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The changing face of science communication

The changing face of science communication

Brigitte Nerlich is Professor of Science, Language, and Society at the Institute for Science and Society at the University of Nottingham. She will be speaking at the Science Communication Conference in May in the session on 'bridging theory and practice'.

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There have been two incidents recently that have brought to the fore some tensions between the theory and practice of science communication. One incident was the so-called Cox/Ince debate and the other was what I shall refer to as the Glaser/Cox incident.

Cox/Ince

The Cox/Ince debate began when Brian Cox, physicist and science communicator, and Robin Ince, comedian and science communicator, published an article in New Statesman on 18 December last year, entitled ‘Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science’ (for an overview of the debate that followed, see this blog by Peter Broks and this blog by myself, focusing on science communication). One follow-up blog post by ‘Gavin’ in particular was interesting, as it encapsulated my general impression of what was going on. The blogger wrote:

Brian Cox

I looked on in amusement at first, then increasing frustration. Some people began to talk about scientists thinking science has a ‘privileged/entitled place in society’.  Mud was flung. Labels were liberally applied, in 140 characters or less:

“Positivist!”

“Nobber!”

“Naîve!”

“Sci-commers!””

As ‘Gavin’ noted, the label ‘science communicator’ seemed to have suddenly shifted its meaning. It now subsumed all those that directly or tangentially study issues around science communication (historians of science, science policy analysts, philosophers of science, experts in Science and Technology Studies and so on), and excluded practitioners like Brian Cox, whom some bloggers tried to defend against the perceived onslaught by the “scicommers”.

Scicommer had also become an insult!

Glaser/Cox

The other incident occurred when Elaine Glaser, a BBC journalist, wrote a comment piece in The Guardian on 1 March 2013, entitled “Prof Brian Cox: physicist or priest?”, a reflection on Cox’s TV series ‘Wonders of life’. This article provoked strong reactions by scientists and science communicators such as Jim Al-Khalili and Ed Yong (“bilious waffle”, “disappointing tosh”), as well as Cox himself (“intellectually barren cliché”).

There was one relatively lonely voice of partial support by an historian who argued that series like ‘Wonders’, where scientists or historians stride around looking amazed, envelop science or history in an aura of glamour that hides everyday practices. (Why this may also be a good thing has been explored in an older blog on the magic of science….)

Robin Ince

One expert in science and technology studies provided practical advice, asking science communicators to be more aware of textual genres. He also pointed out that “there are many assumptions made by the practitioners which are not borne out by the evidence of scholarship”.

To understand the heated exchanges provoked by the two articles, it is necessary to step back and look briefly at the history of science communication.

Science communication - practice, theory, science

Science communication is a phrase that has been in use for a couple of decades, and has developed multiple meanings, with two being dominant. It refers on the one hand to the practice of communicating science (which has a long tradition) and on the other to research reflecting on this practice (which has a somewhat shorter history). An example of the latter use of the phrase is the title of the academic journal Science Communication. This journal was established in 1979 and “examines the nature of expertise, the diffusion of knowledge, and the communication of science and technology among professionals and to the public” (for a more detailed history of science communication, see this website on the history of science communication and some personal reflections by Peter Broks).

One can surmise that practicing science communicators may not read this journal as regularly as social scientists may do (although I have no data on readership). They may consult instead practical guides, such as ‘Successful Science Communication: Telling it like it is’, which came out in 2011.

Only very recently, a new ‘science of science communication’ has emerged. It is grounded in research in psychology, decision science, mass communication, risk communication, health communication, political science, and sociology and has a commitment to ‘evidence-based science communication’.

Science communication - deficits and stereotypes

Despite these developments in practice and theory, science communication seems to have become increasingly contested and controversial. This process began arguably alongside its institutionalisation, when, during the late 1990s, social scientists examined science communication through the lens of what they called the ‘deficit model’ of the public communication of science.

In a way, the deficit model may have been the point where theory and practice began to grate on each other and friction began to occur, in a good way and a bad way. Social scientists recommended that science communicators respect the knowledge of those people with whom they communicate, rather than believe that just plugging assumed deficits in knowledge would lead people to appreciate science and trust scientists.

This opened up spaces for wider interactions between science and society. This also created awareness amongst science communicators, who began to improve their ways of working. However, the deficit model may also contribute to closing down dialogue between science communication practitioners and science communication theoreticians. One reason may be that it has created a stereotype of scientists (indeed a deficit model) according to which (all) scientists adhere to the “empty bucket theory of science communication”. Respecting “situation-specific wisdom” (Campbell, 1984, p. 323) has, however, been part of the ethos of some scientists for quite a while. The deficit model critique may also inadvertently devalue activities like science communication, science education and science writing.

Conclusion

The two incidents discussed at the beginning seem to be indicative of a widening gulf between those who practice (do) science communication and those who engage in scholarship (think) about science communication, which may have its roots in a popular critique of the public communication of science. It is time now to bridge this gulf and to talk openly about mutual understandings and deficits in understandings of what science communication is and should be in the future.

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Comments...

David Chester's picture

Communications and Actions

The suggestion of more public awareness in scientific matters that are brought about due to better communications is obviously true. But where does this lead? Apparently nowhere, because somehow the public is not all voting for the scientists to develop specific kinds of useful projects.

The government and the universities decide this instead and there is every chance that what they choose is far from a "democratic" opinion. So greater public awareness in science gets nowhere. In these circumstances, when a public member has found or discovered something of scientific interest (or even importance) it is very unlkeky that his/her voice will be taken seriously.

On this website my attempts to draw attention to the fact that theoretical macroeconomics is actually an exact science and if properly treated in an analytic and engineering manner can solve our present economic woes, has been completely ignored. It is time that these small voices received the attention they deserve, so few and far away do they seem to be--yet of such significance as to require serious attention by better qualified experts.

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