January 7, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich
What is science communication? Reflecting on one fall-out from the Cox/Ince debate
Just before Christmas 2012 Brian Cox and Robin Ince published an editorial in the New Statesman entitled ‘Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science’, which provoked a lively debate on twitter, in blogs and in the Guardian about the relation between science and politics, the function of the history and philosophy of science, the social sciences, science and technology studies, science policy studies and science communication, a phrase that was curiously used by some as subsuming all these fields under the label of ‘scicomm’.
The issue of science communication came into focus because of a rather provocative blog by one expert in science communication (who questioned the value of the Geek movement for science), followed by a blog by another expert in science communication (who questioned, to some extent, the value of ‘science communication’, in a very broad sense, for science). So, what’s the matter with science communication?
Questions, questions, questions
In the context of this whole debate one sentence in a (tangentially related) blog jumped out at me, namely this one: “if you’d asked Richard Feynman his views of science communication, I’m not sure he would have even known what you meant”. This made me think about the meaning of science, science communicators and science communication. Who is a science communicator? What is science communication? Can you be a science communicator before the phrase science communication was invented? Who first used the phrase science communication? What is science communication (for)? And what is the overlap between the field, discipline, academic research area of science communication and the practice of science communication? I would love to hear form anyone who knows answers to these questions. Here I can only point to the tip of an iceberg or a whole landscape of icebergs.
If you asked people to name a science communicator (and some real research would be nice here, but I haven’t done that), they might, depending on their age and their interests, say, what are you talking about, or they would come up with names like Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Jacob Bronowski, David Attenborough, James Burke, Richard Dawkins, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox, Marcus Du Sautoy, Jim Al-Khalili, Alice Roberts, Martyn Poliakoff, Tom Pringle and many many more. But of course this list is hopelessly flawed and steeped in presentism, Anglocentrism, and, if you want, scientism (what about Michael Faraday, Humphry Davy, Jules Verne, Arabella Buckley, Albert Einstein, Isaac Asimov, Ranga Yogeshwar. and even, facetiously, Lucretius, you may well ask!). However, I think one can say that these people engage in communicating science in one way or another. They do so for all sorts of reasons and have arrived at engaging in this activity by sometimes very unpredictable paths, as DeGrasse Tyson has stressed in his advice for young science communicators. One can of course also become a science communicator in a more straightforward way by studying science communication at degree level. But this seems to be a rather more recent phenomenon (historians needed here). And there are many more paths in between leading to being interested in and/or practicing science communication.
If you asked people to define science communication (and again some real research would be nice here), they would probably say it has to do with communicating science and point perhaps to some of the aforementioned science communicators. People may not know that science communication exists as an academic discipline. As one twitterer said a few days ago: “Something good came of the recent Cox/Ince/New Statesman Twitterstorm: ‘Didn’t realise Science Communication existed as academic discipline until #coxince …’ – @Steve_P_Knight”.
Finding a definition of science communication is quite hard. There is a useful bibliography of major works in science communication provided by Alice Bell. I also found a 2008 article published in Public Understanding of Science, entirely devoted to finding a definition of science communication, as both a field of research and as a practice.
The authors of the article define science communication as follows “SCIENCE COMMUNICATION (SciCom) may be defined as the use of appropriate skills, media, activities, and dialogue to produce one or more of the following personal responses to science (the vowel analogy): Awareness, including familiarity with new aspects of science; Enjoyment or other affective responses, e.g. appreciating science as entertainment or art; Interest, as evidenced by voluntary involvement with science or its communication; Opinions, the forming, reforming, or confirming of science-related attitudes; Understanding of science, its content, processes, and social factors; Science communication may involve science practitioners, mediators, and other members of the general public, either peer-to-peer or between groups.” I really liked the inclusion of enjoyment! And of course there are many models and theories of science communication, surrounded by philosophical, political and historical reflections on their value and use in society. A more recent article from 2012 distinguishes between professional, deficit, consultative and deliberative or participatory models of science communication for example.
But what do people think science communication ‘is’? As I don’t have access to real people for this blog post, I went to the oracle that is google. I had googled ‘science is…’ followed by various letters of the alphabet some time ago, just for fun and found that science was ‘awesome’, ‘bad’, ‘fun’, ‘interesting’, ‘magic’, ‘vital’ and much more (try it out!). So I was curious to see what would happen if I did this with ‘science communication is…’. What I found was rather surprising. I don’t want to list all my findings (again, you can just try it out). But some of the key words that came up were: awards, blogs, conferences, courses, degrees, funding, even the dreaded impact factor, jobs (that came up several times in various contexts, especially related to place names like Bristol, Edinburgh and so on), postgraduate, research, salary, thesis, training, workshops, vacancies and so on.
These findings really depressed me as a science and communication enthusiast. So I thought I could perhaps cheer myself up by looking at communication alone and, lo and behold, things were not so bad. ‘Communication is…’ generated things like key, vital, a two way process, an art, a process, complex, dynamic, essential, everywhere, and so on.
So, science is vital and communication is vital. The question is what gets lost when science and communication join up in one verbal compound, namely ‘science communication’ or ‘scicomm’/’scicom’? Why do things seem to become so dreary, while science communication as practiced by actual science communicators can be so exciting, and while many students really enjoy studying science communication? Is it because the (more flamboyant) doing of scicomm and the (more scholarly) reflecting on scicomm are, or have become, in some way and for some reason disconnected?
Scicomm and the science wars
During the short ‘science wars’ that erupted around Christmas 2012, there seemed to be some hostility between some practitioners of science communication and some academic experts in science communication and adjoining academic fields. Can this hostility be partially attributed to an emerging split between scientists doing science communication and those studying it (and often also doing it at the same time)? Did the former (for whom science communication is mainly part of the doing of science) perhaps not want the models and the theories and sometimes the historical and political reflections that academic colleagues from the social sciences wanted to provide, whereas the latter (for whom science communication is mainly part of the thinking about science) could not make this theoretical knowledge seem vital and fun and interesting to their colleagues?
Both sides accused each other of arrogance, for sometimes good reasons, which widened the perceived gap between them, while in fact they are really just two sides of the same coin. If they listened to each other and were willing to learn from each other instead of squabbling, the research and practice of ‘science communication’ across all disciplines may become as vital as science and as vital as communication. And only then would somebody like Richard Feynman or Isaac Asimov recognise ‘science communication’ when they saw it.
If you want to know more about the vicissitudes of science communication and some remedies, please consult this article.
Image taken by Brigitte on a flight to a science communication conference in Padua, Italy, 2010.
You raise a good question about the reasons for the hostility between scientists who are also science communicators and scholars studying science communication. I agree with what you wrote but in addition would like to add something, taking a step back and writing from a social science perspective, not from a position that wants to reconcile both sides. I think we need to understand what is going on before trying to remedy. So here goes my partial account:
– Scientists today enjoy greater demand and esteem compared to social scientists, reversing CP Snow’s assessment. This enhances their sense of authority, enabling them to claim a special role and status in communication;
– Scientists engaging in science communication think they have a monopoly over their turf, so to speak. Others (for example social scientists engaging in science communication) do not really know what they are talking about;
– Scientists don’t like to be told what they are ‘really’ doing. Unlike Monsieur Jourdain in Moliere’s play (who discovered that he has “been speaking prose all my life, and didn’t even know it!”) they are nonplussed by such discoveries.
These three elements tend to reinforce each other, leading to a dismissive attitude towards competing views.
HOWEVER, one might ask why scientists engage in science communication in the first place. Aren’t their publications good enough? Are their findings so obscure or difficult to grasp that a translation is needed, making the findings accessible to a wider audience? But if this is the case, the game is wide open, as we are dealing with interpretations. So everyone can have a go.
Literary theorists are fond of saying the text knows more than the author. There really should not be one privileged interpretation, only more or less plausible, interesting, vivid, or funny…
Social scientists make excellent science communicators, such as Jon Turney for example (and there are many more, although I am not totally sure whether Jon would call himself a social scientist). However, in many instances, I believe scientists may still be in a better position to communicate certain aspects of and developments in science than social scientists. See this recent tweet (4 January) by Jon Turney: “Have now read explanation of how physicists attained temp ‘below’ absolute zero. Did I understand how they did it? Nope #scicommchallenges”. I myself try sometimes to communicate science in my blog posts, but what I can say may very well skim the scientific surface and get things wrong. On the other hand my own areas of expertise in the humanities and social sciences allow me to communicate things about science that ‘natural scientists’ may not think about, have no immediate interest in, or have no knowledge of. So, in principle (and this might sound soppy) we should all be able to live in harmony and add together to the sum of human knowledge and to wider public understanding (and critique) of science in all its shapes, forms and contexts. We should also be able to do this in ways that suit our personalities and preferences. All this could make up the colourful tapestry of science communication!
There are some issues though around social science related to the CoxInce debate, but I feel I am not really expert enough to say anything deep about that. I think your comments may contribute to that debate which I have somewhat bypassed in this blog post and in this reply.
Perhaps scientists (or maybe academics of all hues) feel the need to ‘communicate’ due to a perception that society is out of step with their way of seeing the world. This is my interpretation of the lengthy intro to the Cox/Ince article focusing on technological innovation – a device by which trust and understanding in science can be increased – i.e. technology is much better understood within society than science.
Scientific enquiry and discovery has, of course, had a huge part in the shaping of the modern world. However, even if one accepts that it is the predominant force shaping the world, that does not mean that much of society *sees* the world in a scientific way. This may help to explain the MMR vaccine crisis and the lack of policy progress on climate change, apparently irrational actions in the face of a weight of scientific evidence, and the sometimes incredulous responses of scientists to such developments.
While ‘science communication’ can be a generic, inclusive term, when used broadly it is of little interest. Please note that while there are many writers who focus on wars, there are no ‘war communicators’ that I know of. No one seems to see a need for such a term. So why is ‘science communicator’ needed? There are certainly popularizers, like Carl Sagan and Fritjof Capra, who write of scientific ideas for the public. These are hardly controversial.
Where I find the word ‘communicator’ being used is in a quite different way. Andrew Revkin of the New York Times loves to write about scientific communication in his column that typically discusses climate change and other environmental issues. He tells his readers that he has recently met with college students who want to be science communicators. Not science writers, or science reporters or science journalists. And certainly not scientists. So why does Revkin choose to use the term ‘communicator?’
It quickly becomes clear from the context of his columns that when he says communicator he means advocate. These young people he met want to communicate the message that climate change is an important topic, and that certain things have to be done about it. They want to ‘communicate’ their concern about climate change in the same way that a advertising firm wants to communicate the message of Kraft Foods, or a public relations firm wants to communicate the good works done my a multi-national corporation.
One ‘reports’ the facts. One ‘communicates’ a message. When I called Revkin on this matter, he responded by refusing to respond. Apparently he is incapable of seeing the difference. Or at least he refuses to acknowledge it.
Thanks for this comment. These are certainly some semantic developments to keep an eye on.
Reiner may be correct that (some) scientists disregard or dismiss “Sci Comm” as they fail to see its relevance to their work. I’d then ask why has the importance of Sci Comm scholarship been lost to scientists? I’d use this analogy- if a scientific topic was mis-represented in the public/media sphere, how should the scientists react? Complain that the public are too ignorant of science or that journalists wilfully mis-represent scientific stories? Or find out why the science did not resonate with the public in the same way it did with the experts ? An example in the climate change sphere that Brigitte probably knows more about than me is the UEA secret email controversy. Yes, the emails were taken out of context deliberately for a political motive but the initial silence of the academics involved did nothing to allay the concerns raised. If the SciComm Community (SciCommComm?) feels its message is not getting across it might need to address the way it communicates with scientists (SciCommCommComm?? sorry…!). I don’t actually think all scientists are unreceptive to the findings and methods of the social sciences.
As for Cox/Ince I wonder if some of the ire shown by them (and those who wrote in support of them) had something to do with a feeling that the debate was a diversions to the editorial message? Writing in the NS, they may have meant to target a readership that would probably include many senior members of the Labour Party, civil servants and others involved influencing policy. The resulting debate was very academic, focussing on the philosophical nature of science itself rather than its interactions with policy, the media and the public.
(N.B. Reiner’s last comment about the open interpretation of a science paper- I would caution anyone trying to accurately interpret a paper written in a discipline alien to their own. Yes, scientific results often are open to interpretation but it takes a degree of technical training to be able to do so. Even the New Scientist partially mis-represented the negative temperature story yesterday. And its not just science papers, if I read a social science or philosophy article I might expect to need to refer regularly to both a dictionary and an encyclopaedia just to get the general gist.)
I agree with what you say. When the whole thing broke I said in a tweet ‘who mediates between the mediators’? In a way my post was meant a bit like this. We all, including Brian Cox and Jack Stilgoe and many more, mediate between science and society, according to our strengths and preferences, our disciplinary backgrounds and, if you like, ideologies, at least I think we do. We are all part of the SciCommCommm! When one member or other of that community writes something the rest don’t agree with or adopts a dismissive tone etc, it is of course right to say so, and indeed extremely fruitful. We are all for openness, aren’t we? But we also have to take into account genre and intended audience, of course, in everything we right, as you rightly point out.
[…] Just before Christmas 2012 Brian Cox and Robin Ince published an editorial in the New Statesman entitled ‘Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science’, which provoked a lively debate on twitter, in blogs and in the Guardian about the relation between science and politics, the function of the history and philosophy of science, the social sciences, science and technology studies, science policy studies and science communication, a phrase that was curiously used by some as subsuming all these fields under the label of ‘scicomm’.The issue of science communication came into focus because of a rather provocative blog by one expert in science communication (who questioned the value of the Geek movement for science), followed by a blog by another expert in science communication (who questioned, to some extent, the value of ‘science communication’, in a very broad sense, for science). So, what’s the matter with science communication? […]
[…] Peter brought up the Twitter spat between some social scientists and scientists that raged after the Cox/Ince editorial in the New Statesman magazine, and the irritated response of many scientists to the criticism that went the way of Cox and Ince. (This was first experience of the sometimes open warfare between scientists and social scientists around the relationship between science and wider society). Perhaps the best reflection on the whole matter came from Brigitte Nerlich: […]