Sharing our science… scientifically

The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication by Kathleen Jamieson, Dan Kahan & Dietram Scheufele (Eds.) Oxford (University Press; Hb £105.00) reviewed by Phil Loring.

This handbook about science communication, published under the umbrella of the Oxford Library of Psychology, features 57 mostly American authors working in almost a dozen different disciplines. The thread the editors use to bind these 49 chapters together is a scientific approach to science communication. Most existing work on science communication, they argue, has relied on intuition rather than evidence to illuminate how science can best be communicated, and how science engagement can best
be cultivated.

Two of the book’s most powerful chapters are in its first section. Chapter 3, by editor and psychologist Dan Kahan, points out that fixating on the relatively small number of cases featuring persistent conflict over facts (climate change, evolution, certain vaccinations) leads to mistaken explanations of where that conflict comes from. A true science of science communication, Kahan argues, is a form of enlightened self-government, because it protects science communication from forces that diminish individuals’ ability to recognise valid sources of science. Chapter 6, by historian and science journalist Bruce Lewenstein, points out that fascination with controversies is nothing new to historians, sociologists, and philosophers. Scientists hoping to create a science of science communication, he argues, often look to this older literature for guidance on both understanding and managing controversies. However, much of this literature is itself suspicious of the claim that a science of science communication can produce guidance in managing controversies. It may be that the science of science communication can only be descriptive, and that the goal in studying controversies can only be to understand their dynamics, not to manage them.

Highlights in the rest of the book include a chapter on museums and science centres, one on popular representations of scientists, and one on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. The book’s complex construction undoubtedly happened under different sorts of time pressure, and some wrinkles show. Each of the book’s six major sections closes with a ‘recap’ written after the other chapters by one or two junior members of the Annenberg Public Policy Center authorial team.

These often cite chapters using placeholders (‘p. XX’) rather than the real page number. Furthermore, the index is spotty, and for example a reader looking for material about Facebook or Twitter would get from the index the false impression that Facebook only appears in two chapters and Twitter not at all; in fact, there are several chapters that deal with both, as the book rightfully reflects the role these applications have played in changing the face of the media landscape in recent years.

Without making it explicit, this handbook poses a fundamental question about psychology: Where does psychology fit within interdisciplinary research today? Science communication is not a field that has previously come under the umbrella of psychology, but the material in this book, and the way it is presented, will be of interest to a broad range of psychologists.

- Reviewed by Phil Loring, Curator of the History of Medicine, Norsk Teknisk Museum, Oslo, Norway

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