Big ideas in the vernacular

Science Today
April 25, 1997

It is often supposed that a report of a Royal Society Committee chaired by Walter Bodmer in 1985 blew the first whistle alerting the scientific community to the grievous consequences of the deplorable lack of "Public Understanding of Science". In reality, that whistle has been blown many times over the past century or so, especially at annual meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Nevertheless, the Bodmer report put the subject on the official agenda, and has generated a number of initiatives and activities, from jolly grass-roots happenings up to ponderous governmental policies.

The Bodmer report was long on assertions but short on evidence. Was it really true, for example, that if only people were told more about science they would be readier to accept its claims? Some of us on the committee were not altogether convinced by such assertions, and managed to include a suggestion that this was a suitable subject for social science treatment. This triggered an extensive and very professional research programme from the Economic and Social Research Council. Unfortunately, the sober and sceptical results of this research have been carefully ignored by the enthusiastic bodies who have been so assiduously fostering "Pus" since then, and do not figure extensively in this book.

One of the puzzling characteristics of the original Bodmerites was that they discounted the role of formal education - so much so that I had to make a special plea to get a science teacher co-opted onto the committee. It is fitting that this book should come from the centre for science education at the Open University, which is one of the most effective institutional agents for Pus in this country. It is even more appropriate that this modest collection of independent essays turns out to be the best source yet for improved understanding of this peculiarly subtle business.

Many of the contributors and their views are too well known to require listing here. But in several cases they express themselves more clearly, and are more worth reading, than usual. Even Lewis Wolpert celebrates the scientific life with an eloquence that transcends such palpable absurdities as that "every important idea in science can be expressed in fewer than 30 words" or "if an idea fits with common sense then scientifically it will almost certainly be wrong". Happily, both Mary Midgley and Hilary Rose deal as deftly with that sort of scientism as they do with the other extreme, "goofy relativism". It is a pity that the metascientists have not yet come up with a coherent middle-of-the-road theoretical model of science as a whole, but until then Henry Bauer is right to insist that the sciences are too diverse to be covered by the sweeping statements of either party.

But the real strength of the book lies in its treatment of formal science education as a major actor on the Pus scene. It goes much further than the obvious point that what adults now understand of science actually depends largely on what they learned, years ago, at school. As Peter Fensham explains, many countries are doing away with narrowly academic school curricula in favour of various versions of "science for all". A variety of different approaches to the question "what should people know about science?" are thus being tried out. The arguments that went into these reforms, and their successes and failures in practice, provide just the sort of theoretical and empirical background against which it is fruitful to discuss corresponding approaches to the same question for adults.

That is not to say that the science educators have yet arrived at an optimum strategy. But they largely agree with Edgar Jenkins that Pus is not to be equated with understanding science on the scientists' own terms. They have found (in agreement with the ESRC studies) that scientific knowledge is best understood when it is integrated into personal judgements in everyday life. Thus, Guy Claxton argues that science teaching should develop an intuitive understanding of orthodox scientific thinking as a natural extension of "vernacular science", while Joan Solomon points out that school teaching of science has different goals in different countries, but can only be moderately successful in demonstrating and passing on the complete high culture of science.

This caution comes, moreover, from experienced teachers who are professionally committed to the traditional values of science. Thus, Robin Millar insists that science education should at least make a clear distinction between the indisputable core of established scientific knowledge and the much more uncertain status of much that comes into question in many socioscientific controversies - even though Les Levidow is worried that formal reductionist accounts of, say, biotechnology would prejudice people's capacity to engage in wider public debates where the whole social order is involved.

Thus, the science educators do not dispute Tam Dalyell's view, as a politician, that the ability to ask the right questions is more important than knowledge of science as such. As Jeff Thomas puts it: "A scientifically literate public is perhaps one where science attracts an emotional mix of dispute, ambivalence, anxiety and appreciation in ways no different from other human pursuits."

These conclusions do not support the official formula, which is that action should be taken to encourage people to make up a supposed "deficit" in their scientific understanding. But as Graham Farmelo reports, there is no real evidence that much is achieved by the usual Pus activities, such as visits to science centres, the promotion of popular science books, or agitation for more news about science in the media. The simple fact is that the gulf of reciprocal incomprehension between scientists and the general public cannot be bridged by written or electronic communication. It requires conversation. The most instructive finding comes at the end of the book, from Sue Pringle. When scientists talk with nonscientists, one to one, face to face, in the schoolroom, at a university "open day", or in small-scale exhibitions and events, they come to appreciate one another as fellow citizens, and depart with a much improved understanding of what each can bring to the other in a shared world of meaning and action. I would strongly recommend this book for that insight alone.

John Ziman was chairman, Council for Science and Society, and chairman, European Association for the Study of Science and Technology.

Science Today: Problem or Crisis

Editor - Ralph Levinson and Jeff Thomas
ISBN - 0 415 13531 1
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £12.99
Pages - 236

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