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13.5.04

Public Understanding Of Science

Dense Matter Indeed

... As science becomes more complex, more prominent in everyday life and more dependent on taxpayer dollars for research, Nobelist-breeding academies like Caltech are reaching out to the clueless — meaning most folks.

The goal is to nurture popular support for scientific endeavors by making them easier to understand. Public lectures are the front line of this campaign. But as Schwarz has learned, dumbing down the toils of super-nerds can strain the brawniest of brains.

"I don't think anybody's going to get the whole story," said Schwarz, before addressing 900 walk-ins at Beckman Auditorium, where Caltech holds a series of public lectures. "I am presenting some difficult subjects, like extra spatial dimensions. It's a little hard to visualize."


What's interesting about this story is that, while the public doesn't quite get what the scientists are saying, their support for science isn't diminished. They don't object to funding particle accelerators even if they have no clue what it's used for. As long as it's Science, they accept it. There's a sort of acquiescence to technocracy, to a division of labor where we trust the scientists to do the science. It's a viewpoint I can sympathize with, as I don't know any more about string theory or the big bang than the confused attendees at the lectures the article discusses.

The article seems confined to high-level physics topics. The technocratic attitude is easy when the subject is something that seems esoteric and distant. Why shouldn't I trust physicists? But I think we'd find a different result if they dealt with popularization of scientific topics that the public sees* as directly bearing on their lives -- say, cloning, or fire ecology, or mercury pollution**. In such cases I think there's a greater need for public understanding, a greater possibility for public understanding, and a greater threat of public skepticism.

There is a greater need for public understanding of science in seemingly life-relevant topics for two reasons. First is to maintain public trust in, and support for, the scientific enterprise. Because of the increased skepticism (on which more below), the public is less accepting of the argument from authority and thus needs to come to a real understanding (in the Habermasian sense) of the value of the science. Second, technocracy is neither advisable nor possible, a point I've argued at more length elsewhere.

There is a greater possibility for public understanding of science in seemingly life-relevant topics because people have more of a motivation to master the material. The environmental justice literature is replete with examples of cases in which concerned citizens, driven by a feeling of threat to their lives and homes, became sophisticated producers and users of scientific knowledge. I think there are some grounds for hope that, despite the tendency to ideologically reject science that conflicts with our desires, overall the public will more readily learn about life-relevant science than about seeming esoterica.

There is a greater likelihood of public skepticism of science in seemingly life-relevant topics because such topics bring the scientific enterprise within the scope of social maneuvering that people understand. It's logical that environmentalists would want to inflate the rate of extinction, or that tobbacco companies would want to show that smoking doesn't cause cancer. But who ever heard of ulterior motives for discovering the "up" quark? Doubtless they exist, but they're disciplinary politics far removed from most people's experience. But while this ability to see the possibilities of a failure to adhere to objectivity calls scientific findings into question, it also boosts the public's confidence in its ability to engage in the scientific debate. People are willing to participate because the science is intertwined with things they are familiar with. They feel qualified to have an opinion rather than simply shrugging and deferring to scientists' expertise.

*The crucial issue is the perception that a finding has relevance to everyday life, not whether it actually does.

**I think evolution is a case that goes both ways. I doubt I'm alone in being willing to smile and nod when presented with the esoterica of evolutionary biology because I don't feel it has a strong impact on my daily life. On the other hand, if my theological worldview required faith in a six-day creation, then I would be more critical, because evolutionary explanations threaten my philosophy of life.

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