Lisa Jardine was briefly on BBC R4 Today this morning on the need for science to have proper conversation with the pubic about its work. Not sure even top class journalists like Justin an/or Evan got what Lisa meant my a proper conversation, but her point is very important.
In these days of ubiquitous mass communications, it’s easy for science to bypass the media entirely, or more likely collude with media science-desks, in getting the attention grabbing “news” out there. The meme, the 15 minutes of fame, the public imagination, the headlines. Promoting the value of science itself as an enterprise is a valid motive, and there’s a lot of that about too, but in the rush to communicate the “value” of the particular science news, the social value, its value to the society of humanity in the cosmos at large – the 140 character sound bite forces a cut to the chase, a conflation of the science and its value, into whatever message grabs the headline (and justifies the next round of funding, of course).
It’s wonderful and indeed essential that science and scientists concern themselves with value to society, but totally wrong to assume that science and value are one and the same thing, that science itself describes value, that one can be reduced to the other, or that they are otherwise closely bound. Science – specific content of science as opposed to the politics of the enterprise of science – is about understanding the world and that requires conversation – even amongst scientists, let alone with the public.
When science is talking about science content – unmediated conversation adds value to all the mediated channels, the more varied and direct formats the better, it’s about education, education, education. Go for it.
When science (and science journalism) is talking about the value of science to humanity, this absolutely must be mediated, moderated, tempered, shared with a balance of humanities disciplines as well those of science, with wider human wisdom.
Science, like Lisa, is magisterial, but the two magisteria of science and the humanities need mutual respect for and understanding of the porous boundary or overlap between them. Being “popular” doesn’t give a scientist the right to cross the border unmediated, without creating enemies – that’s the dreaded scientism. Ironically, but perhaps not unsurprisingly, Lisa’s father Jacob Bronowski was one of the very few to earn their colours in both camps, and hence earn that respect necessary to speak for both.
So science, please don’t confuse popularity with respect in the domain of humanities, and more importantly, don’t forget your main purpose to communicate the science itself. More conversation, less headline-grabbing war please.