Filling black holes in our knowledge

Public Understanding of Science
November 21, 2003

Martin Ince pores over a publication for those who want a scientifically literate public

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a subject in possession of no grants must be in want of a journal. Public Understanding of Science was set up in 1992 by John Durant, then at the Science Museum in London, and has played a vital role in taking the topic from a curiosity to a fully developed discipline with degree courses, academic appointments and all the other furniture of scholarly respectability.

The journal has resisted the temptation to grow to excess. In 2002 it managed a modest 400 pages, in four issues. But its scope and ambitions are large. Although its editor is based in the US, the editorial board includes a fair representation from continental Europe and the content includes much material reflecting the distinctive continental approach to science communication and understanding. In the past few years there have been contributions from Japan, India and Nigeria as well as from Europe and North America. Although it is of interest worldwide, the public understanding of science is still a concise field.

The journal contains an apparently comprehensive bibliography that needs only a dozen or so pages a year to list new publications in the area.

However, it could be that the journal is a little too strait-laced to reflect the excitement that one finds, for example, on the psci-com website ( http:///psci-com.org.uk ), where professionals discuss science communications issues.

In my past life as a science correspondent of The THES , I never saw a copy of this journal. And it was not among the many publications to cross my desk earlier this year during a stint as director of external relations for one of the UK research councils. But a reading of recent issues suggests that it may be the professional communicators who are missing out by neglecting this journal. Some of the content is memorable, such as Durant's article remembering Stephen Jay Gould, which contains genuine insights into a much-discussed personality. Other contributors make good points. Robert Jones uses British films from 1945 to 1970 to show that there is nothing new about distrust of scientists. The physics student in Carry on Nurse (1959) is even called Reckit. In recent years, things may have taken a positive turn. In Godzilla (1998) and the Jurassic Park films, scientists make the mess but also help clear it up.

A typical issue of Public Understanding of Science contains a clutch of book reviews, a longer essay review and four or five full-scale articles.

These are often based on substantial research, typically on public information and attitudes in some science-based controversy. The overall impression they convey is that despite the forbidding language used by some contributors, the field is a little underdeveloped intellectually. There is often evidence of substantial fieldwork and many articles are illustrated by well-chosen quotes revealing public knowledge and opinion on scientific subjects. But the analysis of the material revealed is often less satisfying and perhaps lacks a solid base in theory.

There is also every sign that the editors, instead of looking for contributions covering the full range of ways in which the public understand science, have been happy to work with the material offered to them. The journal does not engage with the current golden age of popular science books, including the many history books based on science such as Longitude by Dava Sobel and The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester. Science on television also does not seem to trouble them.

Nobody would guess from these pages that the longest-running programme on the BBC, apart from the news, is about science ( The Sky at Night ).

Instead, the current panic about biotechnology and genetic manipulation has captured the bulk of the journal's attention. Between October 1999 and April 2003, these topics were at the centre of 16 articles with a specific science as their subject, plus another five in a special issue on biotechnology. The only other topic to come close was climate change, with four articles plus eight in a special issue. Other aspects of the environment managed three, and there were only two on the pivotal issue of risk, one of which was about earthquake prediction.

Despite this distribution, cosmology has sold more books than biotechnology, although the subject does not rate a single article. Pure science is of immense interest to the public, but its understanding presumably does not bring in grants. Over the period under review, only two full articles touch on non-applied science, and these are on related topics. One is on the controversy over possible fossils in Mars meteorites and the other on Sir Fred Hoyle's theories of disease from space. The latter is covered in an analysis by Jane Gregory, who lays out a subtle account of Hoyle's ideas and their progress through newspapers, fiction, learned journals and the worldwide web.

At their best, the cases studied in Public Understanding of Science contain genuine insights. One on public reaction to a proposed incinerator shows that although people with little formal education may be unaware of specific scientific knowledge, a more damaging problem may be their ignorance of topics such as statistics and sampling, which makes it hard for them to appreciate risk. Another, on xenotransplantation in Japan, is informative because as well as the acceptability of organs from animals, it looks at the wider issue of Japanese views on organ transplantation from human sources.

Also helpful is Martin Bauer's article on public reactions to biotechnology in food and medicine. As he points out, scientists regard these as different applications of a similar set of research developments, but there is no reason for the public to do so. They apply one judgement to new medical techniques and a separate one to a new way of producing food. The fact that this is a surprise to scientists, politicians and other member of decision-taking elites is perhaps the strongest argument for more research on the public understanding of science.

Martin Ince is contributing editor, The THES .

Public Understanding of Science

Editor - Bruce V. Lewenstein
Publisher - Sage, quarterly
Price - Institutions: £280.00 Individuals: £41.00
ISSN - 0963 6625

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