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Archive for the ‘Public Understanding of Science’ Category

Department of the Bleeding Obvious

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

A difficult challenge for people involved in science popularisation is to decide how to choose examples for use in articles, talks et cetera. One approach is to take examples of day-to-day phenomena and to discuss how a scientific approach might shed light on this—the “physics of biscuit dunking” approach. The opposite alternative is to focus on complex phenomena that are incomprehensible to the average reader/listener—science as “mindbogglingly complex”.

Both of these approaches readily attract criticism. The first approach is open to criticism that science is all about “proving the bleeding obvious”—what gets missed out in reports of this kind is that these kinds of examples are meant as just that—easily comprehensible examples that are meant to illustrate the methods of science, not to be representative of the actual results of scientific research. Nonetheless, the second approach is also unsatisfactory, as it attracts a different kind of criticism: that scientists are just interested in obscure things that they can’t explain and that are of any interest to ordinary people, and that the scientific enterprise is just an exercise in self-indulgent cliquiness.

Ironically, in light of the ongoing discussions about how industry should be involved more in science funding, it is precisely the “department of the bleeding obvious” type studies that often end up having been sponsored by industry. I am thinking of the kinds of studies where some gullible scientist has taken a few hundred quid from Poppleton Pork Products to come up with an equation for the shape of the perfect sausage.

So, what are we, as scientists and science popularisers, to do? How can we come up with examples that are easy enough to communicate quickly and pithily, without resorting to trivia? Or should we be trying to convince people that science is interesting but not reducible to simple examples, and that effort and time is required to understand it?