3G Science Communication

We now have 4G (or it is 5G?) phones. Maybe it’s time we moved on to 3G science communication.

The marketing exercise that often passes for science communication is clearly recognisable as a first generation model. Still running on the “deficit” operating system this 1G model was programmed to look for “effectiveness” and “right” answers. Some scientists had problems with reception but you could always turn up the volume.

Second generation science communication came with extra capacity for a “dialogue” between science and the public. The PEST operating system for 2G scicomm tried to introduce the “engagement” app, but many users found they were still stuck to the same old channel and some scientists complained of too much interference.

So are we ready for 3G scicomm?

I want to suggest a third generation model based on contextualized interactivity, a cultural approach which sees popular science not as an accumulation of information but as a struggle over meanings.

Elsewhere on this blog I have written about how an idea is not a thing and how the idea of “conceptual space” helps us to understand the ways in which ideas are used and their meanings negotiated. This is the operating system for 3G scicomm.

As I wrote in that post

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.

We can draw out the analogy further:

  • closing down a space restricts what we can do there (e.g. prevent us asking certain questions)
  • use is not always as intended (e.g. note the variety of Darwinisms and popular appropriations of chaos theory or quantum physics)
  • people keep revisiting the same places/ideas or avoid other places/ideas (i.e. prefer not to think about….)
  • some places/ideas are functional and only visited when needed (e.g. is visiting science the same as going to the bathroom?)
  • some places/ideas are more permanent than others

 Key features of the new 3G scicomm are freedom of movement and easy access to conceptual spaces. This not only opens up the conceptual environment but also enables more user-generated science.

However, scientists may find compatibility problems with earlier systems. The desire to make science more public may conflict with an equally strong desire to control the meanings of what is out in the public sphere.

To open up conceptual spaces means to lose control over them. The challenge for scientists is not just whether they are able to do this but whether they are willing.


6 thoughts on “3G Science Communication

  1. Surely part of the issue can be summed up as whether you see more value in getting scientific ideas out there, even if they are then appropriated by cranks and idiots, or in controlling things so that people actually get the right, accurate idea about the science.

    1. Yes, definitely an issue and lots of problems involved. Control closes things down and shuts people out. Open things up and anyone can get in messing up the furniture. There’s still a role for 1G scicomm (just as there is for a phone to talk to someone). Also role for 2G scicomm and there has bee much progress on that. Problem is we live in a 3G world and some people aren’t willing to recognise that.

    2. In Darwinian struggles, even for meanings, the question often is: what are you selecting for? In an urban space, use and design are shaped by safety (pedestrians are vulnerable), numbers (many pedestrians affect vehicular traffic in different ways than few pedestrians), and legal consequences. How will behaviours be determined in a conceptual space? Will the loudest voice prevail, the errors of the many, the desire not to offend, or the concern with legal liability?

      Science has selection mechanisms. What are those of science popularization (a more accurate description than just “science communication”, which essentially presupposes the deficit model)?

  2. “I want to suggest a third generation model based on contextualized interactivity, a cultural approach which sees popular science not as an accumulation of information but as a struggle over meanings.” Surely not just in terms of communication within the context of popular science but in any crossing place or interdisciplinary creative space? Super-interesting blog post.

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