In Science Communication, why does the idea of a public deficit always return?

There's an old journalism trick that says: "If you want to get something original out of an interviewee, say nothing and wait".
Thus, when I was due to interview Beth Raps, one of six winners of the essay competition on the ‘deficit concept’, instead of looking for those questions that make people comfortable enough to speak freely, I only asked her to talk about her latest publication in an unconventional way that could show the readers a partisan angle.
I stopped talking and waited, and this self interview was the result.
Cristina Rigutto

Beth interviews Beth

By Beth G. Raps Ph.D.

Dear Beth, This is an interview with you about your latest publication, "In Science Communication, why does the idea of a public deficit always return?" First off, that's an incredibly boring title. How did you happen to choose it?

Well, Beth, yes, it is, you're right. I chose it to ensure I focused entirely on the topic and nowhere else, as I have a tendency to wander and re-invent questions.

In fact, Beth, you did re-invent the question four times.

True, but I didn't wander. My answers, I hoped, got deeper with every turn of the spiral into redefining the question. This approach I took because frankly I found the framing of the question irritating and I wanted in some sense to irritate the reader, mild anger being as good an inducement as any to engagement.

Philosophers - and you are a philosopher, correct? not a science communicator by profession?- don't generally come right out and admit to goading readers; philosophers tend to be more cagey.

Well, I guess I am a science communicator, because the way I do philosophy is very in-your-face. It's got to matter, it's got to be high-stakes, and demanding - of me, and the reader. I want the reader not just to come away knowing something, and possibly feeling something from what I write - I want them to consider committing to doingsomething differently. So I'm in the minority as a philosopher, and even possibly as an academic science communicator. What helps me feel a bit more in the mainstream is that I'm also a social justice organizer. My writing is an organizing tool.

Doesn't that violate the standards of objectivity the sciences are so fond of?

Well, yes, certainly it does - but those are not my standards, and I'd argue any objectivity any of us possess is "local" to the field in which we're working - there are agreed-on professional standards of objectivity but they vary significantly by profession. So the standard in physics is not the standard in biology or paleontology, which latter has been called "stamp-collecting" by some not-very-nice physicists, for example. Scientists don't communicate particularly well amongst themselves, to say nothing of out-of-field, but that's another subject on which you could certainly get me started.

Where do you come off being so cocky about all this stuff?

Well, first, and she would not endorse this - working with philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers on my dissertation helped me see that it was alright to bedirect about things. Second, I don't work primarily in the fields of philosophy or science communications; I'm not trying to play well with the others in my field, I'm trying to get the word out about things I think are important. I just submit work I'd like to see done and published. I then see if it is relevant to the community to which I've submitted it, and on the odd occasion, it is.

Can you give us another example of an "odd occasion"?

About a year ago, I had a paper, "Since You Cannot Find It, Create It: Beloved Community Organizing"* accepted by the Josiah Royce Society. Some of your readers may know the phrase "beloved community" from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s writings and speeches. Few know that pragmatist philosopher Royce coined the term about 50 years before Dr. King used it. I found this out because I see myself as a beloved community organizer and wanted to know how to build the world King calls us to. It was great for me that Royce happened to be the originator of the term, because as a philosopher I found reading lots of Royce genuinely enjoyable and easy to use in my organizing. I was surprised and (as I am to SAGE) grateful to find out that what mattered to me also mattered to the Royce Society itself. (The title is a quote from Royce, who goes into detail about what's demanded of us to achieve beloved community which he emphasizes is universal; it includes everyone. It turns out what's vital to the equation is not what to do about those who rip it apart (or "betray it" as Royce puts it) but what we must do to welcome those people back in. The truth is we are all betrayers; we have a choice also to be re-weavers. I loved the surprise and the bravery of that, its in-your-face quality.)
In the present paper, I try to do this as well. Implicit in the essay question is a dualism which I try to deconstruct by showing the reader with a professional interest in science communication that s/he is also a member of the "public" as well and how much more interesting the whole issue becomes if we see ourselves implicated in both sides of it.


Beth Gillian Raps, Ph.D, is a philosopher, fundraiser, meditator, money coach, and mother. Her coaching and consulting practice can be found at Raising Clarity: to cultivate abundance in noble causes, people and organizations. A former founder of The Adaptation Network: Building Resilience in a Changing Climate, she writes on racism, money, time and lay/expert knowledge at Raising Clarity blog.

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