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.

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