Science, society and the media: an unresolved tension

There is a tension at the heart of both media studies and science studies. It may never be resolved and I suspect that any proposed resolution is likely to be illusory. However, understanding it is essential for that area where media studies meets science studies – science communication.

In media studies the tension is quite straightforward. On the one hand, we may find certain images/texts in the media objectionable (eg representations of women). On the other hand, we may believe in what is known as the “active audience” (ie audiences do not passively consume what they are shown but can work out their own meanings for what they see). The idea of the active audience seems to undermine our objections because it challenges the idea of media influence. In return, our desire to object to what we see in the media undermines the idea of the active audience.

In science studies there is a similar tension. On the one hand, we may find certain ideas objectionable (eg Creationism taught as science). On the other hand, we may believe that science is always produced in particular socio-cultural and historical contexts (ie science is what people do). The cultural context for science would seem to undermine our objections to certain ideas because it allows for a degree of cultural relativism. In return, our desire to dismiss ideas as wrong undermines the belief that it is people who create the ideas in the first place.

In each case we want to emphasise the active role that people play in producing and consuming ideas/images/texts; but also want some benchmark against which we can say “that is right and that is wrong”.

Philosophers might be able to work their way out of this conundrum but the solution may have to be a pragmatic and political one. For without the ability to say “that is wrong” there is no basis for political action, no basis on which to say stop, don’t do that, do this instead; no basis on which we can fight against the ills that plague the world and fight for the kind of society that we want.

NOTE: this is a post in progress. Please let me know which areas should be developed further or need explaining further. I shall try to write the post in response to comments.

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4 thoughts on “Science, society and the media: an unresolved tension

  1. It often feels like people occupying the same ground but determined to face in opposite directions. There is also a danger that the way each side characterises the other inevitably leads to conflict which is exacerbated by the brevity required for Twitter (sensible of Ince not to use Twitter for discussion). It sometimes looks like a lot of sound and fury but there are important issues being raised and hopefully in the future some way will be found for everyone to engage with the issues productively.

  2. Trivial, but to be totally accurate, Robin Ince did use twitter to have a discussion/debate, but deleted most of the relevant tweets after a couple of hours.

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