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30/08/2014

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Long on promise, short on delivery

It’s a shame, says Jon Turney

David Bennett and Richard Jennings (eds), Successful Science Communication - Telling It Like It Is. Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp462

‘We know a great deal more now about the reasons for science communication and its effectiveness than when the Bodmer report came out in 1985.’ So say Maarten van der Sander and Patricia Osseweijer in the final chapter of this compendious guide to discussing science in public. The premise underpins the 27 chapters, most of them by people who are doing science communication rather than researching it. But is it actually true?

That depends what you want to know. There is certainly lots more practical experience. The proliferation of science communication or engagement efforts over the last few decades is why there is a market for books like this. Science communication, as an abstraction, is an odd idea. You can convey a mood, an attitude or a feeling toward science, and even help someone understand some science or some ideas about it, on a good day – but you cannot actually communicate ‘science’ as a whole. Nonetheless, there are now handbooks, how-to guides, and even an encyclopedia of science communication.

Should do more

It is, everyone says, a multidisciplinary endeavour. That means the books, like this one, tend to be a bit of a rag bag. Here, a few opening chapters sketch general background: public attitudes to science; a smidgeon of history; John Adams on risk. Little of this is new since Bodmer. Adams, for example, offers an account of risk perception and world views which derives from Mary Douglas’ work many years ago.

Then there are a score of chapters from people involved directly in science communication. They vary widely in interest. There is a useful investigation of social media, an excellent piece on climate communication from Andy Revkin, and good advice on working with groups and organisations of many different kinds. There are also, frankly, quite a few makeweights. Even though several of the case studies come from the Netherlands, where co-editor David Bennett worked for many years, this only adds a little value for the UK reader.

That is a shame, as there are quite a few ways a book like this should do more. There is a single intellectually challenging chapter, from Alfred Nordmann, on the tensions between science communication efforts intended to start a discussion and those aimed at closing it down – or deliberative, as he calls them, and frankly promotional.  As with Richard Jones’ excellent introduction, he focusses on the increasingly high-profile area of nanotechnology. But although that topic is taken up in several other contributions, few authors discuss explicitly how they deal with Nordmann’s dilemmas in practice.

Little about mistakes

There are other aspects of science communication where the content could have been stronger. There is little discussion of mistakes here. Most of the case studies are success stories. Use of visual media is covered in a single, rather general, chapter on scientific illustration. And there is a useful but brief chapter on evaluation, which really deserves a whole section of its own.

The closing chapter’s declaration that we know much more now goes with a call for a second paradigm shift in science communication – the Bodmer report being the first. The heftily philosophical term paradigm is not really warranted in either case. Like the book’s subtitle, with its implication of gritty, confrontational truth, it promises but does not deliver. What the authors in fact argue for is embedding science communication within organisations. This means doing things like ‘align[ing] the individual scientist’s public interactive activities with the communications policy of the university.’

Not a new approach, in other words, but a rather traditional, not to say uninspiring one. I would not go so far as to apply that criticism to the entire book. But this collection is more one to dip into, or offer as an occasionally useful additional source on a course list, than one with much in the way of essential reading.

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Jon Turney
Jon Turney is a science writer based in Bristol, and editorial adviser to the EC Nanopinion project
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