Can Public Knowledge Contribute to Scientific Understaning

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dingCan lay expertise contribute to scientific knowledge? What are the obstacles? Using Brian Wynne’s Chernobyl work as a case study, assess the possibilities and the perils of welcoming different publics into the scientific sphere.

The Science Council recently embarked on a year long project to work out a new definition of science. They claim it is the first ever official definition published:

“Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence” - The science council (2010)

The definitions of “science” and “scientific knowledge” as based on empirical evidence have important implications for public understanding of what scientific knowledge actually is. Those who are aware of the definition can therefore separate pseudoscientific practices such as homeopathy and astrology and their basis on assumed authority from authentic science. It is this lack of knowledge that is responsible for dangerous medical treatments and epidemics of preventable diseases. Unfortunately many lay people seem unaware, which is a failure on the part of the entire scientific establishment and the mass media.

A large obstacle to the public understanding of the basis of scientific knowledge is that scientists are seen by a large proportion of the public to be separated by an intellectual wall, up in their so-called Ivory Tower. They are often seen as elitist, overly specialised, tweed-clad, crusty academics whose research is inaccessible to anyone without a PhD. This stereotype is not helped by the fact that the vast majority of scientific publications are not open to the public sphere.

Science that does make it to the public sphere can paint scientists and scientific knowledge in a less than favourable light, creating a huge barrier for scientists to overcome. Dr Ben Goldacre has been outspoken on this issue in his books and column in the Guardian. Science stories in the press tend to fall into three categories: wacky, breakthrough and scare stories.

Wacky stories claim bizarre concepts such as “watching Richard and Judy will increase your IQ” which, although it might sound benign, serves to give the impression that research money is not going to meaningful science but is being squandered on useless frivolities.

Breakthrough stories are usually based on early press releases and a lot of cancer scare stories also fit into this category. Stories gained in this way may be so early that academically they may go nowhere and never be published.

Scare stories are far more sinister. The MMR scare was entirely of the media’s making and succeeded not only in endangering vast swathes of children but when the scientific establishment sought to set the record straight by demonstrating the evidence, an artificial controversy was generated which caused a distrust of scientists in the public eye. The Daily Mail has a reputation for causing cancer scares, so much so in fact that one website has referenced all the articles in which the Daily Mail claims something causes or cures cancer and shows the absurd nature of the whole affair (Battley, 2012).

The main problem with media science stories is that they do not contain any useful information. The articles are dumbed down to the point where they do not actually contain any science, and have insufficient content to interest the people who might wish to read them, i.e. those that know a little about science. This less than favourable portrayal puts much of the public off science as it gives the impression that scientific knowledge is out of their reach. It is no wonder that vast numbers of the public are convinced that the scientific establishment is part of some form of conspiracy.

Representation of science in the media is a significant source of the mistrust of the scientific community. There have been incidents where scientists have by their apparently aloof and secretive nature...
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