Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Communicating Science

David Depew, who wrote a truly topflight book called Darwinism Evolving, which traces the history of evolutionary thought, has written a guest column in the Iowa Press-Citizen called The Problem With Communicating Science. He has some provocative things to say:

Some people think that the decades following Sputnik were something of a Golden Age of science communication in America. But lurking within the communicative practices that sprang up at that time were attitudes and assumptions that may have contributed to our current worries.

Back then a trickle-down notion of science communication was taken for granted. All that the journalist or popular science writer had to do, it was thought, was clothe claims that were assumed to be too difficult for the weak lay mind to understand in a few superficial metaphors.

When I was young, I was told that only five people in the world could understand Einstein's theory of relativity. What a bizarre claim and what a discouraging thing to tell a kid.

Given the assumed deficiency of the public illustrated in this claim, no wonder popular science writing usually bypassed evidence altogether and instead promised that practical goodies of all sorts would flow smoothly from the money the public had spent on the research that produced the claim -- as if that were the point of scientific inquiry.

This formula still is pervasive today

Indeed it is.

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