An idea is not a thing. Why then does science communication persist in treating it as if it were and what would happen if we thought about ideas differently?
We are shaped by the metaphors that we use. In many cases the metaphor lies hidden, tacitly assumed, unquestioned. It seems so natural to think of science communication as the passing of information from scientists to public that it would be equally unnatural to think otherwise.
But what if we did? And how else might we think of science communication or popular science more generally?
This post was prompted by one from Alex Brown on science communication as map reading and from a comment made at the recent BIG event that we are about to start on an exciting decade for science communication. Maybe it’s an idea whose time has finally come (I can dream).
To start I want to make it clear that this is not just a simple critique of the “deficit model”. Nor is this about the need for “dialogue” which all too often presupposes an asymmetry between science and public (scientists have facts, the public have opinions). Nor is it about the need for “engagement” except in so far as the terms of engagement might need to be reappraised.
If the deficit model can be seen as a first generation model for science communication, and dialogue/engagement as a second generation, then what I want to suggest is a third generation model. What I want to suggest is a shift in metaphors, away from the passing back and forth of information to think in terms of meanings and relationships. I want to propose a shift in thinking about ideas as objects that get passed around, to thinking about them as spaces that can be explored and opened up.
The first step to take is to accept that an idea is not a thing and that communication is not simply the transfer of information. Consequently, there is no such thing as science communication.
What I have in mind is analogous to E.P. Thompson’s famous description of class. There was, said Thompson, “an ever-present temptation to suppose that class is a thing”, or to think of the working class that “it” exists. However, this “it” does not exist. “If we remember that class is a relationship, and not a thing, we cannot think in this way”:
“By class I understand a historical phenomenon, unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and in consciousness. I emphasise that it is a historical phenomenon. I do not see class as a ‘structure’, nor even as a ‘category’, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.”
(Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 1963: 9)
The same might be said, I would argue, for popular science or science communication: it is not a thing, nor a category but a historical phenomenon that happens in human relationships. In the end, for Thompson, class is “defined by men as they live their own history”, and the same might be said of popular science in the way it has been defined, redefined and struggled over.
Such fluidity need not evade analysis if we see class as “embodied in real people and in a real context”. The same is true for science communication which we might see manifest in certain activities, behaviours and attitudes or embodied in specific objects or practices (e.g. books, exhibitions or consultations with an expert). Indeed, it may be that as we understood the nineteenth century through the language of class, we shall have to develop a new language of knowledges and expertise to understand the twenty-first.
If we are not to see science communication as the transfer of things then we need a new metaphorical framework.
We are already familiar with spatial imagery. Academics “locate” their work within a particular subject “area” and “orientate” themselves with respect to other researchers in the “field”. There are disciplinary “boundaries” and “frontiers” of knowledge. In the rhetoric of science spatial metaphor is a powerful and pervasive presence with its imagery of discovery, surveying, breaking new ground and so on. Moreover, through our experience of cyberspace we are becoming increasingly familiar with non-physical spaces where things happen and people interact.
Yet, it is an idea that seems to be abandoned as soon as anyone writes about science communication. Scientists may well have their own subject area in a particular field and see themselves as pushing back the frontiers of knowledge, but as soon as the public become involved it seems that knowledge as a place to be explored becomes transformed into knowledge as a package that can be handed over.
Wittgenstein once wrote about language that it could “… be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses with additions from various periods, and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses”. Substitute “ideas” for “language” and you have something close to my vision of “conceptual space” except what I want to add is the dynamic quality of what people do in and with cities.
Like urban space conceptual space is the result of design, history and use. It can be created, opened up, closed down. As urban space shapes what we do and how we live, so conceptual space shapes what we think and how we think it. In both cases we interact with the space and transform it for ourselves as it, in turn, transforms us.
Our thoughts can be as habitual as the way that we move through a city: always taking the same route (or making the same argument, joining the same ideas), or revisiting the same places and avoiding others (our pet hobby-horses or things we prefer not to think about). Some places are more functional and only visited when needed (as is much of science for the public), other places are simply for pleasure (as much of science is not for the public).
To close down a space restricts what we can do there. Walls, fences and security systems can keep close control over the use of urban space to ensure that it is used properly (albeit at the expense of freedom of movement): epistemological walls and academic security systems can equally ensure that ideas are used properly (albeit at the expense of freedom of thought). Conversely, the more open a space the more open it is for a variety of uses. Public parks can be spaces for ball games, jogging, picnics, lovers’ trysts, walking the dog: music and novels can spark our imaginations and take us on flights of fancy.
Finally, space can be used in ways that diverge from original intentions (much to the dismay of local authorities and those involved in science communication). A handrail is designed to increase safety, but skateboarders “grind” down them to increase risk; bridges are built to carry traffic, but provide shelter for the homeless; or, more simply, we might use a shop as a shortcut from one street to another. Equally we might look to the ragbag collection that has sheltered under the name of “Darwinism” or to the popular appropriations of chaos theory or quantum theory.
A shift to thinking about ideas as spaces reframes our understanding of science communication. No longer is there a simple boundary between science and the public, nor any simple line of communication between them. Instead we can see the open spaces where not everything is done or thought for rational or rationalized ends, and restricted spaces, fenced off and policed, where only the persevering few are able to venture. Thus, our new concern should be with access to spaces, with freedom of movement, with helping people to navigate and showing them different routes, with opening up the conceptual environment and constructing enabling architectures.
More importantly with the spatial imagery our attention is drawn away from objects to the spaces between them, from things to relationships. This sets a new agenda for the problems of science communication which in turn prompts a search for different solutions. No longer would the primary concern be the quantity and quality of information being circulated but rather the focus would be on the relationship between those participating. Questions now would be about the sites and contexts of engagement, about the nature of expertise, about authority, legitimacy and power. Perhaps above all it would be about trust.
Much of this is edited from Understanding Popular Science
For more on metaphors and science I recommend that you take a look at the blog by Brigitte Nehrlich.
For more on the ways that we read and subvert the meaning of urban spaces see this guest post from Claire Yspol.