Dumbing down science (or not)

This is "a new website that brings together images and viewpoints to create insights into science and culture." Sounds like Seed, no? It's what Scienceblogs is/are about.

This page, on the dilemma of science in the public -- the "fine line between intellectualism and elitism" -- is really fascinating. The site authors "examine how the message [of science] changes as it moves from the scientific to the popular arena. We also look at the medium, at how technology facilitates engagement with science. Finally, the motive is scrutinised: why popular science is not part of a dumbing down process but one of wising up." So, the medium, the message, and the motives of science communication.


"Coloured satirical etching by Thomas Rowlandson showing Friedrich Christian Accum (1769-1838), lecturing at the Surrey Institution in Blackfriars, London. Accum was appointed chemistry lecturer at the Surrey Institution in 1803. Although only in existence from 1808 to 1823, 'the Surry', as it was called, provided an important forum for the dissemination of scientific, technological and other developments during the early Industrial Revolution" (source).

Part of the discussion on "the message" includes this:

Most scientists tend to view the way the media reports science as distortion on a similar scale. Imagine:

Researcher: 'Changes in acceleration when superconductors are levitated in a DC magnetic field have been detected.'

Press officer: 'Researchers investigate antigravity properties of superconductors.'

Broadsheet science page: 'Breakthrough as scientists beat gravity.'

Tabloid: 'Beckhams are first in line for new antigravity car.'

Scientist vows never to speak a whisper to the media again.

But they offer an even-handed view:

On the face of it, the media are to blame for 'dumbing down' cutting-edge science to make a more interesting story at the expense of accuracy. However, the use of jargon by the scientist has an isolating function. It necessitates 'translation' as it moves into the public arena, and distortion is almost inevitable.

And thus, as I know Dave views it, and probably most science bloggers around here too (without meaning to put views onto those who don't agree): "The turgid, lifeless style of scientific papers belies the creativity, camaraderie, rivalry, tragedy and triumph that make cutting-edge research so exciting."

In the section on "the motive," the authors write that:

Those who speak up for science are not dumbing down but wising up. Inspiring young people to pursue careers in science is an important driving force behind making it more accessible, but the emphasis on 'context science' in school syllabuses has led to accusations of dumbing down. Broad-based learning, however, is already attracting more undergraduates.

Now, clearly, I'm just selecting quotes here, so I'll let you go to the site and look around. The point of this post is to highlight the work at London's National Museum of Science and Industry, whose Science and Culture website discusses not just what "Dumbing Down" means. It also has discussions of "science on screen," "science is the answer," "Einstein, physics and fascination," and "Astrology and Alchemy."

The Museum website, for one, is chock-a-block, we know that. And it comes with links to oh-so-many excellent pictures. Not to mention a slice of cantaloupe at the end.


Is blogging the 21st century equivalent of the 19th century public lecture (like this 1851 series of lectures, and for which the chemist Humphry Davy, discussed at the website but not shown here, was well known)? Or the 20th century TV lecture?

Hopefully, Dave and I will follow up with more posts about their efforts. It is essentially what The World's Fair is. The Museum site talks about the message, medium, and motives of science communication to and with and between the public. But what is "the public"? How is the Museum's m.o. defined? And what do we on-line bloggers say about the age of web-based communications and science? Let's make this a reflexive post. Obviously, this is our gig, but where are we going or what do we want to get out of all this blogging?


[Category explanation: this is filed under "Philosophy of Science," because it is about communicating, understanding, and framing science, and that, for me, is all about promoting a sense of what science is. It's generally implied and not explained, but behind any discussion of science, inside scientific forums or in the public at large, lay assumptions about what this thing science is of which we speak.]

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Yes, thank you for the link.

On the question of the dilemma of science in the public, I wonder what the total effect of, say, the Discovery Channel actually is. Just last weekend I was watching Discovery and I was disturbed to note that following MythBusters (an entertaining show that I think paints science (and skepticism) as good things--exactly the kind of appealing spectacle that could rehabilitate science in the public eye) was a documentary on speculations regarding the Freemason conspiracy theories. This documentary looked, in its form, like all popular science tv programs (you know the drill: expert talks, live-action dramatization, expert talks again, one fact among others emphasized, commercial). That same weekend the "Tomb of Jesus" documentary aired (although the effect of that was tempered by an actual debate held afterward). What can one say about a genre that places perceived equal emphasis on archaeology, history, the lives of animals and conspiracy theories?

I'm concerned because of the recent surveys indicating a rise in the belief in "Pseudoscience" among Americans. If The Discovery Channel looks just like a more responsible version of The X Files to the casual viewer, is it, on balance, a good thing?