CUSP: the Critical Understanding of Science in Public

CUSP Venn

Over the past twenty years there have been increasing calls for dialogue and engagement between science and the public. A “broader approach” and a new perspective was needed. In my book I suggest that a Critical Understanding of Science in Public (or CUSP) was a way to encapsulate that approach. What follows is mostly an extract from the book.

The main features of this  new perspective are:

  • it is multidirectional: no longer is science seen simply as diffusing downwards but in communication circuits and webs all points feed into and off eachother.
  • it is contextual: concerned not just with the context for the reception of science but also recognising that science is contextualised too as is the relationship between science and the public. In this sense it is social, political and cultural, and in turn raises issues of trust, power and authority
  • it broadens the notion of expertise: boundaries between lay and experts are redefined to encompass lay experts and experienced-based expertise In addition, values and opinions are accepted as varieties of knowledge and as essential parts of the science-public domain.
  • it is concerned with meanings: the focus of attention is shifted away from informational content to that of meaning and how things mean. To paraphrase the song: it ain’t what you think it’s the way that you think it.

As a way of encompassing all these features I want to suggest a new label and to characterise this new perspective as the Critical Understanding of Science in Public, or “CUSP” (which also captures the sense of in between, not one or the other but both, at the edge, an interface, an interaction, a starting point, a meeting point).

What does CUSP entail? To put it crudely, where PUS looked to marketing strategies as a solution to PR problems, CUSP engages with the problematics of context, negotiation and interactivity. Moreover, these problematics should encompass both the public’s understanding of science and our understanding of the science that is public. Appropriately, CUSP can be seen as having a double meaning (and aim):

  1. a public with a critical understanding of science (a critical understanding of science in public, or CUS-P), and
  2. a critical understanding of the science and its associated meanings that is generated in the public domain (a critical understanding of science in public, or CU-SP).

In each case, “critical” is taken simply to be the kind of multi-directional, contextual understanding of expertise and meanings outlined above. In particular, it recognises the other terms (science, understanding and public) as problematic, is sensitive to the subtleties of communication and, perhaps above all else, focuses on the construction of meaning. To my mind it is this shift in focus from information to meanings that is the most important aspect of CUSP. In some ways it might even be seen as encapsulating the other aspects, so it is worth spending a little time exploring this further.

This is mostly an extract from Understanding Popular Science

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