in the 1930s as an attempt to situate the birthplace of scientific facts. To Fleck, a scientific fact is inextricably linked to the social context and existing ideas and practices saturated in it, popularised or not, as they provide the bed of connections through which scientists can ascertain and articulate new knowledge. Consequently, pre-existing knowledge belonging to the collective also limits the kind of thoughts scientists can have—it shapes the scientific thought style. A thought style defines the creative headspace of a period and is unavoidably shaped by the most prominent and popular ideas.
Schrödinger makes a remarkably optimistic and humane case for why science depends on the public. The Austrian physicist and winner of the 1933 Nobel Prize propelled for the universality of human understanding—a belief that scientific truths can be appreciated by any thinking person and gain maximal meaning when reverberated most widely. Popularisation when at its best “[multiplies] the subjective experience of ‘discovery’”.
To popularise is not only for science, but also for the scientist. Schrödinger believed that a scientist did not truly understand a concept until they could explain it to a layperson. Not only that, the scientist often cannot help but uncover and recover their original motivation in the process. As Schrödinger put it, “You will try to defend the reason why you are interested … And you will become aware of the fact that only now, in your discussion with your colleague, have you reached those aspects of the subject that are, so to speak, nearest your heart.”
Chloe is a second-year undergraduate at Emmanuel College studying Neurobiology and the History and Philosophy of Science.
Cooter, R. and Pumfrey, S., 1994. Separate Spheres and Public Places: Reflections on the History of Science Popularization and Science in Popular Culture. History of Science, 32(3), pp.237–267. https://doi.org/10.1177/007327539403200301.
Deborah R Coen, 2021. Scientists for the people. [online] Aeon. Available at: <https://aeon.co/essays/why-the-finest-minds-in-1930s-europe-believed-in-public-engagement> [Accessed 26 Jun. 2021].
Hilgartner, S., 1990. The Dominant View of Popularization: Conceptual Problems, Political Uses. Social Studies of Science, 20(3), pp.519–539.