Misunderstanding Science?: The Public Reconstruction of Science and Technology

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Our economic environment urges the commercialisation and social acceptance of new technologies, and science communicators and their publics contribute work to these ends. These activities neglect existing, uncontroversial technologies that, in a collaboration between responsible scientists and their publics, could be deployed to address global problems. Underlying much discussion about science communication is the common sense of a problem: a conflict or rift between science and society.

Underlying much of what is done in the name of science communication is the conviction that this problem can be resolved by engagement between scientists and the public. In our recent thinking about what form this engagement should take, we have neglected the more traditional kinds of dissemination, in favour of conversations between many partners, of equivalent status, where everyone has a contribution to make, and we all speak as well as listen. Dialogue has become a ubiquitous feature of science policy-making, and is delivered by professional specialists.

At the same time, there is a parallel discourse about its failings, and science studies scholars participate in both roles, delivering and contributing to dialogic public engagement about science, as well as criticising it. In the essay I consider how the focus on dialogue, with its dynamics of authority, power and participation, has drawn us away from the knowledge content of science. An ethos of commercialisation promotes research into new technologies and focuses our attention on them, at the expense of other useful and interesting knowledge.

In an innovation economy, new technologies make money only once they have settled into society, and science communication of all kinds helps that to happen, to the financial benefit of investors. However, if it is public engagement professionals who undertake this communication on behalf of scientists, then the scientists themselves may be side-stepping their own social responsibility. They will also not be around to explain the knowledge content of their work, limiting its uses to the ideas of an elite group.

A long historical perspective on science communication shows a story of ebb and flow Bauer, Power appears to roll back and forth in variable, often low-frequency waves between experts however labelled and laypeople however labelled , as conditions and events become significant and then recede. For example, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the UK, when reading became a non-elite capability, and a public emerged for literature about nature, the educated elite generated non-elite literatures not only as a marketing opportunity but also in order to guide lay readers into particular ways of knowing and areas of knowledge Bowler, ; Fyffe and Lightman, The elite thus maintained the exclusivity of their literatures and knowledges by swamping the market at the cheaper end with material more suited, in their eyes, to the public, and which were intended to guide the new readers into particular political and career paths.

The newspapers, for most of their history, were deemed to express public opinion; but with the establishment of the popular press in the early twentieth century, the lens of public opinion became the opinion poll, conducted by agencies in the pay of elites. Similarly, when the public started to engage in further education, the elites did not open the universities to them; instead, new colleges and classes were provided that, while they offered advancement, also attempted to guide workers in certain intellectual and practical directions and divert them from others Billinge, ; Porter, And chafing under this discipline, the public finds new forms of activity for resisting it.

As the twentieth century passed, the distance between elites and laypeople was replaced by a fluidity in many dimensions โ€” wealth, education, mobility, political agency โ€” and the opportunities increased for the less powerful to sidestep control from higher up Giddens, ; Castells, Together, now, they tussle for liberation and control, activation and discipline: the experts share some knowledge with the laypeople, the laypeople select from it, reconstruct it, and exploit it in unexpected ways; thus altered, the knowledge is deemed by elites to have been devalued, and they say so; the laypeople lose respect for elites, who suffer this devaluation in return and attempt to regain status by sharing something new they consider of value, and the cycle continues.

In the contemporary world of multiple expertises, multiple audiences, multiple channels and timeless time, the tussle becomes a frenzy, and then blurs. One clear event, though, is the emergence of public engagement as a mode of science communication in the UK, and its fall-out elsewhere Lock, By public engagement, I mean managed dialogues between experts, of some kind, and non-experts, or activities with a dialogical element for a useful discussion of definitions, see Escobar, The past, and the alternatives, were swept away and squeezed out by policy-orientated funding decisions.

Public engagement looks like an opening up, but can instead be understood as a managerial phase in the history of science communication: in the science communication boom of the s onwards, the opening-up of the scientific culture generated resistance as well as support; the disquiet of the elites was expressed as concern about a lack of trust for expertise; and the time had come to clamp down. The public now were to become scientific citizens: they should participate, learn, discuss and debate for further discussion, see Stirling, ; Durodie, In the web, as in the network, many kinds of actors speak and many listen, and many do both.

Involving such influential scholars as Alan Irwin, Hilary Rose, Brian Wynne and Steve Yearley, it explored cases where laypeople and experts encountered each other in real-life situations, confronting real-life problems Irwin and Wynne, The researchers in this programme consistently found that, in the real world, encounters about science were conversations rather than lectures, and they were broad-ranging conversations in which scientific knowledge jostled with values, expectations, experience and common sense.

Nor were these each originating with the usual suspects: all parties had knowledge, values, opinions and facts to share. The case studies showed scientists and non-scientists in face-to-face situations, having conversations about, among other things, the cognitive content of science. The analyses explored how knowledges and expertise are framed and nuanced by institutional relationships and cultural contexts.

This work was disruptive: firstly, it problematised the persistent notion that the explanation for the perceived under-valuing of science in British society was that the public knew nothing about science.


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It also problematised the idea that rejecting or ignoring scientific knowledge was a negative stance โ€” clearly, this could indicate a positive relationship with scientific expertise. At the same time, quantitative data showed that high levels of scientific knowledge did not correlate in any straightforward way with positive attitudes to science Evans and Durant, ; Allum et al, Knowledge became a non-simple dimension in the science-society relationship; and if it was implicated in poor social relations, it was hard to see clearly how.

The fact that laypeople may well, after all, have interesting and relevant things to say about the cognitive content of science got lost in the rush towards new modes of communicating, and never mind about what. During the s, the public culture of science became a matter of public policy in the UK, and the locus of oversight and commentary moved from the learned societies and professional agencies and into the ministries Gregory and Lock, Widespread in British political culture was the belief that the public did not trust the authorities in any field, including science; and given that the electorate seemed not to be empty-headed about science after all, it was becoming apparent that the perceived lack of trust could not be explained by a presumed public ignorance of science.

Crucially, these institutional relationships were, henceforth, to be dialogical, and conducted through public engagement, irrespective of what they were about.

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Public engagement would, it was claimed, better inform policy-making, build social aspirations into the planning of possible futures, and energise the democratic contributions of a broad section of citizens. Notice that these aims are political and social; they could be about schools or parks or art. And where before, natural scientists had been speaking truth to power in Whitehall about science and society, now it was the social scientists Lock, Not only was there suddenly a wealth of public funding for social scientists to engage the public with science, but also public money for science soon came with strings attached: it became obligatory to enrol social scientists in scientific research projects, where they would handle policy and engagement see, for example, Calvert and Martin, The turn to dialogue appeared to be a sharp one, but like every revolution, this one drew on changes that were already happening.

The western world was becoming more dialogical, and more participatory, and this was a consequence not of the decisions of committees of scientists or Lords in historic institutions in London. The context for understanding science communication since the s is not the intrinsic qualities and capacities of public engagement itself, but of the space around it, in which profound world transformations were being wrought.

The transition in science communication from deficit to dialogue and from knowledge to policy was rapid because the rest of industrialised society had already entered a new phase that privileged dialogic interaction among individuals, and the form of the interaction was more important than its content.

Computer-based, networked communication had a great deal to do with that. Statistics for the uptake of PCs in westernised societies usually start around or Networks flatten hierarchies, which promotes equality, and makes it difficult to know who is in charge. Hierarchies give way to horizontal networks that are adaptable, and to units of action which can be small. Individual people gain autonomy, and are free, for better or worse, to connect with whomsoever they choose. In the network society instability is a way of life, as links break and reform, and individuals make new connections and discard the old.

This instability makes the network resistant to external governance: responsibility lies with the individual user. Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology. Nanocomposite Science and Technology. Emulsion Science and Technology.

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Misunderstanding Science?: The Public Reconstruction Of Science And Technology

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