Stephen Hawking...Mars…The Big Bang Theory…the Moon…Star Wars…NASA……there is a long list of ways that science is engrained into our pop culture and everyday lives.
As someone who considers herself a science communicator and aims to share as much scientific knowledge as possible with those around her, it makes me both excited and frustrated to see the ways we have chosen to bring science into our lives. For example, I always love to see someone donning a NASA t-shirt, but I often then have the moment of realization that just because they are wearing a NASA shirt, it does not mean that they are a fellow space enthusiast.
As a senior physics and astronomy major, I have been surrounded by the hard sciences for the past four years where I have solidified my appreciation for “pure science”, or science that is unfiltered and unapologetic to its audience. During my time at college, I have conducted research on galaxy morphology and then written and presented on that research for the scientific community. In essence, I have learned how to absorb and emit science in what some would deem it’s most natural state. Understanding how to effectively and efficiently communicate scientific concepts using the proper vocabulary and terms is arguably one of the most important parts of majoring in a science, since most all the professors you will come across will speak to you in that language and expect you to respond accordingly. As well, to move forward in your studies you have to be able to write out your research in a scientific paper and present it to peers in a proper fashion. There isn’t anything wrong with learning to speak “science”, since it is part of our peer reviewing and scientific process, but it can lead to the illusion that science such as physics, astronomy, chemistry, and more, are allusive and impossible for the layman to understand.
An image of me presenting my research on the morphology of Seyfert galaxies at DUCURS, a conference held at Drake University, Spring 2018.
According to the article Popular Science Articles vs. Science Articles: A Tool for Medical Education authored by Begoña Bellés-Fortuño, the popularization of science and the rise of popular science articles began in the nineteenth century when the need to share scientific findings with the public increased with the growth of technology. Since then, the genre of popular science articles have continued to increase and help to spread information beyond the reaches of the scientific community. Most scientists will agree that having popular science and a way to share their findings with the public is important, but there is often discrepancy when it comes to how the sharing is done and who it is done by. Their caution comes with good reason. Though there are some popular science outlets that do their best to be a reliable middle man between science and the public such as Wired, Popular Science, Scientific American, and National Geographic, the struggle is focused on the nature of our consumption and dissemination of information. The scientific process is a slow and methodical one that often struggles to find its place in our fast-paced world. News outlets can catch wind of a half-completed experiment and mistake correlation for causation. Social media posts can mislead others with quick blurbs about a complex project that has to be simplified to fit into a certain number of characters. Researchers constantly have to make sure that their work is getting shared with the world, but in a way that does not hurt their reputation or the respectability of their research.
This is the reason that popularized science can be controversial in the scientific community. It is about finding the balance between keeping the correct meaning of the message and sharing it in an accessible way. According to Julien Bobroff in his article, Ten Misconceptions Scientists Have About Popularizing Science, one misconception that people have is that there are some concepts and topics that are just too complex to be popularized. While it is true that there are some vocabulary terms used that are hard to find a more relatable replacement for, that does not mean that general natures can’t be shared. There are indeed times when communicating science that some accuracy has to be sacrificed in the name of getting a point across, but I would argue as Bobroff does that for the public this is not necessarily a bad thing. The hope with sharing science with non-scientists is often not to make them scientists, but to give them a basic understanding and appreciation for the type of work that is being done, and to inspire critical thinking.