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Stranger than fiction: power, elitism, and mysteries in science communication

Press/Media: Expert CommentPopular

The role of science in improving the quality of our lives has been instrumental throughout the history of life. Without science, for example, we would not have medicine, food, cars, computers, telephones. Could we ever, possibly, imagine our lives being detached from science? For a lot of people, however, the word science brings to mind fat textbooks, microscopes, equations, and white, middle-aged, male scientists in white coats working in laboratories. This image of science, being socially displaced and at times completely apolitical, as well as scientists emanating an aura of extreme madness, has populated the popular science media for years now. This has led to turbulences in the relationship of science and society and has inevitably caused a disinterest and mistrust in science by the public.

Here comes the need, the crucial role and all the fuzz about science communication: for increasing appreciation for science, for supporting the public in developing understandings about certain scientific issues, for influencing people’s beliefs and behaviors, and, essentially, for bridging the deep and complex divide between science and society. At the dawn of the third millennium, the call for science communication becomes perhaps more important than ever before especially within the context of the post-truth era where ill-informed ideologies and anti-science luddites are on the rise. However, a critical stance towards current science communication efforts reveals two fundamental problems.

One problem with current science communication is that it preserves the divide of science and society through an establishment of power dynamics: the scientists and the public, the ones that do the talking and the ones that do the listening, the experts and the non-experts, the producers of knowledge and the consumers of knowledge. Take for example a TED-talk. Does it present itself as a dialectical communication tool? Does it offer a means for developing an interactive relationship between scientists and the public? Does it consider what the public brings on stage? Instead, it serves as a means for transmitting scientific knowledge from the superior expert to the inferior non-expert; essentially, it serves as a metaphor for power and elitism. Then, there is the question of un-equal access. Who attends these TED-talks? Who visits the science centers? Who watches the IMAX science films? Who has access to science exhibits? Not the whole public.

A second problem is that current science communication emphasizes the communication of the products of science while the processes of science resemble a black box, much like the recorders in aircrafts whose internal workings are hidden. Paradoxically, while science communication puts on stage the products of science and in the spotlight the results of scientific research, the processes of scientific research remain behind the scene as mysteries not yet ready to be revealed. What scientists do, what kinds of data they collect and how they analyze those data to form conclusions remains terra incognita for the general public. As a result, this endorses deeper disbelief in science and the work of scientists.

In this brief essay, I argue that in order to cross over the power dynamics and to illuminate the processes of science, our efforts should focus on science engagement through social media, community projects, after-school clubs, science shops, science cafés, and science festivals.Why? Because such places and activities can offer access to a whole public, which aims to also include the non-White, the non-dominant, and the non-privileged. Because such activities can provide a sense of science in society in contrary to science for society, they are inclusive and contextual, and they promise to shed light on the processes of science. Such an engagement has the potential to not only empower the public to experience science in meaningful, exciting, culturally, and personally relevant ways but also to consider what this diverse public brings to science.

It’s time to conceptualize science beyond the beyond; not only outside the lab and academic forums, but also outside the science center, away from the podium, beyond the headlines and behind the spotlight. It’s time to go beyond science communication and to dig deeper into science engagement through fostering diverse, inclusive, and heterogeneous forms of participation in science in our backyard, in our community, at the local cafe, at the summer camp, at the science pop-up shop in the city center. Unlike science communication, science engagement has the potential to reveal the mysteries of science or the processes of scientific research. But, to do so, scientists ought to go beyond the whats and instead inspire the public to ask the how and why questions about the world, across borders, in-between spaces, outside of traditional discourses and conventional places. Because in order to change the world one would first have to understand how it works.


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