Not Sure What the Goal Is?

I’m leery about the whole idea of “science communication”. While science communicators generally present themselves as educators, a lot of science communication is at least as much concerned with fostering favourable public attitudes to the quite particular private interests of professional scientists who want more funding for certain types of research, of political organisations who want favourable attitudes to certain policies, or of business wanting to promote certain commercial initiatives by associating them with particular themes in science or technology.

Woven into the fabric of science communication is the kind of science writing whose market is people who want to feel they can talk confidently about science without taking the trouble to develop a rigorously critical understanding. There’s also a market for book lists of this kind of science writing so people can feel they’re getting familiar with the broadest possible sweep of science without having to read any more than absolutely necessary.

That’s all a bit trite, of course, but Matthew Francis’s criticism of Steven Weinberg’s list of “best science books for the general reader” illustrates some of my gripes.

Matthew’s main objection is that most of the books on Weinberg’s list are written by white male grandees. He objects to “the notion that a Nobel laureate and firm member of the scientific establishment is the best person to recommend the best books for non-scientists“. For Matthew, Weinberg’s list betrays a covert aim of encouraging resignation to the idea that science writing (and science itself, I suppose) are largely the domain of educated white males. He wants to see a list less-dominated by white male authors, apparently because that would appeal more to a less male, less white audience: “rather than looking to a few authorities to speak for all of us, we need to work collaboratively and listen…If science is to ever be anything other than an enclave for the elite“.

Matthew proposes that we listen to a wider variety of voices than Weinberg’s list prescribes. But would that give him what he wants? He questions the inclusion of Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb on grounds that it “isn’t really a science book”. Well… it does deal with science. Not from the perspective of “science communication”, of course, but from that explaining the history of the first half of the twentieth century and how its legacy shapes the world we live in today.

If we throw open the gates to everyone to say what they want about science, we must expect an explosion of perspectives, many of which will not fit with any existing notion of what passes for science communication or science writing. We should bear in mind that as these enterprises exist now, the notion of “science” is itself privileged. Throw open the gates and it stands to be seen as part of human culture like any other. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

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