The public communication of science as the continuation of the scientific debate with other means

Science studies are highly critical of the traditional conception of the public communication of science. Instead of the sharp distinction between science and its popularization, they propose a 'continuity' model of scientific communication.13 Along the continuum thus envisaged, differences - albeit only gradual ones - can be discerned among the diverse contexts and styles of communication/reception that inevitably exist in the expounding of scientific ideas.

One of the most detailed models of this continuum has been developed by Cloître and Shinn (1985) who identify four main stages in the process of scientific communication:

1 Intraspecialist Level. This is the most distinctively esoteric level, as typified by the paper published in a specialized scientific journal. Empirical data, references to experimental work and graphics predominate.

2 Interspecialist Level. Pertaining to this level are various kinds of texts, from interdisciplinary articles published in 'bridge journals' like Nature and Science to papers given at meetings of researchers belonging to the same discipline but working in different areas.

Intraspecialistic stage

Intraspecialistic stage

Cloitre And Shinn

Popular ! stage

Figure 7.2 A model of science communication as a continuum Source: Bucchi (1998), Shinn and Whitley (1985) and Hilgartner (1990)

Popular ! stage

Figure 7.2 A model of science communication as a continuum Source: Bucchi (1998), Shinn and Whitley (1985) and Hilgartner (1990)

3 Pedagogical Level. This is the level that Fleck calls 'textbook science', where the theoretical corpus is already developed and consolidated and the current paradigm is presented as complete (Fleck, 1935, English trans. 1979). The emphasis is on the historical perspective and on the cumulative nature of the scientific endeavour.

4 Popular Level. Cloître and Shinn include under this heading both articles on science published in the daily press and the 'amateur science' of television documentaries. They point to a larger quantity of metaphorical images in these texts and their marked attention to issues concerning health, technology and the economy.

A typology of this kind presents science communication as a continuity of texts with differences in degree and not in kind across levels. It invites us to imagine a sort of 'trajectory' for scientific ideas which leads from the intraspecialist expository context to the popular one, passing through the intermediate levels. This is a trajectory congruent with the theories that we have already met, from Fleck to Latour, on the construction of scientific facts. We may take as an example the tortuous process studied by Fleck (see Chapter 2), which led from a vague popular idea of 'syphilitic blood' to introduction of the Wassermann reaction and definition of the clinical distinctiveness of syphilis. This highly provisional definition, hedged about by doubts and methodological caveats (the first applications of the Wassermann yielded only 15 to 20 per cent of positive results when used on diseased subjects14), rapidly became an incontrovertible certainty in the eyes of the general public. Fleck used this example to reflect on the path followed by a medical-scientific notion from what he called the esoteric circle (the specialist community) to the exoteric one (the general public). Fleck compared a report on a clinical examination drawn up by one specialist for another with a report instead prepared for a general practitioner. Already at this point along the path, the report aimed at the general practitioner 'does not represent the knowledge of the expert. It is vivid, simplified and apodictic' (Fleck, 1935, English trans. 1979: 113).

Specialist exposition - the 'science of the journals' - is provisional and tentative. But when a theory makes its entry into the manuals it partly loses these features and is presented to the reader as generally accepted by the medical-scientific community: in other words, it becomes a 'fact'. A further step comes with the exposition characteristic of popular science; here 'the fact becomes incarnated as an immediately perceptible object of reality' (ibid.: 125). At the popular level, doubts and disclaimers disappear: the distinctions and nuances of specialist knowledge condense into elementary and compact formulas: AIDS is HIV, psychoanalysis studies 'complexes', the neurological theory that hypothesizes a division of tasks between the two hemispheres of the brain is transformed into a sharp antithesis between 'right-dominated' and 'left-dominated' people. The communicative path from specialist to popular science can thus be illustrated as a 'funnel' which removes subtleties and shades of meaning from the knowledge that passes through it, reducing it to simple facts attributed with certainty and incontrovertibility. Fleck stresses that this progressive solidification of knowledge then exerts an influence on specialists themselves.

Certainty, simplicity, vividness originate in popular knowledge. That is where the expert obtains his faith in this triad as the ideal of knowledge. Owing to simplification, vividness and absolute certainty [popular knowledge] appears secure, more rounded and more firmly joined together.

The passage of a scientific notion through these various levels therefore cannot be described as the simple translation of an object from one communicative context to another. Each step - and this is one of the central messages of Fleck's book - involves a change in the notion. By way of analogy, something similar happens to characters and stories in literature. For example, none of Arthur Conan Doyle's original works contain the expression 'Elementary, my dear Watson'. Only after its introduction in a theatre production of the detective's adventures did the phrase come to epitomize Sherlock Holmes in the popular imagination.

Taking this intuition to its extreme, studies by sociologists of science based on the continuity model consider the level of popular communication to be the final (and often decisive) stage in the process of stylization, 'distancing from the research front', and production of factuality and incontrovertible truth which constructs scientific evidence (Collins, 1987).

The more removed the context of research is from the context of reception in terms of language, intellectual prestige and skill levels, the easier it is to present their work as certain, decontex-tualized from the conditions of its production, and authoritative.

The model is depicted by Figure 7.2 in the shape of a funnel, the purpose being to emphasize the growing solidity and simplification acquired by a scientific fact, level after level, until it becomes like a ship in a bottle: to be admired for its perfection but impossible to relate to its original components.

The continuity model can be considered a useful frame of reference insofar as it describes some sort of ideal flow of communication in routine circumstances. However, in some cases the level of public communication seems able to perform a more sophisticated role. An example is provided by the case of sickle-cell anaemia, which is a particular form of anaemia caused by a genetic deficiency in haemoglobin that causes the cells affected to assume an irregular shape. It afflicts only black people (in the US one black child in every 50 suffers from the disorder) and it is transmitted by heredity. The disease was first diagnosed by the physician James Herrick in Chicago. In 1949, Pauling demonstrated that sickle-shaped haemoglobin has a molecular structure different from the normal one; in 1957 the differences between the two molecules were defined; and in 1966 Marayama produced a complete model of the disease. However, the medical textbooks made no reference to sickle-cell anaemia until the mid-1970s, when it began to attract increasing public attention. After a series of television documentaries, funds were collected to help sufferers, and mention of sickle-cell anaemia was even made by President Nixon in a speech to the nation on health matters (February 1971). In 1972, funding for research on the disease was increased from one million dollars to ten million, and mass screening was organized throughout the country. This broad resonance with the public led to the inclusion of this form of anaemia as a topic of some importance in the medical textbooks (Balmer, 1990).

In this case we can speak of a 'deviation' to the public level, because the discourse did not follow the usual trajectory but passed directly at the public level, to then influence specialist ones. For example, the importance of appealing to the public in particular cases of change of controversy or paradigm has been variously hypothesized and studied (Jacobi, 1987). The wide and enthusiastic coverage given in 1919 by the daily press to the solar eclipse observations as confirming Einstein's theory of relativity - the Times' headline was 'Revolution in Science: New Theory of the Universe: Newtonian Ideas Overthrown' - played a crucial role in publicly settling an issue that was still being debated within specialist circles (Miller and Gregory, 1998).

Some conflicts - or more generally crises - seem impossible to resolve within the scientific community and must, therefore, be deviated to the public level.

Mention has already been made of how scientists make use of the information and images that circulate at the public level. Cloître and Shinn document how specialists appropriated a metaphor ('the ant in the labyrinth') originally used by popular science texts to explain the Brownian motion of particles (Cloître and Shinn, 1986). Around one third of the scholars involved in the debate on whether or not the mass extinction of the dinosaurs was due to the collision of the Earth with a meteor - another controversy with broad public resonance -stated that they had heard of Alvarez's impact hypothesis from the mass media (Clemens, 1994). The metaphor of the 'hole in the ozone layer', with its enormous impact on the media and public opinion, produced consensus at the public level at least one year before scientific consensus - extremely uncertain and controversial at the time -was reached on the effect of CFC on the atmosphere. Only subsequently was the metaphor re-imported into the specialist literature (Grundmann and Cavaillè, 2000).

It has, indeed, been argued that scientific discourse at the public level may in some cases resemble certain forms of political discourse in that it is only apparently 'public'. It is not really addressed to the public but is instead intended to reach a large number of colleagues rapidly. To do so, it uses the public level as a shared 'arena' where it is not necessary to comply with the constraints of specialist communication.15 This prerogative of the public level is particularly important when communication must pass through several disciplinary sectors (a case in point being the hypothesis on the extinction of the dinosaurs, which concerned palaeontologists, geologists and statisticians) or several categories of actors. In the case cited of Pasteur's struggle to legitimize the anthrax vaccine and, more generally, the idea that diseases could be prevented by appropriate inoculation with the infectious agent, physiologists, doctors, veterinarians and farmers had simultaneously to be addressed. This difficult task was achieved by means of a public experiment organized in 1881 on a farm, where vaccinated and non-vaccinated cattle were infected with anthrax before the eyes of hundreds of people - including French and foreign newspaper reporters who wrote numerous detailed articles on Pasteur's success. Communication at the public level enabled the French physiologist to underplay still unclear theoretical issues by emphasizing practical ones - of great importance to some groups in his audience, e.g. farmers and politicians - such as the effectiveness and cheapness of his method. Moreover, immunization and the related practice of inoculation had long been familiar to the lay peasant culture (Bucchi, 1997). In 1919, Einstein was able simultaneously to address different disciplinary audiences (physicists, astronomers, mathematicians) through the popular press by giving interviews and writing articles on his theory of relativity (Gregory and Miller, 1998).

More recently, scientists who argued that the depletion of the ozone layer was due to CFC found the widely publicized image of the ozone 'hole' to be an effective device with which to alert researchers, politicians, environmentalists and public opinion to the emergency. The rapid public consensus achieved with the Montreal Protocol of 1987

- which provided for international agreements to reduce the CFC emissions responsible for ozone depletion - indirectly reinforced the status of a body of knowledge that was still being carefully debated by specialists.

Or again, when a new sector of research is being established or consolidated - as happened with climate studies, for instance, or the neurosciences in past decades - the public arena is vital if researchers are to communicate among different disciplines. In this way, communicating in public enables scientists not only to talk - albeit indirectly

- among themselves (as Fleck pointed out) but also to gain recognition and construct a shared identity in terms of research interests and methods, thereby laying the basis for institutionalization of their sector.

In cases of 'deviation', therefore, the science communication process should be depicted as much more complex. For in these situations the public discourse of science does not receive simply what is filtered through previous levels but may instead find itself at the centre of the dynamics of scientific production. By and large, when talking about the public communication of science we are referring to at least two different things:

1 A 'routine' trajectory, consensual and non-problematic, which is adequately described by the continuity model. Despite its ideological connotations, 'popularization' is a sufficiently appropriate term for this process.

2 An alternative trajectory, which is the one represented by deviation to the public level, so that public communication acquires even greater salience and a more articulated role compared to specialist debate.

There are major formal and substantial differences between these two trajectories. At a formal level, when the popularization mode is activated, scientific problems are more frequently addressed in settings devoted explicitly to the communication of science: popular science magazines and the scientific pages of newspapers. Placing scientific notions in these media 'frames' gives them legitimacy and enhances their credibility. The most obvious example is the museum medium: the display of a scientific artefact in a museum tends automatically to confer the status of incontrovertible 'fact' upon it.16

On the other hand, when deviation occurs, scientific problems more frequently appear in generic media settings as well, like the news sections of newspapers and television newscasts.

At a more substantial level, in the case of popularization the outcome of communication at the popular level is relatively straightforward. As largely 'celebratory' (Curtis, 1994) discourse, popularization reinforces the certainty and solidity of theories and results. It is this process that the 'funnel' model of continuity depicts. When deviation processes instead occur, the outcome of communication at the public level cannot be determined a priori. For example, scientists increasingly use press conferences and newspaper articles to announce their discoveries. A certain period of time elapses before an article is published in a scientific journal (with a consequently greater risk that someone else will get into print first), and the anonymous examination of manuscripts by colleagues before publication prompts fears of plagiarism. In these cases, deviations to the public level can considerably accelerate the peer review procedure, although they may be viewed by colleagues as attempts to leap-frog the process and gain improper recognition outside the scientific community.

At this level, scientific facts (as well as the networks of professional and institutional actors surrounding them) may be consolidated, as the continuity model envisages, but they may also be dissolved, deconstructed or simply manipulated by social groups for their own purposes. The funnel does not necessarily taper off; it may expand again towards the specialist levels.

Social actors unrelated to the research community, like activists or the representatives of patients' associations may, in these situations, play a significant role in the definition of scientific facts.17 Consider the case of research on AIDS, where drug testing procedures and the term itself for the disease were negotiated with groups of activists and patients' associations.18 In the mid-1980s, AIDS patients participating in clinical trials of AZT (a drug that at the time was a promising candidate as a cure for the disease) developed remarkable technical competence that enabled them to substantially shape the trial procedure itself - for instance, by learning to recognize placebos and refusing to take them - and eventually to accelerate the FDA19 standard authorization process. The testing of another drug for the treatment of an AIDS-related disease, Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia (PCP), aerosolized pentamidine, was performed by activist groups themselves after refusal by scientists to do so; the drug was approved in 1989 by the FDA on the evidence of only community-based research (Epstein, 1995).

Study of public scientific discourse in cases of deviation enables account to be taken of the 'plurality of the sites for the making and reproduction of scientific knowledge' (Cooter and Pumfrey, 1994: 254), and it also gives a more sophisticated role to the public, which the funnel model tends to reduce to nothing more than a passive source of external support. A theory or a scientific finding may consequently enjoy different status and robustness at different levels of communication. Thus the Big Bang may represent the explanation of the origin of the universe in the popular domain despite the doubts and distinctions expressed in the specialist one.

Interesting in this regard is the ambivalence of scientists towards situations characterized by deviation and, in general, towards their relations with the public. While deviation may be an opportunity to evade the rules and constraints of the popularization process, it is often regarded with suspicion by the specialist community. When scientific problems are pushed into the public arena, they lose some of the special status that they may still enjoy in such popularization frames as the scientific journals or the science sections of newspapers. They may, for example, be subject to problem concatenation processes or undergo 'life cycles' like all other issues of public interest: scientific theories, indeed, may in the end be likened to political doctrines and value judgements. Moreover, they can presumably also be manipulated and introduced into the public arena by actors external to the scientific community, like journalists, policy-makers or the leaders of movements and associations.

This helps explain the growing efforts by scientists to extend their control over communication with the public. Scientific institutions organize seminars on these matters and invite journalists to 'live laboratory life' for brief periods so that the standards of science communication are improved;20 researchers write booklets advising their colleagues on how to handle the media.21 Research institutes now make much use of public relations offices and similar devices, not to exclude the possibility of deviations (which would be difficult to achieve) but to extend the scientific community's control over recognition of 'crises' and over the activation of deviation processes so that the latter can be put to ad hoc use or, instead, criticized. To recall the 'double game' which Latour takes to be as distinctive of modernity - mixing science and society in practice but keeping them separate in theory - one notes that scientists often engage in deviation (i.e. public communication as part of the process by which a scientific fact is produced) but camouflage it as popularization (i.e. the diffusion of scientific knowledge with pedagogic intent) (see Chapter 6). Many of the misunderstandings that surround the debate on the public communication of science probably arise because popularization expectations are attributed to communications which, in reality, perform deviation functions - i.e. they serve to regulate the scientific debate for 'internal' purposes - and vice versa.

To draw an analogy with another theme treated in previous chapters, deviation with respect to popularization can be considered a la Kuhn equivalent to a scientific revolution with respect to normal science (see Chapter 2). There exists, in fact, a tension within the scientific community between the institutionalization of deviation -i.e. its absorption into ordinary expository practice (popularization) in order to prevent its 'uncontrolled abuse' - and its defence as a sort of 'emergency exit' for certain situations, and as a potential source of scientific change and innovation.

1 Several initiatives have been mounted in different countries to promote scientific knowledge, allocating funds to projects in this area and promoting activities such as 'science weeks' and 'science festivals'. Since 1999 the European Commission has launched specific funding schemes within the Framework Programme to encourage 'public awareness of science and technology'.

3 See for example Friedman et al. (1986), Bettetini and Grasso (1988).

4 On the mad cow disease case see Kitzinger and Reilly (1997), Jasanoff (1997), Bucchi (1999); the debate on cloning in the Italian daily press has been studied by Neresini (2000).

5 Cf. Lewenstein (1995), Bucchi and Mazzolini (2003). Casadei (1991), for example, has conducted comparative lexical analysis of popular science texts, manuals and specialist articles on physics, finding entirely similar levels of technicality in the three genres, with the maximum level not in the specialist texts but in the manuals.

7 One of the most famous studies in the area, that conducted in 1991 by the National Science Foundation in the US, concluded, for example, that more than 90 per cent of the American and English populations could be considered as scientifically illiterate.

8 Cf. Gaskell and Bauer (2001).

10 Cf. Gaskell et al. (2000), Gaskell and Bauer (2001), Bucchi and Neresini (2002).

11 More recently, interesting work has begun to appear in the area of science representation in fiction (Kirby, 2003; Massarani, 2002)

12 Similar conclusions are reached in a study on US scientists by Dunwoody and Scott (1982).

13 Cf. Cloître and Shinn (1985), Hilgartner (1990).

14 That is, the test detected the disease in only 15-20 per cent of subjects suffering from full-blown syphilis.

15 For this approach applied to the analysis of politics in the mass media see, for instance, Rositi (1982).

16 Macdonald and Silverstone (1992).

17 Collins describes these situations as 'distortions of the core set' (Collins, 1988).

18 The acronym initially used by researchers, GRID (Gay Related Immunodeficiency Disease), was abandoned under pressure by American homosexual activists and replaced with the term AIDS. Cf. Grmek (1989), Epstein (1996).

19 Food and Drug Administration, the authority responsible for testing medical drugs before they can be marketed in the US.

20 See, for instance, the EICOS initiative designed to give 'hands-on' laboratory experience to European science journalists (www.eicos.mpg.de).

21 For example, the New England Journal of Medicine advises researchers as follows: 'If you feel trapped, obfuscate: it will get cut if it's too technical' (cited in Nelkin, 1994: 31).

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