Annual Meeting Reports

How to Make Science Interesting, and Why It’s Important

Informing the public about science has a long and lively past. In this session, Bruce V Lewenstein and Chris Mooney presented largely historical perspectives on the popular communication of science.

Lewenstein, a science-communication professor trained as a science journalist and science historian, began by observing that science communication is not linear (for example, from laboratory to journal to mass media); rather, it involves a complex array of often two-way interactions. He also noted that purposes of this communication can include information, education, and entertainment.

In his presentation, which was lavishly illustrated with historical images, Lewenstein described public communication of science and technology in the 19th century. During that time, prominent scientific figures gave lectures and evening classes for the public, the great natural-history museums developed, and newspapers and popular magazines began to include information about science.

In the 20th century, Lewenstein noted, scientific societies and health associations arose, and their activities commonly included public communication of science. Science, journalism, and education became fields of specialty. New media—radio, television, industrial museums, science centers, and the World Wide Web—became vehicles for popular communication of science. Public concern was expressed about implications of scientific progress.

Among details that Lewenstein provided about the 20th century: Early in the century, insurance companies distributed health information to the public. Large museums, such as the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, developed; later, interactive science centers, such as the Exploratorium in San Francisco, arose. World War II was widely seen as the war that science won. The late 1970s and early 1980s brought a boom in science media, and since the middle 1970s, many science books have appeared on The New York Times bestseller lists.

The phrase public understanding of science came into use around 1945, Lewenstein reported; it has often been used to mean “public appreciation of and support for the benefits that science provides to society”. Academic writing about public communication of science began to appear in the 1950s.

Today, Lewenstein said, most people view science as interesting, and science is integrated into the broader culture. However, the scientific community feels frustrated about popular communication of science. For insight into the difficulty, Lewenstein turned to his fellow speaker, Mooney.

Mooney—author of books that include The Republican War on Science and (with Sheril Kirshenbaum) Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future—began with a historical vignette symbolic of problems in popular communication of science: In 1802, the great scientific traveler Alexander von Humboldt climbed the 19,286-ft mountain Chimborazo, setting a world record and becoming a celebrity. Yet when he published a 3,927-page account of his journey, he did not mention the event.

Of Americans, Mooney said, only 18% know a scientist, and 46% do not believe in evolution and think that Earth is less than 10,000 years old. He also said that Americans generally do not view scientists as role models. He reported that from 1989 to 2005, the number of major US newspapers with weekly science sections decreased from 95 to 34; in 2008, CNN eliminated its science unit; and in 2008 and 2009, respectively, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe eliminated their science pages.

With regard to whether blogs can help to make up the deficit, Mooney said that although good science blogs exist, the World Wide Web also contains much misinformation about science. He noted that movies often contain scientific inaccuracies and portray scientists as “freaks, geeks, or villains”.

After asking “What can we do?” Mooney proposed various measures: Reward effective scientific communication (in contrast to the case of Carl Sagan, whom the National Academy of Sciences snubbed). Include communication training in the graduate science curriculum. Give more emphasis to the “outreach” component of federal grants, consider service more when evaluating university faculty members for tenure, and give more young scientists media training. And finally—returning to the tale of Alexander von Humboldt— present science (“a great adventure story”) in the form of narratives.