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Vol. 12, No. 1
November 1999

Mercurial Matters

Old and New Media

News of Members

Editorial: Seduced by a "First”

2000 in Munich

Nina Wormbs wins Robinson Prize

Information Networks and Urban Spaces

Book Review:
Science in Public

Lemelson Center Fellows Program

News of the Field:
Printing History on the Web

Audio History Library

Westinghouse Films from 1904

What can "Old Technologies" Teach us about Digital Culture?

Recent and Upcoming Conferences

Journal of Radio Studies

New Edition of Bibliography


Telephone Collectors International

SHOT Session Query: Mechanical to Electrical

A Victorian Internet?

Contact Us

Mercurians Back Button

Book Review: Science in Public 

Science in Public: Communication, Culture, and Credibility. By Jane Gregory and Steve Miller. New York: Plenum Press, 1998. Pp. x + 294; notes, index. $29.95 (U.S. and Canada); $35.94 (elsewhere).

Scientists, the biologist E.O. Wilson writes in Bibliophia, “spend their productive lives struggling to reach the edge of knowledge in order to make discoveries.” That same endless frontier that keeps scientists interested in their work tends to make public audiences uneasy , however. Indecision, even anger, may follow when technical evidence is incomplete or conflicting. What, for example, should you do if the cardiologist recommends a daily aspirin, but the gastroenterologist warns that aspirin may harm your stomach? Many people, of course, opt to do nothing at all, and describing such reactions to uncertain knowledge is a central goal of Science In Public: Communication, Culture, and Credibility by historian Jane Gregory and journalist Steve Miller.

To Gregory and Miller, popularizers like Wilson are doing their science “in public,” but the process is one in which the audience plays only a minor role. Determinedly anti-populist, Gregory and Miller place inordinate faith in scientists’ willingness and ability to monitor the media, and then “rush in” and “set the record straight” as needed. In their view, control of the authenticity, credibility, cultural value, and authority of all scientific knowledge, including that presented in the media, should rest firmly in scientists’ hands.

Because the book focuses on the delicately balanced relationship between the scientific community and society, it gives far less detailed attention to the connective communication systems than the title might suggest. This omission is unfortunate, because few people learn about science directly from scientists; instead, the information, images, facts, and figures about science are “mediated”: transmitted by television, radio, print, or Internet; and translated by journalists, broadcasters, and web producers. Content is altered; meaning is simplified and occasionally distorted. Understanding this system is essential to understanding popularized science.
Some of the book’s best chapters dissect various popularization models, or describe reporting on such things as oil spills, Nobel Prizes, and satellite data. The authors also discuss how the “science wars” debates have exploited sharply differing views of the appropriate content for popular science. Too often, however, these analyses occur in a policy vacuum, with insufficient attention to how technological limits and potentials, economic pressures, and media structure and organization can influence content.

These omissions are particularly salient during a time when increased computer-mediated popularization promises to alter the relationship between science and the public. At interactive web sites, children can now follow along on researchers’ field trips and can pose questions directly to the scientists. Their parents can access electronic medical journals and learn more about hearts, aspirin, and stomachs. In natural history museums, visitors can watch paleontologists brush dust from newly discovered fossils.

Whatever the venue, economic considerations eventually determine the space or time allocated to communication about science and influence whose voices will be present in the forum. Because the scientific community has invested relatively little of its own money in public communications ventures (seemingly content instead to broker government or foundation support for its projects), it is also unfortunate that Gregory and Miller single out for gratuitous criticism the one notable exception to this trend, the American Chemical Society’s gift of over $5.3 million, which combined donations from thousands of individual chemists and private companies, to the Smithsonian Institution “Science in American Life” exhibition. Gregory and Miller indulge in oh-so-polite skewering of the Society and its defenders, but tell only part of the story, leaning on extended quotations from people whose lavish endorsements of Science In Public coincidentally decorate the book’s back cover.
Despite their post-modernist defense of the Smithsonian, Gregory and Miller divorce their own discussion of science from consideration of its potent cultural images, as if paleontologists in Jurassic Park or microbiologists in Outbreak are irrelevant to public attitudes about science. Ignoring entertainment-based messages gives a false impression of what actually happens to science when it operates “in public,” where the images (like the aspirin) may have one intended purpose but can produce other effects as well. It is rather like analyzing public reaction to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident without mentioning decades of images of “nuclear fear,” or that “The China Syndrome” was playing in movie theaters during the episode.

Such omissions might be less annoying if the authors had not also continually conflated examples from the United States and the United Kingdom, as if their political situations, cultural contexts, and histories were interchangeable. A comprehensive, hard-hitting analysis of British public communications activities would have been a welcome and important contribution, and one that Gregory and Miller could have made. In explaining the scare over Alar and apples in terms of American culture, and the BSE (“mad cow disease”) scare in the UK in the light of British culinary preferences, they demonstrate potential. Unfortunately, they never probe what these controversies’ different outcomes reveal about how cultural contexts may influence science “in public”.

What people know about science is a hodgepodge of accurate and inaccurate knowledge, inflated and understated information, hype and hysteria. Gregory and Miller have made a good start at sorting out the perspectives on why this situation is so persistent, despite scientists’ best public efforts.

Marcel C. LaFollette is the former editor of Science
Communication (1990-98) and Science, Technology & Human Values (1979-87).
She is the author of Making Science Our Own (1990) and Stealing into Print (1992).