Meat, minds and making sense: part 1

I really should know better by now but I still get disappointed by much of the debate about science and the public. Much of it still seems couched in terms of dumbing-down, or the two cultures, or “anti-science”. Similarly, discussions about science communication often seem driven by concerns for “impact” and “effectiveness” and how these might be evaluated. (Please comment below if you disagree).

This should not be surprising. Anyone who puts money into trying to “improve” the public understanding of science will want to make sure that the money is well spent. Was it effective, did it make an impact, did it change anything? How much bang was there for the bucks? The irony is that these concerns and this type of language stem from a model of communications that is now widely acknowledged as inadequate even within the field of science communication. It’s a bit like asking “how can we be more effective now that we know the effects model doesn’t work.”

What I want to suggest is an alternative approach. In part this is some of the groundwork mentioned in my previous post but it also looks at the recent discussion about brains and consciousness between Eagleman and Tallis in the Observer.

Much of what I write in this blog will no doubt be based on the idea of “making sense” so, picking up from my previous post, that is where I need to begin.

To make sense of something we need to see it as something. This is such a fundamental aspect of how we interact with the world that most of the time we do not even recognise that we do it. It works at several levels.

The act of seeing is not a simple matter of light entering the eye. We do not just see a spray of brown lines dotted with spots of green but rather these shapes and colours are seen as a tree. Equally, when we see a tree we see it as a landmark, a part of nature in an urban environment, a source of fuel, or as whatever associations we have for a tree. At a social level we see people as lovers, rivals, teachers, or as boring, fun, intelligent and so on. Or at a cultural level we might see whole groups of people as terrorists, allies, victims, ….

This might seem relativistic and subjective but even those who might want to stake a claim for being “objective” are nonetheless seeing the world as something- as a biological process, as a social unit, as a meme, as a statistic, as a line on a graph.

Even “being objective” is a perspective.

Now, let us take these ideas of “making sense” and “seeing as” and see how we might apply them to a critical understanding of science in public. We can begin with how we might produce a critical reading of a popular science text. There are a number of levels at which the text can be read:

  1. raw science content: If this were our concern we might be interested in checking how accurate or true the information was (we might dispute just how “raw” such science is, but for now we can leave aside such philosophical discussions).
  2. how the science is framed: This is the first level of “seeing as”. When we look at the raw content what are we expected to see it as?  At this level we could examine such things as the use of language, metaphor and imagery.
  3. critical – What does it mean and how does it get to mean what it means? This is the second level of “seeing as”. How is the framing framed? What is this “seeing as” seen as? At this level we can relate the level-two framing to wider issues and debates.

What is immediately striking is how questions about science communication are often confined to level 1. How much information did the public have? Was the information accurate? Did the public give the right information in response to questions? Yet public discourse is probably most often at level 3. What does this mean for me? How should I understand it? What other cultural resources can I call on to help me understand it? How do I make sense of what I am being told?

To see how this approach works in practice we can take a famous (or infamous) passage from The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. In it he describes the relationship between genes and our bodies and behaviour:

Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and in me; they created us body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the names of genes, and we are their survival machines.

(Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene, 1989: 19-20)

At the level of raw content we could examine this for information about genes and bodies. At the level of framing we could highlight examples of the imagery employed by Dawkins. For example, bodies are seen as “lumbering robots” manipulated by genes. At the critical level we could explore how the language of “robots” could be seen as an attack on our own sense of self and relate this to wider discussions about free will and identity.

In turn, this is how we should make sense of the discussion between Eagleman and Tallis which will be the subject of the next post.

Some of this is based on an extract from Understanding Popular Science


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