Tag: Science Communication

Outreach for Science Journalism?

In a conversation with Ann Finkbeiner Dan Vergano offers some interesting and provocative thoughts on the science ghetto. One of his points seems to be that science journalism has not made a case for its relevance to broader news stories. Unfortunately, he suggests, by concentrating on “gee-whiz stuff” science writers have contributed the marginalization of science journalism and the exclusion of science from broader societal debates. He is calling for science journalists to justify their work by making it relevant to non-science journalists. While the comments challenge various claims, too few engage with this issue. Simply repeating that science is important and affects all of us is clearly not sufficient. Nor is labeling other people too ignorant about science to appreciate its importance particularly useful—both these approaches have failed miserably for faculty in the humanities, as the most recent epidemic of handwringing demonstrates. What would genuine outreach look like for science journalism and science writing?

Up Goer Five vs. Saturn V Rocket

The recent Up Goer Five struck me at first as an interesting exercise in translation and in escaping the gatekeeping rhetoric used by so many disciplines to mark inclusion and exclusion (and I wondered how jargon I use would fail Theo Sanderson’s online text editor). Initially, the challenge to translate your technical jargon into common words seemed to bifurcate the world into experts and non-experts (FYI, expert is not one of the 1000 most common English words). I was uncomfortable with an implicit condescension in this challenge.

Henry Cowles’s “Up Goer Five and the Rhetoric of Science” prompted me to think about how jargon functions not just as a form of gatekeeping but perhaps also inhibits communication between experts within the same field.

Then Matthew Francis defended expertise and jargon, provided it was explained clearly and sufficiently, and was appropriate for the context and useful for conveying the content. Francis asks that we think carefully about choosing and defining our terms. On this model, language can be a mechanism of inclusion rather than exclusion.

The worry about communicating knowledge seems more common amongst the sciences, or at least a vocal minority of scientists (see the recently launched The Incubator: Hatching Conversations about Science), than it does amongst historians of science. What would happen if historians of science thought seriously about communication? To what extent does the rhetoric and jargon historians of science use inhibit communication not just with non-academics but with other historians? I think about how often historians of science have had to justify being called a historian. Do other historians—those who study politics, or religion, or culture, or literature, or whatever—have to defend their identity as historians? Could historians of science begin producing texts that invited smart, interested people read them?

“Up Goer Five” is no less opaque than “Saturn V Rocket” nor does not solve the problem created by “Saturn V Rocket.” Like all expressions, “Up Goer Five” and “Saturn V Rocket” require explanation and make sense only in a particular context and to particular audiences. Jargon itself is not the problem here. The absence of explication is the problem.

Communicating Science—Beyond the Common Sense Model

In other words, the very absence of critical examination should alert us to the power of that which is left unexamined. For example, writing about the failure of the Mechanics’ Institutes in the 19th century Shapin and Barnes said that the mechanics were able “to sniff ideology and reject it”; and it was in search of a “scentless ideology” that Roger Cooter studied phrenology. What goes unquestioned is what has the greatest hold over us. Far from providing us with analytical tools the common-sense view of science communication should instead be our object of inquiry.

As I explain to my students every year, the most powerful ideology is the one which is not seen as ideological.

Peter Broks, “A Personal Retrospective of Science Communication, part 2” from his Understanding Popular Science (Amazon.co.uk link).