Sunday, April 18, 2010

S. Hillgartner - “The Dominant View of Popularization: Conceptual Problems” Social Studies of Science, V. 20, #3, 519-41

Hillgartner asserts that scientists develop scientific knowledge and after that it is popularized, and that this popularized knowledge is seen (by the scientific community) as either an appropriate simplification or a pollution, something that is distorted or misunderstood.  This view serves scientists by providing a vocabulary of non-science for rhetorical use and by demarcating ‘genuine’ science from ‘popularized’ knowledge.  It asserts that there is a ‘gold standard’ of knowledge, and that only scientists know the ‘truth’ and gives scientists the authority to decide which popularizations are appropriate simplifications and which are distortions.

But there are problems with this view.  Popularized knowledge feeds back into the research process, especially by scientists outside the field, who use it, and whose beliefs about the content and conduct of science are shaped by it.  Simplified explanations of science are used in communicating with students, funding agencies and specialists in adjacent fields.  And scientific knowledge is seen as constructed through the collective statements of the scientific community and popularization is a part of this (social studies of science perspective).

In drawing the line between genuine knowledge and popularization, the scientific community prefers a binary mode.  When scientists communicate with other scientists they are exchanging genuine knowledge, when scientists communicate with the public, it is popularization.  The difference between these two modes is one of content, the nature of the claims, and the precision with which they are stated, and also the difference between ‘original’ knowledge and the subsequent spread.  But drawing the line between appropriate simplification and distortion is not that easy, since virtually every ‘downstream’ retelling involves some simplification.  How do we know when simplification becomes over simplification becomes distortion (the telephone game).

The dominant view of popularization reinforces the epistemic authority of scientists because ‘genuine’ knowledge is only available to them.  It also provides scientists with a rhetorical tool for representing science and communicating it to non-scientists.  Because scientists often control the simplification, they can shape public opinion by how and what they simplify.  They can even use the notion of distortion via popularization to debunk popular claims and reassert their authority.  But...there is no ‘central’ bank to enforce the ‘gold standard’ of knowledge, and there is no ‘police force’ to detect counterfeit claims.

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