The return of PUS!?

Guest post by Rod Lamberts

Is the public understanding of science movement is coming back?  More frighteningly, is it making its comeback tour in Australia?  It seems that more and more the cry for “public scientific literacy” is being dusted off and re-asserted.  And in venues that I would never have expected.

At the recent Australian Science Communicators National Conference, a call came from the floor decrying the lack of surveys looking into public science literacy in Australia.  On the ANZAAS website, other such ‘new literacists’ call for the enhancement of science understanding among the Australian public.  They assert – resuscitating  thoroughly debunked, 30 year old UK/European thinking – that a lot of the apparent public aversion to science is just a lack of understanding. The direct implication being that if we somehow teach people more science, they will accept science and scientists more readily.

Well, we don’t need a public literacy survey because we already know what we will find. ‘The public’ will not know whether hot air rises or cold air falls, and they will be unlikely to be able to accurately explain why there are seasons. This is old news, it tells us nothing. And there’s no point in arbitrarily acting to raise public science literacy either, because (a) it doesn’t work, and (b) even if it did, years of evidence demonstrates that understanding does not automagically lead to acceptance or agreement. That’s called the deficit model folks, and it’s been getting kicked to bits in the science communication literature and beyond for decades.

Both these positions privilege science knowledge above other knowledge, and uncritically, if implicitly, suggest science should be a priority for everyone because it is intrinsically valuable.

I am deeply concerned that these examples might become the trend, and that popular and political polemic will return to a demand to “educate the masses”. It’s a dangerous path to confuse public awareness of, and engagement with, science on one hand, with science education and science literacy on the other.

It’s dangerous because they are ideologically distinct. It’s dangerous because they have dramatically different goals and implications. It is particularly dangerous because bemoaning the woeful state of public science literacy is an easy soapbox to climb upon and move our focus from real, more challenging, science engagement issues. And it will waste money. A lot of money.

As we have seen in the past, it’s easy to show that people don’t understand science. Very easy. The English did it for years, spent literally billions of pounds trying to “correct” this problem, and then admitted defeat. But really, so what? So what if people don’t know about mass spectroscopy and periodic tables? People know at least as little about the law, or about economics and finance. I’ve never heard a serious outcry demanding that the public need their levels of legal literacy raised.

What we do need, and can use, is an environment of greater trust, collaboration, and appreciation of possibilities that a culture of science awareness and engagement can foster. Most of us will not become functional, better yet literate, scientists any more than we will become lawyers or economists.

Of course some people like the law, and others like economics. For those who don’t, there are ways to garner expert input and help when needed. That is what we should be striving for in the sciences more broadly, and in science communication in particular. We should be creating opportunities for engagement, in many different ways and for many different kinds of people, when and if it is called for.

With what we know today, squandering resources in attempts to raise ‘general’ levels of ‘public’ science literacy or understanding is at best merely naïve. But let’s be clear – we should, and indeed do – know better. Keep your guard up, science communicators, lest the new literacists sweep you aside.

Images by flickr user theloushe, used under a Creative Commons license.

One thought on “The return of PUS!?

  1. For me much of the problem lies with the word “understand” or “understanding” itself and what we mean by the term, and how we might evaluate a person’s “understanding”. A similar problem commonly arises in connection with the learning outcomess that are usually attached to a course of study. For example: “At the end of this course a student will understand the periodic table”. By such a statement do we mean that a student should be able to recall and describe the main features of the table? Or should they be able to anaylse the properties of a given element given its position in the table, or should they be able to design a new compound such as a new semiconductor material based on their use of the table? In these latter statments it is quite clear (and measurable) what we mean by “understand”: i.e. to recall, analyse or design i.e. measurable operational processes. The topic(noun-periodic table) is the same but the verb is different.
    If we apply this same idea to PUS then when we say “understand do we mean: Recall simple scientific facts (Hot air rises), which was the basis of the early surveys? Maybe we mean to be aware of the nature of science, its philosphy and processes, its successes and limitations, the nature of scientific knowledge, the principle of falsifiability and so on. Maybe we mean that the public applies the processes of science to engage in discourse about significant problems that encompass a scientific dimension. Maybe it means that people can make an evaluation or judgement about a significant problem that again has a scientific dimension. Operational words again appear in each of these statements i.e.: recall, demonstrate awareness, engage, apply and evaluate or judge. Thus the problem of what is meant by the “public understanding of science” is one of understanding what we mean by understanding.

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