Science Communication and Public Understanding

In NASA/TREK, Constance Penley proposes a “popular science” approach that engages science communication by emphasizing the importance of fantasy, entertainment, and popular culture. Choose a popular depiction of space travel – real or fictional – and discuss its significance to you in light of Penley’s approach to popular science. Use your example to discuss the importance of Penley’s approach as well as its strengths and weaknesses.

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Popular science is essential for bridging the gap between the general society and the scientific community. Experts in the field stress that it has the potential not only to entertain the audience but also to throw light on the most pressing topics while explaining them in an understandable manner. As stated by Penley (1997) “the institutions of science and technology increasingly strive to be popular, that is, to try to find ways to communicate their ideas and endeavors” (p. 4). A common way to achieve this aim is through a depiction or revelation of scientific domains (or theories) in movies. Therefore, the author of this paper has decided to choose a science fiction movie called 2001: A Space Odyssey and discuss its significance in the light of Penley’s approach.

Notably, the author watched the movie more than ten years ago; however, the memories from it remained until the present day. It was the first film about space traveling that the writer had watched, and the images of space produced a strongly positive impression but seemed scary. Kirby (2003) suggested that “as virtual witnessing technologies, fictional films are ‘new representations’ that science consultants can utilize to ‘confirm’ the existence of phenomena and disseminate their concepts among the general public” (p. 242). In regards to this statement, the movie did reveal quite a lot about space traveling to a young person who was not into science.

Nevertheless, it made the author uncertain of what was depicted in a realistic manner and what was irrelevant for actual science. Therefore, it has resulted in intense confusion. Importantly, the other side of the issue has been addressed greatly. In particular, as stated by Penley (1997), popular science should engage the viewer and entertain him or her so that they do not lose their interest in the scientific subject. The film has fulfilled this objective due to its remarkable plot, narration, and visuality. After watching it, the author became strongly interested in the scientific side addressed.

The approach proposed by Penley (1997) connects science and popular culture, which also implies significant weaknesses. For instance, as noted during one of the lectures, common misconceptions may emerge when science is interpreted through science fiction (“COMS 2500 – Science communication: Week 5,” n.d.). In addition, popular culture is frequently perceived in a stereotypical way, and this attitude can be transmitted to science as well. Another weakness is related to the way different people comprehend the same domain. For example, having watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, the author has developed some form of fear related to space travel. It has affected the way the scientific aspects of the movie have been perceived and understood, which is an inevitable weakness of Penley’s approach.

Thus, although popular science has the potential to produce a positive effect on the population’s awareness regarding certain scientific issues or concepts, the way they are depicted in movies or other elements of visual and multimedia culture can produce either the desired or wrongful representations in people. Nevertheless, the approach proposed by Penley (1997) has multiple strengths. The engaging and understandable manner of presenting complex information encourages the audience to take a greater interest in the topic and fuels their curiosity to investigate the issue further.

Moreover, in the text by Kirby (2003), it is noted that “Marvin Minsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who consulted on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), considers science fiction as a good way to work out some theoretical problems” (p. 249). Therefore, popular science opens up new opportunities for the scientific community as well. However, the immediate weakness that emerges is the need for scientific consultants to acquire new skills that are not related to their professional area. They need to learn the ways to explain their theories to the chosen audience correctly and understandably. Thus, it can be concluded that the significance of the discussed approach lies in its potential to communicate science to the general public in an engaging manner (Penley, 1997). However, it also poses new challenges to science consultants since they should ensure that the audience does not have unrealistic expectations and will form the desired attitudes and perceptions.

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What are the benefits of citizen science, for researchers and the public? Weigh this against some of the concerns (such as the validity of data). How has the internet impacted citizen science?

As discussed during the lecture, citizen science is a notion that implies the engagement of the non-academic community into a scholarly project (“COMS 2500 – Science communication: Week 6,” n.d.). They can participate at such stages of project implementation as data collection and analysis. In addition, citizens can become part of a large-scale project together with experts in the field (however, they can take part in studies of any scope or complexity).

Such a form of cooperation is useful not only for the scientific community but also for nonprofessionals participating in citizen science projects. For example, amateur researchers who do not have an opportunity to carry out their studies can contribute to the existing body of knowledge and expand it by participating in scientific projects conducted by scholars (“COMS 2500 – Science communication: Week 6,” n.d.). Also, participants can comprehend the world around them better and receive information about a phenomenon of reality through experiential learning. This allows the scientific community to develop curiosity in the population and encourage their greater interest in science.

In addition, projects of this type make it possible to instill interest in science in younger generations by attracting teens to researches (when no age limitation is present). Local residents (if the study has a local character) can cognize their area better, which can further enhance their identification with the country and its culture.

Professionals also benefit from the participation of citizens. In particular, scientific institutions receive an additional resource in terms of data collection and analysis (Bäckstrand, 2003). Thus, they gain an opportunity to increase the evidence base faster and more efficiently. Many citizen science projects have a local character; therefore, research teams can obtain specific first-hand data by attracting local residents. Moreover, through the use of interactive methods of gathering information, it becomes possible to conduct large-scale field researches. In addition, due to the involvement of younger generations, the scientific community can grow a larger number of future scientists interested in the development of science. Thus, citizen science is a phenomenon that affects both parties involved in the process.

Despite the positive experience that citizen science can bring to research hosts and participants, serious concerns exist regarding that matter. For instance, it has been mentioned above that such projects enable citizens to contribute to the existing body of knowledge. Nonetheless, as highlighted by Bäckstrand (2003), “the success of civic science is largely dependent on the context, i.e. the nature of the environmental risk and problem at hand” (p. 39). Therefore, not all citizen science projects are potentially implementable, and the results of each study depend on a multitude of variables.

Apart from that, it has been discussed that scholarly projects equip citizens with scientific messages that were unavailable or incomprehensible for them earlier. This benefit can also be argued since the evidence obtained or provided to the non-professional participants can be overly generalized or superficial and may not expand their understanding of science to the desired degree (Kullenberg & Kasperowski, 2016). Although generalized evidence can spark up interest in advanced scientific knowledge, it may not be the case for every individual. Many people may consider that they have wasted their time instead of making a real contribution.

Moreover, the data obtained during civil research is rather likely to be inaccurate or irrelevant, which will undermine the reliability of the entire research. Furthermore, professionals have to weigh all the limitations of the study and keep track of errors to ensure that the obtained results are applicable and significant. Therefore, considering all the benefits and concerns related to citizen science, it is difficult to determine precisely the side that will overweight.

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In terms of the impact the Internet has had on citizen science, it is possible to assume that it has expanded its research opportunities. According to Trench (2008), the Internet eases the process of communication between scientists and their interaction with the non-academic world. It provides them with an opportunity to collaborate with citizens through digital means and enlarge the scope of their research by reaching remote population groups and communities.

Also, as stated by the author, the Internet not only minimizes the communicational barrier but also allows establishing new forms of research (Trench, 2008). People can utilize their mobile devices to track and report data to professionals. Therefore, citizens do not have to bother regarding the ways they should communicate their findings to researchers while professionals are sure that they will receive the required information. Thus, overall, the Internet has positively affected citizen science.

Choose either a specific health promotion (e.g., an anti-smoking ad) or a drug advertisement. Describe the content and purpose – what is it promoting or selling? Do you think it’s effective? Why or why not? How does this connect to more broad issues around public understandings of science that we’ve already discussed?

Health promotion advertisements are a tool that can be used to achieve the required aims regarding the well-being of people. In addition, they are helpful in changing the health-related behavior of individuals since ads provide multiple opportunities and instruments for reaching the designated communities or population groups (Davies & Horst, 2016). Since it is quite common that food or beverage companies perform as sponsors of health promotion advertisements (which affects the reliability of evidence and perceptions of people), it has been decided to discuss an advertisement initiated by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-term Care. The title of the ad is “Social Smoking Campaign”, and its aim is to persuade young people to cease occasional smoking.

The content of the ad centers on young people whose habits are exposed and ridiculed. Importantly, the notion of social smoking is addressed throughout the video. Social smoking is regarded as a habit that young people employ when they go out. According to the video, they also smoke when they meet with their friends for a drink; therefore, social smoking is frequently accompanied by alcohol consumption (“Social Smoking Campaign,” 2012). Many people believe that social smoking is not the same as smoking on a regular basis. However, as stated in the ad, this habit evolves into regular smoking in the majority of cases.

Moreover, a certain practice does not become less harmful to human health if it has a social implication. Thus, the purpose of the advertisement is to help young individuals realize that social smoking is the same as regular smoking, and it does lead to the emergence of dangerous diseases and earlier deaths. To make the audience comprehend these ideas, the authors of the video ridicule different fictional habits and compare social smoking with social ear wax picking (“Social Smoking Campaign,” 2012). The ad seems controversial; however, it dispels the myth that occasional smoking is not harmful.

Overall, the “Social Smoking Campaign” promotes healthier life choices and a rejection of all forms (patterns) of smoking. It is intended for younger generations since social smoking is typical for people aged 18-29 (“Social Smoking Campaign,” 2012). In terms of the region (Ontario), the habit later develops into systematic smoking in 600000 individuals, which poses a severe threat to the well-being of the population (“Social Smoking Campaign,” 2012).

More importantly, at this stage of tobacco abuse, it is possible to quit without strong damage to health and an intense physical and psychological addiction. However, when the habit becomes a norm, individuals are unlikely to restore their health to the desired condition. As it has been mentioned above, the Ministry of Health has funded the ad; thus, the advertisement does not sell anything or promote alternative habits.

The ad should be considered effective because it can skillfully reach its purpose, which is to persuade young people that social smoking is a ridiculous phenomenon and implies wrongful perceptions of individuals regarding their health. According to Logan (2008), “in contrast to research that relies on non-fiction mass media, some campaigns depict health information within a fictional entertainment media setting” (p. 80).

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The video makes effective use of the entertaining content to avoid the emergence of anger in those addressed by it while simultaneously imposing a feeling of shame. In addition, it uses humorous situations and settings to explicate why social smoking is ridiculous and harmful behavior. Therefore, the advertisement tailors the messages correctly. The language used is understandable, and the experience exhibited in the video alludes to the targeted audience.

However, the promotional video and its content correlate directly with the broad issues around the public understanding of science. In particular, the ad exhibits reductionism. In the video, the essential scientific evidence has been diminished to simple relations. Moreover, although the visuals are effective, they degrade the distinction between science and entertainment (Davies & Horst, 2016). Thus, it is likely that some young people will perceive this health promotion ad as an element of popular culture. Therefore, the way science has been presented in the video, reductionism, and an entertaining character can have a negative effect on the perception of reality by young individuals and stimulate further misconceptions instead of self-directed learning.

How involved should scientists be in politics and policymaking? Why do some people believe that advocacy can be harmful to science? Do you agree?

Scientists should be engaged in politics and policymaking as long as they defend evidence-based science in the name of society’s prosperity and its freedom. From this point of view, politics is an area that allows scientific knowledge to become publicly reported and be disseminated from the professional community to the general public. Scientists are a diverse group of individuals who do not belong to any party and do not promote someone’s views in order to achieve a politicized goal. Consequently, the extent to which science should be involved in politics should be limited to the common good (“COMS 2500 – Science communication: Week 8,” n.d.).

In this case, researchers will be able to influence leaders so that they rely on factual data, which reflect the existing reality. Any involvement of science in policy-making should be limited to public interests rather than to elitist ones. However, this imposes a greater degree of responsibility on the scientific community since they should clearly understand the border the intersection of which undermines faith in science and its impartiality.

In recent years, the role of science in the life of society has been critically assessed. Initially, science should encourage research that will reveal real worldviews. However, various studies discredited science due to the fact that many of them were propagating a certain lifestyle or practices that were sponsored by large companies. Therefore, such research lobbied for individual interests rather than for the interests of society (“COMS 2500 – Science communication: Week 8,” n.d.). For these reasons, some people believe that advocacy can be harmful to science. It is difficult to disagree with this opinion since there are a number of cases when science was not objective and exhibited bias.

According to Weingart (1999), “the (over-)supply of knowledge and its politicization leads to de-legitimation of politics and loss of authority on the part of science” (p. 160). Thus, it can be assumed that society no longer believes in the impartiality of researchers, and people are afraid that the new evidence provided to them through politics is sponsored by some party and can be potentially harmful to them.

The institution of science has lost public trust (Mea, Newton, Uyarra, Alonso, & Borja, 2016). Moreover, as stated by Jewett (2017), the “perception of scientists as liberal activists rather than dispassionate researchers” has become quite common (para. 2). Nevertheless, it is reasonable to state that some issues do not allow science to stand aside from politics. In particular, researchers need to receive funding, and they are obliged to protect copyrights. Therefore, studies inevitably become politicized. Alternatively, scholars have the tools to remove bias. For instance, the scientific method that they utilize can assist in this task greatly.

It is difficult for the author of this paper to state unambiguously whether advocacy is harmful to science. On the one hand, when engaging in policymaking, scientists have to expand the scope of their practice and develop other skills apart from the ones they utilize in science (Mea et al., 2016). Moreover, it is difficult to determine if they have a moral obligation to be part of a political process. On the other hand, if the academic community has evidence that can be used to educate voters, then they should seize this opportunity and bring it to the notice of the population. If some information invalidates a policy, it is the scholars’ duty to enlighten leaders regarding that matter. Otherwise, science will not bring its virtue to people.

Moreover, the scientific community should not remain apathetic when politics intends to ignore scientific data (“COMS 2500 – Science communication: Week 8,” n.d.). Since science is a tool for seeking answers and revealing the truth about the world, it should influence politics and guide policymaking. However, in order for this important task to be achievable, it is necessary to rebuild respect for science and mutual reverence between scientists (Mea et al., 2016). Researchers should listen to the communities the interests of which they serve and rebuild their plans in order to address the demands of society in the best possible way. In that case, advocacy will no longer be harmful to science or to the general public.


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Weingart, P. (1999). Scientific expertise and political accountability: Paradoxes of science in politics. Science and Public Policy, 26(3), 151-161.

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