HolfordWatch is pleased to host a guest piece from a researcher in the Public Understanding of Science.
Over the last twenty or so years the academic study of science communication, also know by the less fortunate name of “Public Understanding of Science” (PUS) has moved from tentative and naïve beginnings, to questioning some of the core assumptions behind science communication.
Among the problematic concepts were: What do we mean by “Public”, what do we mean by “Science“, and what do we mean by “Understanding”? Related to the problem that the fundamental terms of the activity are not clearly defined, there is also the problem that, too often, people who support science communication don’t really know what it is that they want to achieve.
1. Public: Who is the public that we think should understand science, exactly? Do they include politicians and policy makers? Scientists from other disciplines? Should schoolchildren and adults be treated differently for purposes of science communication? What kind of people visit science museums? Are they not the kind of people who would least benefit from PUS because they’re evidently already interested? Or is it the already interested we should be targeting anyway, because anything else is a waste of our (and their) time and resources?
2. Science: Here I don’t just mean whether we should include psychology or economics, or maybe even history in the PUS remit (though I believe that if the PUS is important, then so also is the public understanding of history or political theory, but this opens up another can of worms entirely). More intractable is what exactly does the public want or need to know about science? How does science work, why does it work, why should we have greater credence in science more than say, theology, for information about our own evolution or geological history?
Part of successful PUS surely must include persuading people to take what science says seriously. But here there are problems: while some aspects of science are more or less universally accepted by scientists (and philosophers and historians of science) as being essential to science, many others are not – and here I include even otherwise well accepted things like falsificationism or peer review, both of which have faced serious criticism from the ranks of scientists themselves. The problems with the precise definitions of science gives science communicators a proper headache: How can we offer a coherent account of how science works without either a) alienating a significant proportion of scientists themselves or b) going off track and discussing the philosophy of science, when it is a distraction to the main event? This point is quite a large preoccupation of science education researchers who have for a while now advocated philosophy of science teaching alongside science education. These efforts themselves are not without problems, philosophy education for science classes is an active area of research, with its own journals and societies (Science and Education, IHPST).
A frequently recurring and, too often, intractable problem for a science communicator (or policy maker, or a member of the public) is integral to the issue of trust. How can we safely distinguish the “proper” scientists – when there often is no clear dividing line between the expert and the crank for the non-expert to base their trust on? Even institutional affiliation to, say, a university is not (and never really has been) a completely clear-cut way of deciding who is a proper expert and who isn’t, and I’m sure regular readers of Holfordwatch can think of suitable examples. On the other hand, many fine scientists and experts have no such affiliations.
3. Understanding: When really do people understand science? When they know the facts? When they know how science works (see above)? When they know how science really works (i.e. as John Durant argues, not just the potted and sterilised histories that scientists themselves often like to tell about science, but what really happens?.)
Troublingly, there is a lack of understanding of the public’s understanding of science. If we look at the recent survey result about how many people believe in creationism, then there are plenty of issues to disentangle that the survey couldn’t tell us:
- why for example do they believe these things?
- what can we do to change this?
- how deeply held are these convictions?
The bottom line is that in order to do something about the public’s understanding of science, there is a need to understand more about how the public understands science. Science literacy surveys such as the science component of the Eurobarometer (for example, Europeans, Science and Technology, 2005) are an important tool in this task, but are not sufficient in themselves.
However, the most pervasive change in PUS in the last 25 years is researchers’ advocacy for the perspective that science communication is a two way process – it is not appropriate just to tell the public, whoever that is exactly, all that some faceless people think they should know about science (whatever that is exactly), and then expect them to consume that information and automatically support that agenda (whatever that is exactly) or activity.
There are three important developments:
- one of the basic results of PUS research is that more knowledge about science does not necessarily translate into more enthusiasm for science (ref Turney 2000, Allum et al. 1998). Ultimately, all the efforts to present information or education about GM, or stem cells or whatever else, may not make people accept those technologies or be willing to support them. It’s important to inform and educate about contested technologies, but researchers, educators and policy makers are deluding themselves if they think that such efforts will inexorably result in unconditional support for them when people are better informed on the topic.
- there is sometimes considerable hubris on part of the scientists and experts who are involved in decision-making that overrules the local and relevant knowledge of the layperson. This may need some explanation: although a layperson will not know the science better than the expert, however they may well have their specialisms, on which they are experts. E.g., the farmer will often know more about the local soil, local wildlife, local politics than the flown-in agricultural expert will. To reach good policy decisions scientists may need to incorporate the input of the public as well. A famous and persuasive example is Brian Wynne’s (1992) case study on Cumbrian sheep farmers who had greater knowledge and experience of the local conditions than the nominal experts when there was an urgent need for an appropriate response to the Chernobyl disaster.
- there is also a democratic question here: whatever scientists and science communicators want for science and the public may not be what the public wants. Experts can state their case, but they can’t make up the public’s mind for them on the grounds that they, as experts, know better. Experts may know better, but a democratic society works through persuasion rather than coercion. It may harm the broader agenda of the public understanding of science if the public feels ignored or patronised – both of these perspectives reflect how many people view scientists, and this may arise from years of rather naïve science communication practices.
On the other hand of course, we elect our democratic representatives to make decisions for us based on the best knowledge available, so there certainly is a role to play for scientific expertise to lead or carry more weight than public opinion on certain issues, but that privilege must be exercised cautiously if it is not to alienate the public.
As in most areas of public concern, the issues are rather more complicated than they might appear at first blush, and the role of science and science communication in a democratic society is a wide-ranging topic with substantial implications. Stilgoe et al (2005) made some persuasive arguments for engaging the public in a dialogue for science policy. As part of his critique of conventional attitudes to PUS, Wynne (1993) has famously described the transition in PUS from the “deficit model”, where it is assumed that the public is simply deficient in scientific knowledge, and it is the role of scientists and science communicators to fill the public with science, to a “contextual model”, where science communication is contextualised within the needs and purposes of society, and empowers us to make our democratic decisions on science in an informed, but not coerced manner. (However, see also Sturgis and Allum 2004 for a recent challenge to this division).
While the above is sketchy, even for a caricature, it captures a lot of the changing attitude of PUS researchers. Understandably, even the name of the discipline, PUS has come under fire. First, it is an ugly acronym, but it no longer reflects current thinking behind science communication: we don’t want the public to merely understand science (whatever that means), we want them to be involved and engaged with it. We also want to reflect that there should be a two way process and exchange between science and society, not merely a flow of knowledge from science to the public. Fortunately, and understandably, various suggestions that the name should be changed to Public Involvement in Science and Society (PISS) have not been acted upon as yet.
Our development as a discipline and our increasing knowledge of how people react to and understand science has also started to be influential in policy circles, culminating in the considerate and thoughtful House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee report “Science and Society” in 2000.
Another, altogether more pyrrhic, victory is that now everybody from research councils to government departments to university communication offices talks about “public engagement with” rather than “public understanding of” science. However, this makes the recent undertakings concerning science communication from DIUS (the new UK government Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills) all the more annoying, because they appropriated our language, but accepted none of our insights. Despite the House of Lords issuing an eminently sensible report in 2000 it now appears as if the 80s revival has taken hold in science policy circles, and all the excellent work from the House of Lords from ten years ago has been set aside and forgotten again.
A recent example is DIUS’ response to a consultation paper grandly entitled A vision for Science and Society, and their associated campaign, Science so what? So everything. As befits a consultation exercise, the consultation paper received a robust response from the academic science communication community, because nearly all the points I’ve outlined above were ignored. Reading through the consultation document, it seems as if the authors were in ignorance of the last 25 years of PUS research. The response to the consultation by the UCL Science and Technology Studies department is fairly representative of the community’s response and well worth reading. The response did not only respond to the negative aspects of the consultation, UCL offered constructive criticism, although the monumental errors in the consultation document meant that these may be decorously summarised as the request, “please re-examine your implicit assumptions”. Overall, the PUS community’s general response to the consultation was withering enough to merit an article in Times Higher Education, the gossip mag of UK academia.
DIUS’ summary of the responses to the consultation is now available. Worryingly the whole of 25 years of academic PUS research seems to be put into no more than one paragraph:
There was a significant level of criticism that social science was given insufficient focus in the consultation document and that the discussion underplayed the essential role of social science to public engagement on STEM issues. Many also questioned the premise that we need a society merely ‘excited’ by science and stressed the need for critical engagement.
Crucially, the science communication academics are referred to as “social scientists”, which, in essence, they are, but in context it makes their contribution sound much less relevant than it would be if they were called science communication academics.
Anyway, this is merely the summary of the responses received by DIUS and it remains to be seen whether the PUS community’s responses will continue to be ignored and discounted. In the meantime, however, DIUS seems to have decided to do something, anything about the perceived, if ill-defined, problem of the public’s understanding of science.
So, of all the many actions that they might have taken, DIUS has launched a website, Science: So What?, with the aim of making science more exciting. And, in the time-honoured tradition of politicians and senior civil servants getting down with the kidz, it includes all that the young, hip and desperately uninterested kids of today do: YouTube videos of how exciting science is; Twitter updates; and the obligatory link to the science of football (but at least we were spared footballers’ perms and padded shoulders). How can it possibly fail?
 This distinction is due to John Durant, the world’s first professor for the public understanding of science at Imperial, and now the director of the MIT museum. Durant elaborates the distinction:
Durant, John. 1993. “What Is Scientific Literacy?” Science and Culture in Europe, editors John Durant and Jane Gregory. London: Science Museum
 Turney, Jon, 1998: To know science is to love it? London: COPUS
 I consider this point is often overstated, and that the situations where this applies may be more limited than these case studies suggest, but they seem to at least point to the perception of a wider problem with much of scientific expertise in the public arena – hubris and undue condescension.