Scientists' image 'too polarised '

September 5, 1997

A BRITISH psychologist will call next week for science to be "normalised, not demonised".

Helen Haste, head of psychology at the University of Bath, will tell a conference to mark the British Society for the History of Science's 50th anniversary that if scientists want to increase the public's understanding of science, they need to tackle public anxiety about science, not dismiss it.

"It is not enough to harangue people about the importance of science and the dangers of 'irrationality' and superstition," she believes.

Negative stereotypes of science and scientists have evolved over hundreds of years, Dr Haste says. Cultural forms such as film and drama "demonise" science as capable of unleashing disaster, or they portray it as cold, unemotional and out of touch with human values.

On the other hand, scientists are sometimes regarded are saviours, whose rational and visionary world will lead to a new utopia.

"These are extremes", Dr Haste explains, "and they are both heavily moral. Moral concerns about the possibilities of evil, but also an exaggerated moral expectation about the benefits of Enlightenment models and rationality. It is a moral issue when scientists talk of rationality as the saviour of the world. The image of science is not normal, it is polarised. We need to normalise science and scientists."

She calls for science to open up and become "a means of knowledge that is accessible", and for scientists to be seen as normal people. This could be achieved by scientists, for example, appearing on chat shows and contributing to public debate on various subjects, and turning up as routinely as other professions in television soap operas.

"We need the scientist next door, not scientists locked away in ivory towers," Dr Haste says.

* The 50th anniversary celebrations will run alongside this year's British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Leeds next week.

It will ask to what extent the history of science has become part of public culture. John Brooke, president of the BSHS, said the meeting would explore how to popularise a subject about which the general public knows relatively little.

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