The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Public understanding of science

Scientists themselves would be the first to agree that portrayals of them on TV and in films are always wildly unrealistic. But then so are most portrayals of musicians, journalists, violinmakers and others whose numbers are so low that most people never meet one. (From a very interesting and amusing (if long-winded) disillusioned account of the whole worthy enterprise of 'public understanding of science'.)



Thanks for the link: it's a good, broad round-up of a lot of what's wrong with how science is widely (mis)understood.

Incidentally, I took on "The Two Cultures" myself in a long essay over at The Fix (
back in 2007-which, incidentally, had a focus on the economic and social issues Snow raised, and the ways in which these admittedly dated ideas are still useful, much to the confusion of just about everyone who offered me feedback.

I think Dr. Nield gets a great deal right in describing Snow's essay, and the intellectual-cultural background to it. Too few seem to appreciate that aspect of the argument, which is virtually unknown over here in the States, where the current recollection of that period could not be more different. (Indeed, I often wonder how well it is still known even in post-Thatcher Britain.)

I think a great deal of this, from a US perspective, was gotten by the 1950s sf writer Mark Clifton, who was an HR manager for a computer company in Tennesse--probably one connected with Oak Ridge National Labs. Talk about conflict of cultures! Clifton was something of a crank and he is not very readable these days, though some stories still stand up. But he nailed the relation between the culture of science and the broader culture of the USA over and over.

Interestingly enough, I haven't run across Clifton. In any case, I'll be sure to look him up.

Nader, there was a collection of his short stories done a long while back--I think that's worth the trouble. *When They Come From Space* is by turns brilliant and exasperating (and it is a very short novel). Avoid *They'd Rather Be Right*.

Nield, so far, is coming off as very, very wrong-headed. He regrets his life in the sciences, that's very clear and he doesn't like the style of academic papers (well, duh!) But his own experience and regrets are not universal.

most people never meet one

In general, anyone who's taken a science course in college has met a scientist.

I think perhaps it is more that all professions are inaccurately portrayed on TV. I work in advertising and all my co-workers are complaining about stuff that happens in the new US ad agency drama "Trust Me". "No one ever comes up with ideas in a client meeting!"

“There aren't two cultures, there are only half-cultured people.”
-- unfortunately, I've lost the attribution

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