Home > Uncategorized > ‘Accessibility?’ Sure! But to what end?

‘Accessibility?’ Sure! But to what end?

From what I’ve seen, it seems to be en vogue lately to praise science blogs for making science uncomplicated and even entertaining, often with the annoying repetition of the words “layperson” and “accessible.” And it’s just as well, too, because our society is direly in need of something that’ll serve to increase its scientific literacy.

What’s interesting, though, is that our scientific illiteracy seems to be defined by some sort of doublethink—that is to say, we are all too willing either to decry or to embrace phenomena cloaked in scientific technobabble, depending on their social convenience. The language of science, for example, is our ally when we want to prove the inferiority of other races, but our enemy when the synthetic-sounding dihydrogen monoxide threatens to corrode our brakes and warm our globe.

We are too quick to ridicule the Catholic church for officially rejecting Copernican heliocentrism until the 1990s, when we, too, are willingly deceived by the all-too-convenient notion that men think about sex every seven seconds, or feel inspired to realize our full potential by accepting that humans only use ten percent of our brains.

But is this movement (epitomized, to be sure, by science blogs) a step in the right direction? Does it urge us to explore science in greater depth, or does it invite us to exploit the discipline for our own unscientific purposes? Should we lament that the “accessibility”of science has eluded us all this time, or was it this longing for some sort of no-strings-attached scientific acquaintance that led us to this dire state of affairs? HK (albeit in a very different context) asked us if we could trust scientists with science, but perhaps we should also be wary of  trusting the citizenry with the same.

  1. ProfMyers
    February 6, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    jálawe, can you provide some links to the type of praise you’re talking about? I’m interested to see who it’s issuing from, and what the context is, since this isn’t the tenor of discussion I’ve noticed in science blogs I read, or even in the article we read for class (which suggested that science bloggers aren’t really writing for the public as their primary audience.

    Now, I’ve certainly seen science bloggers write on the subject of informing a broader audience, or the desirability of communicating outside of peer review journals and academic conferences. This post: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2011/01/12/death-to-obfuscation/ on Carl Zimmer’s blog engages the idea of translating jargon in science journalism, and if you look through the comments you’ll see science writers including Zimmer himself and Jennifer Ouellette from Cocktail Party Physics weighing in on the feasibility of rendering complex scientific content comprehensible for an audience outside the specific field. I think if you look at that post, though, you’ll see that there are some parameters on the audience most of these folks see themselves writing for.

    I’m also a bit curious about your use of “we” – certainly individuals within USian culture do all the things you suggest – and you provide the links to show these are real things. But I’m not yet seeing the examples you provide as a demonstrable pattern of engagement with science or the language of science that is widely distributed. Help me out!

  2. February 7, 2012 at 3:07 am

    ProfMyers, please pardon if the word “praise” hinted at some sort of ex post facto self-adulation in the science blogosphere; that wasn’t its intent. What’s clear, though, is that even if blogs do not claim to have accomplished this, it still seems to serve as a target of some sort for science bloggers (http://blogs.plos.org/wonderland/2011/01/17/as-science-bloggers-who-are-we-really-writing-for/), and, in some instances, regarded as the very point of the medium. Even if Jennifer Ouellette herself doesn’t specifically set out to render science accessible to the public, she does seem to see some value in it when she compliments another blog for the same and identifies it as one of her “interests”: “I’m a big fan of SEED, since its objectives dovetail so nicely with my own interests: namely, making physics — and other related disciplines in math and science — accessible to the public at large and placing it in the broader context of modern culture” (http://twistedphysics.typepad.com/cocktail_party_physics/page/53/).

    On second thought, perhaps my assertion that the phenomenon has been met with “praise” wasn’t all that misplaced after all, considering this post (http://oberlinsciencelibrary.blogspot.com/2011/10/plos-blogs-making-science.html) that seems to congratulate PLoS for that very accomplishment. Maybe my post was just a drop in the bucket of criticisms of this view (and maybe it’s more passé than I thought), but that’s not to say that it were never viewed, or that my post attacks some sort of straw man.

    Perhaps this article (http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/admin/publication_files/2011.31.pdf), though framed very specifically, speaks more eloquently to the nature in which science has of late become exploited by non-scientists, distorted to buttress claims which otherwise have no ground to rest on.

  3. ProfMyers
    February 9, 2012 at 11:10 pm

    You’re right, many science bloggers are in favor of trying to communicate science to a broader audience. I’m still struggling with some of your connections, so let me see if I can do a better job of figuring out what I’m struggling with.

    In your original post, you seem to be saying:

    1. science bloggers praise the idea of communicating science to a broad/public/non-scientist audience.

    2. broadly speaking, the USian public seems to have a conflicted relationship with science, and often seems to misunderstand it.

    3. So maybe we shouldn’t trust the public with science they don’t understand!

    Is that on the right track?

    I’m a bit uncertain in point three if you’re saying “so why bother to communicate it to them” or “so they shouldn’t be allowed to make policy decisions about it,” but I think either position is problematic–and I think that you’re misrepresenting what scientists are desirous of there at the end. I don’t think that these folks are saying “HEY WE SHOULD HAVE NON SCIENTISTS MAKE ALL THE DECISIONS ABOUT SCIENCE”.

    I think the position taken by folks in the scientific community is actually often /starting/ from your point two: Non-scientist USians often misunderstand science.

    But if you also work from the premise that /non-scientists are going to play a role in science policy NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO/–that is, that elected officials will typically NOT be scientists; that broad public support for or fear of certain ideas or understandings will drive policy, research funding etc–

    If those are your two foundational principals, doesn’t it make sense as a scientist to say, “hey, let’s see if we can’t change this up? Let’s see if we can’t find platforms to communicate science in more accessible ways? Hey, let’s try to get more USians to have a better understanding of science than they do right now?

    • February 10, 2012 at 2:51 am

      My post is not so much a critique of the movement as it is a commentary on US scientific illiteracy. Sure, it wonders about the effectiveness of the movement, but it was not intended to question the motives of the science bloggers, although the discussion has evolved into that. I think perhaps my argument is more precisely summed up thus:

      1. The US public does not understand science and in many instances doesn’t care to.

      2. Science bloggers want to increase scientific literacy by presenting some series of dumbed-down, cursory summaries of science.

      3. Even in instances where it could understand science, the public would rather disregard it where it doesn’t achieve their goals (political, social, or otherwise).

      4. An apathetic and duplicitous public + cursory accounts of science = an increasingly bad situation.

      The argument isn’t so ambitious as to suggest a solution to the problem: especially in a world composed, as you’ve pointed out, of non-scientists, perhaps any other type of solution is impractical.

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