More than the echo, part 2: ideological science communication

The Shout Louder approach to be found in the Bodmer report was an easy target but we should not be surprised by its persistence. It is, after all, based on a common-sense idea of communication which in turn favours the interests of the scientists who adopt it.

The common-sense idea of communication is that it is the transfer of information from A to B. Science communication is, therefore, the transfer of scientific information from A to B, from scientist to public. It is a linear model that tries to deal with a quantifiable problem of cause and effect – how much information was transferred, how much information was received, how effective was the process.

It is just the kind of model likely to appeal to those with a scientific turn of mind. Indeed, it owes a great deal to the work of Claude Shannon, an engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories who published A Mathematical Model of Communication. It is also likely to appeal to those supplying funds to science communication projects who want to know if their money has been well spent. How effective was the project? Look at the effects, look at the impact, measure it.

This idea of effectiveness is not only applied to the practice of science communication but is also used as a justification for the study of science communication. In the launch issue of the journal Public Understanding of Science in 1992, for example, Bodmer and Wilkins argued that what PUS activists needed was research to point them in the right direction, “We need to know the most effective models to use to get messages across to a wide variety of target audiences”.

Unfortunately this justification by effectiveness can also be a stick with which to beat those who study science communication (or “sci comm”). You can hear an echo of Bodmer and Wilkins in the current complaint (evident in the recent Cox/Ince Twitterspat): What’s the point in studying sci comm if it cannot tell me how to be more effective as a practitioner in science communication?

The question is not without political significance. Those who accept a common-sense understanding of communication are also accepting an oversimplification that works in the political interests of scientists. By seeing the public as the “problem” and improved communication as the “solution”, the common-sense model diverts attention away from scientists. It is a sleight of hand that results in accepting science on its own terms.

As Stephen Hilgartner has argued the common-sense model “remains a useful political tool for scientific experts” because it,

sets aside genuine scientific knowledge as belonging to a realm that cannot be accessed by the public, but is the exclusive preserve of scientists. It thus buttresses the epistemic authority of scientists against challenges by outsiders.

For Simon Locke the model:

is readily identifiable as the rhetoric of professional ideology, masking inequities of power in the language of democratization; citizenship through science comes at the price of expressing knowledge in ways acceptable to professional (natural) scientists – it is our way or not at all. Hence the presence of competing knowledge claims and knowledge bases are rejected as simply ‘anti-science’…

By the late 1980s the development of science studies and media studies had ensured that over two decades of critical attention had been given to science and over two decades of critical attention given to the media. However, there was a curious lack of critical attention directed towards science in the media.

Christopher Dornan was surprised at the absence and argued that media representations of science should “be of considerable interest to those who seek to understand how consensus is engineered within liberal democracy”. As the embodiment of rational inquiry, science presents itself as both the “antithesis of ideology” and as the “chief legitimating agent for political decisions”. This gives it a key role in the construction of consent, since “only that which is universally accepted as necessary enters into the realm of effective ideology, and only that which escapes interrogation remains effective.”

In other words, the very absence of critical examination should alert us to the power of that which is left unexamined. For example, writing about the failure of the Mechanics’ Institutes in the 19th century Shapin and Barnes said that the mechanics were able “to sniff ideology and reject it”; and it was in search of a “scentless ideology” that Roger Cooter studied phrenology. What goes unquestioned is what has the greatest hold over us. Far from providing us with analytical tools the common-sense view of science communication should instead be our object of inquiry.

As I explain to my students every year, the most powerful ideology is the one which is not seen as ideological.

A  more “critical” approach to science communication was to be part of a new post that I took up in 1990 at what was then Bristol Polytechnic. I was to be a specialist appointment to help design, develop and teach a new cross-faculty interdisciplinary award in Science, Society and the Media. The vision of the award was not only to teach practical and critical media skills but also lab-based science, science studies and history of science. It was a rich, exciting mix and perfectly timed for the Science Wars that were about to break out.

Some of this is extracted from Understanding Popular Science


Bodmer, W. and Wilkins, J. (1992) “Research to improve public understanding programmes”, Public Understanding of Science, 1: 7-10.

Cooter, R. (1984) The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dornan, C. (1989) “Science and scientism in the media”, Science as Culture, 7: 101-21.

Hilgartner, S. (1990) “The Dominant View of Popularization: conceptual problems, political uses”, Social Studies of Science, 20: 519-39.

Locke, S. (1999) “Golem science and the public understanding of science: from deficit to dilemma”, Public Understanding of Science, 8: 75-92.

Shapin, S. and Barnes, B. (1977) “Science, Nature and Control: interpreting mechanics’ institutes”, Social Studies of Science, 7: 31-74.


2 thoughts on “More than the echo, part 2: ideological science communication

  1. Pingback: Scientific Progress and the History of Science | Darin Hayton

  2. Pingback: Science, Public and The Beast Below | Literacy of the Present

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