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1985, a great vintage for the Public Understanding of Science

BY Jean-Baptiste Gouyon, UCL

1985 saw the publication of two significant volumes placing audiences at the centre of knowledge production. It was a great year for PUS.

In the UK, where I am based, it is customary to highlight 1985 to students as a landmark for the public understanding of science movement. The reason often brought forward is that in 1985, the Royal Society’s report on the Public Understanding of Science, a.k.a the Bodmer Report was published. 

Depending on your persuasion, diffusionist or social constructionist, the report either gave the PUS movement its institutional impetus, or it is the stroke that broke the camel’s back, prompting critical discussion of the report’s theoretical foundation: the deficit, or empty-teapot model of science communication. This model postulates an amorphous, passive, and largely scientifically illiterate public, whose appreciation and understanding of science will be enhanced if repeatedly exposed to the beneficial influence of factual knowledge. 

Critics like Brian Wynne took particular issue with such un-nuanced characterising of “the public”. Audiences are multiple and varied, they said. They are not ignorant nor are they passive. Individuals encountering scientific knowledge in the public sphere actively produce an understanding based on their lived experiences, social, cultural, political circumstances. What is more, this knowledge ultimately contributes to science. 

But as far as the scholarly community interested in the public understanding of science is concerned, such skirmishes were business as usual in the ongoing debate between diffusionism and constructionism. Had it been for the Bodmer report alone, 1985 would remain quite unremarkable. Yet, it seems that 1985 was a special vintage after all. At least two volumes appeared that year, both with a lasting influence on scholarly understandings of communication in and of science.

Introducing 'Expository Science:Forms and Functions of PopularisationRichard Whitley took issue with the fallacy of viewing the audience for science communication as one ‘large, diffuse, undifferentiated and passive’ entity. On the contrary, audiences for science communication are many, all pursuing different goals in relation to scientific knowledge, all relevant to scientific research. Actively participating in the communication process, audiences are crucial to the scientific enterprise as a whole. The flow of science communication here is partially reversed to go upstream, as well as downstream. 

In their 'Leviathan and the air pump', Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer demonstrated how developing communication practices, what they call a ‘literary technology of virtual witnessing’, had been central to the establishment of seventeenth-century new experimental natural philosophy. Robert Boyle’s illustrated accounts of experimental settings were meant to provide readers with enough details to render direct witnessing and replication unnecessary. Agreement over matters of fact could be obtained at a distance in space, and time. Communication emerges from these works as meaning production, rather than information transfer.

Now, a glance at post-1985 scholarship shows the posterity of these ideas. The centrality of audiences to the scientific endeavour is perhaps most vividly captured in Bruce Lewenstein’s ‘Web of science communication contexts’. This diagram concludes a study of the infamous case of chemists Pons and Fleishman who announced that they had achieved cold fusion in their University of Utah laboratory during a press conference. The diagram, though, (and the paper), also shows the importance of public communication for the scientific enterprise. In the weeks that followed the press conference, physicists aiming to replicate cold fusion had to rely on media reports for details of the original experimental setting. 

Rosemary McKechnie, in 1996, called for analyses of the public understanding of science that ‘decentre science’, focusing not on what people know, but on how they ‘situate themselves vis à vis science and vis à vis others in relation to science’. Lewenstein’s web model effectively decentres science (because there is no centre there). This move away from the linear deficit model towards a more integrated model, should alert us to the idea that audiences for science communication may be as central to the production of scientific knowledge as are researchers. 

Bruno Latour noted that research is about socialising nonhuman objects to form collectives with human subjects. It is easy to see that science communication has a role to play here, as a means of socializing nonhumans. And audiences for science communication, as part of the collective too, actively contribute in the production of scientific knowledge. It is their active engagement with researchers’ efforts through participation in communicative relationships that will ultimately make such socializing possible, and successful. ¦London.

Jean-Baptiste Gouyon is a historian of the presentation and uses of science in visual media. His research is on science in films and on television, with a focus on wildlife documentaries. Currently, he is a teaching fellow at UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies and a research associate at the Science Museum, London.

Read the full paper: 1985, Scientists can’t do science alone, they need publics  | Jean-Baptiste Gouyon
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