IDRC Pan Asia Networking sponsorship

Communication or Popularisation of Scientific Knowledge

By:  Dr Yurikobanyal Mua, Dept.of Chemistry, UPNG - presented at Waigani Seminar 1997

Communication is a basic human right and lack of it was identified as an important problem that was raised by an organisation known as, the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO). Human rights are primarily stemmed from basic requirements for human to survive and apparently, Human survival depends profoundly on the capacity to communicate effectively1. (Mostly from Philip Lee, Communication for All-New World Information and Communication Order)

Why should the Public Have a Better Understanding of Scientific Knowledge.

Previous proponents of Science literacy claim that the basic reasons for understanding science at the level of ordinary citizens has five prime reasons. First, some knowledge in science will enable the electorate to make better political decisions. Second, an understanding the basis of modern technology brings better economic returns and promotes sound national security and third, scientific knowledge will eradicate superstition and irrational views about the universe. The forth reason being that behaviours will improve if consequence are known and finally familiarity with the scientific knowledge will lead to a more ethical world view.

On the contrary, the future health of scientific understanding appears to rests on the knowledge that science is interrelated with our culture, with our curiosity about physical and biological environment and with the realisation that understanding of science can lead to an enriched life.

These five reasons for understanding sciences are somewhat flawed and do not provide a better basis for effective long-term communication of science. Implicit in these views is certain degree of hubris. We will have a look at how each of these reasons is incongruent with the line of though of the current trend in science education2 (Laetch).

Better Political Decisions Advocates of science literature claim the every citizen should be science literate because most of the public policies developed are predicated on science and technology. Science literate citizens are bound to make better political choices as compared to their scientifically illiterate comrades. In absence of widespread scientific knowledge, science elite will provide the predominant thrust for policies developed for public benefit which will subsequent lead to the erosion of a democratic institution.

There is no anecdotal evidence that professional scientist, or those imbued with some scientifically orientated mind vote in a more enlighten manner compared to those whose life are rooted beyond the fringes of the science community. The results of the recent national election would not be any different if PNG is replete with science enlightened population. Our example is a breathing testimony to this fallacy that science orientated minds are bound to make better political choice.

Closely associated with this claim is that science knowledge is absolute and thus will lead to uniform interpretation. If the constant debates of so called fact by the scientist in their regular conference is not sufficient, copious debates by the public on issue pertaining, nutrition, drugs and toxic waste are some examples of gulf existing between the various interpretations of scientific data. Legislators frequently explode with frustrations that scientific experts are not concurring on the interpretations of the same data. The above claim purports that all problems have solution and defining these problems may ultimately lead to solutions. Scientific literary for better political governance appears to connect that nature of progress is positively related to knowledge. A curious example in USA is that leaders of the creationist movement have PhD degrees in various scientific disciplines.

Better Economic Returns Whilst science educators espouse the notion that scientific literary is directly associated with better political decisions, politicians are of the view that better science knowledge has some bearing on the economy well-being of a state. Although this is not so apparent in Papua New Guinea, the governor and legislature of California makes no bones about its support for massive scientific research for its economic survival. However, since the success of Sputnik, the numbers of engineers and doctors have fluctuated greatly. This indicates, to a significant extent, that employment opportunities are the main determinants of the supply of manpower than scientific excellence. The debate relating to scientific literary and economy benefits opened in Britain where, although the literacy level was considered to be high at that point, the economy was dwelling in the doldrums.

Having said this, it seems, however, ironic that most decision is made largely on its political influence. For instance, dangers of fatten hormones injected to animals was reported to have no immediate danger to humans, with the subsequent recommendation from the Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organisation. However, European agriculture ministers have decided to ban the hormone treatments. This is blatant negligence of scientific results and is in direct conformity with the political wisdom of the public. Political realities are not necessarily based on firm rationale foundations.

Less Superstition A fond hope of our rational thinking is that scientific knowledge will eventually eradicate superstition or non-rational interpretations of the universe. The current battles between evolutionist against creationist, astronomer versus astrologers and health scientist against quacks are some contentious examples of the rivalry between rationalist and non-rationalist approaches. The message appears to be that if all non-rational knew enough of the "right thing", then they would hopefully see their errors. This belief defies the realities that daily experiences encountered by various people can simultaneously provoke varying degree of believes of the system. For instance, educated people throughout the world use and believe in both the modern and traditional medicine. The spectacular advances in modern medicine has not had an appreciable level of effect neither in USA or Papua New Guinea where practise of faith-healing or witchcraft is predominant. The failure to recognise this humanistic duality is due to acknowledging cultural illiteracy and the hubris of science.

Improve Behaviour Another reason for obtaining scientific knowledge is that it will reinforce positive behaviour on the society. This effect seems to achieve its objective for a multitude of cause-and-effect relations encountered daily. For example, the theory of germ has greatly persuaded people to modify daily behaviours and continues to do so. Despite this success, the data collected and collated for many other human behaviours, such as, effects of diet, alcohol and tobacco, emerge to have little-to-no effect no the human behaviour. Other examples include, the use of water, energy resources and land misuse provide a myriad of examples serve to illustrate that failure of scientific knowledge to determine behaviour.

A More Ethical World View Does scientific literacy promote ethical and humane world view, as claimed by Hamburg (1986)? The practise of science has shared assumptions because science is done in a prescribed fashion. The shared ethical is promoted through the duplication of experiments. The thread or actual verification of results creates a powerful impression that science is perpetrated in utmost honesty. The scientists are no more honest than anyone else, however, the practise of science to be executed with high degree of honesty.

 What then are the benefits of attaining Scientific Knowledge?

Effective communication of scientific knowledge can not be primarily done so with the intent maintain both democracy and technological edge. Let us remind ourselves that the scientific hubris allegedly espoused to enable one to get a job, understand our technological society and, on a grander scale, facilitate the understanding of the world around us.

Instead of acquiring any specific knowledge, the generic population of the society aspires gain some generic literacy. People can and will follow the most congenial muse. Under this circumstance, most of what is currently coined as scientific knowledge will take care of itself. People undertake various hobbies that directly entails science and are however oblivious to its use. For example, in America, rose gardening is quite popular avocation. One can not be a serious rose grower, or any other plant without knowledge of the plant. The same line of thinking can be extended to other hobbies with inherent science orientation. Yet, we never pick up news about rose growing enables better understanding of public policies.

Curiosity plays a large part in developing certain hobbies, which are science orientated. There is a plethora of individuals or coterie of individuals moulded by their common science related hobbies, such as, amateur astronomers, bird watchers, rock collectors or even electronic gadgeteers. They are driven by their inexorable desire to learn and understand the nature around them. The early stage of childhood exhibits high levels of curiosity. However, the formal imposition of science literacy at schools years tends to suppress all and pre-professional scientists tend to hide the growing curiosity. It is only when they are released from the perceived mandane classroom perimeter when the "rose growers" of world resurrect their blossoming. Science literacy at the formal level is somewhat unpalatable to the rose growers, most definitely not an imperative in their daily affairs, however, it has inadvertently become an element of the fabric of their culture.

Another reason for promoting scientific literacy is associated with having to acquire a rich understanding of the nature. Some basic understanding of the our realm of the universe makes life rich. This perception has a direct analogy with a life without the senses of taste, sound and smell, for instances, reducing the full appreciation of the life compared to those who posses these senses. In order to illustrate this, consider a botanist who is specialised in the Northern American forest. It would be intensely satisfying for the botanist, as he is conversant with all his surroundings. He would appear to be reading a familiar book, however, the situation would drastically transform, one of less satisfaction, in a tropical rainforest. This would primarily be caused by lack of understanding of the environment around the botanist. Understanding our nature with respect to scientific perspective makes life satisfactory and we tend to fulfil our humanness. It appears that the understanding of science for its own sake is ample and sufficient reason for promoting science literacy.

Without been accused of associating scientific knowledge with romance, scientific literacy seems to be significant for humanistic reasons. However, these reasons are hardly imparted to the funding agencies, but instead, grant proposals invariably ride of the premise of economy growth or to promote technologically lucid society of the modern times.

Different Levels of Scientific Communication

The popularisation of scientific knowledge to the lay public is of the purpose of edification, legitimisation and training. Traditionally, this end of the science spectrum is somewhat regarded as low-class activity, unrelated to hard-core science work and scientist, to certain extent are perceived to be ill-equipped for such job. Popularisation of scientific knowledge is not regarded as part-and-partial of the knowledge production and validation process and therefore is relegated to non-scientist, failed scientist or ex-scientist to undertake the public relation vocation. Dissemination of scientific knowledge is supposedly subsidiary to research activity and may, to certain extent, reduce reputation and prestige of a scientist.

The contemporary projection of scientific knowledge ostensibly known as "FACTS" produced by scientist is relative to space and time. The data produced is subjected to re-interpretations as experimental protocol and the equipment used with the concomitant increase in the knowledge in the subject attains in-depth and accurate knowledge. This reflects the variable changes that occur with the scientific community and also, for far important reasons, non-scientific communities. The audience of scientific knowledge is primarily a cocktail of scientific and non-scientific minded entities alike. In the process of imparting acquired scientific knowledge of, supposedly well-vested scientific mind to less vested scientific mind, the full description in the mind dilutes. As described by Fleck (12) and Latour (13), any communication of knowledge claim involves re-description of the actual message, which subtly alters the knowledge. This is not simply a matter of distortion of the true message but is rather an inevitable concomitant of the translation from one system’s discourse to another. This logically follows that the greater linguistic and cognitive distant between such systems, the more the alterations.

It is almost incorrect to assume that the relationship between the lay public and the scientific body as simple for any intellectual fields with type and depth of vocabularies and concepts employed are similar to those used by the lay public. In these field, the lay standards and term are readily applied in intellectual debates and controversies, in which what may appear as knowledge can be used to mobilise cognisant lay public for politico-economic advantages. A convenient example of this aspect of scientific communication is where scientist prepares research proposals to funding agencies. Albeit this process entails extensive peer review screening, specialist from other science disciplines have to understand and appreciate the proposal. Additionally, of course, the lay public in funding agencies has to comprehend the research proposal for competent assessment. Furthermore, more science field, especially in the cancer research and, in contemporary time, aids, rely, to a significant extend, on the public purse, therefore continuous communication is essential to legitimatise and validate the perpetual flow of funds from the public coffers.

The need for effective communication between scientist and lay public is not a simple means of maintaining effective communication between two differentiated entities. Several authors (15-Knorr-Cetina p26) have emphasised that in many fields, non-scientists are directly involved in determining of the research strategy, topics to be pursued and approaches to be followed. In such situation, the communication of ideas and results to non-specialist and non-scientist can determine the direction of the research as these different audiences react to the ideas and results in various ways. Non-scientist or specialist thus become not passive recipients of scientific knowledge in contemporary differentiated sciences but instead become significant actors in intellectual development.

Of course, much popularisation of scientific knowledge is sometimes conducive to gain wider societal support for scientific controversies. Whilst this is perhaps mostly restricted to social and humanities, for example the debate over the status and nature of knowledge of English-Literature, such experience are common in natural science too. Controversies in science are particularly focused on the appropriate ways to conduct and organise research to be presented as the fixed, eternal and universal truth.

Different Types of Science Communication

(i) Between Specialist

Some enlightenment can be brought about with a clear definition of specialisation. At this point classification to demonstrated that whilst specialisation with respect to quality of specialist research activity for gaining prominence in social structure is important, it is equally significant to have presentation of veritable analysis, description and theory of the scientific work of interest. If such analysis is plausible then scientists are stretched unceasingly between three poles. These poles are social constraint, analysis of phenomena and conceptual possibilities. A synopsis of the above three tier dynamism is that, scientist are continually subjected to formulation of propositions, satisfying social demands and pondering of future possibilities. In view of such scientist behaviour, scientists’ activities can be snugly described as "dynamic-state conduct" rather then "static-state conduct".

Another analysis in research for the clear understanding of specialisation is through the establishment of technical and representational communities (4-W. Shrum p60). For instance, a paper was addressed to hydrodynamicians who are conversant with cumbersome experimental protocols, such as the employment of wind tunnels and water tunnels, etc. However, the paper was based on experimental protocols using optical techniques developed for condensed matter physics. The divergent between the two technical communities are blatant and serve to inhibit communication and understanding to a significant degree. Further to that, factions within this discipline study the same phenomenon through various points of references. For instance, in extending the above example, one faction would study the statistics of the practical aspect and relate it to the physical mechanism. Whilst another faction would pursue the dynamics of the instantaneous geometric structures and the last faction would attempt to predict the turbulent flow by means of a set fundamental equations. In the light of this problem, the question of specialisation is constrained by the subject matter.

(ii) Inter-Specialist Communication

Communications across scientific disciplines occurs in various forms, of which some examples are, review articles, some books e.g., popular science books and even PhD theses. Despite the high degree of theoretical integration commonly encountered in doctoral theses, it is also an important vehicle for trans-disciplinary exposition. In these formats, ideas promoted by doctoral candidates are intended for a small audience. The information may appear as the individual modest with open ends for further expansion on the research. Yet, some of these ideas are developed around personal view of the concept, therefore precise appreciation of the concept is paramount in understanding the relationship between intra and inter-specialist communication.

(iii) Pedagogical Educational Practise

In certain analysis on the popularisation of scientific knowledge, the pedagogical texts are heavily characterised by historical references. Two types of pedagogical papers frequently emerge in detailed probing. The first type consists of precise experimental procedures that can be easily conducted by students, which will facilitate a clearer understanding of a given theory. Such texts are referring to the normal school sciences that are taught at different levels of our education system. The second type of text encompasses the precision of a concept or phenomena that history ambiguity has blemished otherwise sound teaching.

Exactly what role does history play in contemporary science communication? Analysis (Cloitre p31) has indicated the ubiquitous presence history in scientific communication does not serve as a mere technical convenience or ritual, instead, the copious historical background exist serves two equally significant purpose. The two functions are (i) history highlights the past errors which can be avoided and (ii) reflect furtive analysis problems that can be effectively pursued in the light of contemporary knowledge and/or technical advances. It should be emphasised that the frequent introduction of history in pedagogical science text can easily hinder the lucidity of the past ambiguity can is subjected to correction.

(vi) Mass Exposition

Matters covered in this boundary are restricted to (a) mass media such as, daily press and (b) semi-professional monthly reviews as Scientific America. In the preceding modes of popularisation, the kernel of the attention was exquisitely focused on the phenomenon, as studied. In mass exposition, the treatment of the subject is subtly deviated from the phenomenon to other concerns such the economic, social and political potentials of the discoveries. A convenient description of the popular exposition is that it reports an event, e.g., discovery, invention or innovation, rather then delving into the minutiae of the event itself.

There are several foibles that are inherent in the delivery of scientific knowledge through semi-professional and dailies that need to be looked at. Sometimes scientific texts are regularly frequented with quantitative limit-conditions, error and numerical approximations. Such articles are sometimes cited with orders of magnitude, e.g., phrases like-it measures ten billionth of a meter in thickness " or central nervous system includes one hundred thousand billion nerves. These examples of quantities are beyond the imaginary scope of an average reader. Persistent inclusion of such quantitative magnitudes would be interpreted as an exercise to impress the reader and to boggle the reader’s sense of proportion.

Parallel to huge numerical figures are the regular application of metaphoric phrases. Although, metaphoric languages entail syntactic and syntax notion, the understanding of the concept is closely associated with the generation of imagination. The power of analogous imagination is found to have radically diverged from metaphorically induced imagination. To illustration this comparison, analogous imagination operates through the deconstruction and comparison, e.g., a is like b, and limitations and similarities are, in most cases, clearly stated. On the contrary, metaphorically generated imagination are product of fusion, at worst, con-fusion, e.g., a is b (p48). A convenient example would be, "the LEP is a huge hammer for pounding matter"- for an uninitiated reader, this words are obtrusive of the phenomenon. The dearth of cognitive clarity associated with metaphoric imagination is referred to as "degenerated knowledge". Such message is not intentional but is commonly distorted when imparted to lay public.

Communication or popularisation of science is measured with some success when a scientific event is communicated with various other concerns, such as, technology, ecology, health and politics, etc. In an average daily life, each of the above concerns are tightly knitted into each other to an extent where, their scientific impart would be relevant to the contemporary and future times.

How Does Science Communication Relate to PNG?

Science is universal. Science can not be sub-divided into Pacific science, European science or event PNG science. I acknowledge that our ancestors, without an in-depth understanding of science, inadvertently practised science. This deficiency precludes the full appreciation of their environment. Parallel to this, in contemporary PNG, we have a growing number of "rose growers". These progressively increasing number of rose gardeners can be richly encouraged with some form of national centre for science communication, e.g., a museum or anything of similar description. The current lack of such facility can be attributed to two reasons, (i) lack of scientists and (ii) the omnipotent scarcity of money. These hurdles are surmountable.

Communication within specialist and inter-specialist is virtually non-existent on the frequency that is considered to be normal. This frequency should be relevant to the rate at which technology is changing on the global scale. The paltry number of practising scientist within PNG should be amply facilitated to communicate within and without PNG in order to be at the vanguard of state of technological upheaval. PNG, a resource rich country, will be at an untenable position if science and technology is not sufficient nourished with the capital generated from its resources.

The presence of lingual and cultural gulf between our society and the western world compounds the difficulty to stimulate science at early school level. However, this situation can be easily surmounted with progressive increase in the dose of exposure to science as a child develops. This intensive exposure to science can be subsequently ensued with the identification of precocious science students and further encourage them, e.g., establishment of summer science schools etc. Government must invest in latest communication facilities e.g., books and internet facilities at all education levels in the country, to ensure effective communication link between the knowledge producers and knowledge users to produce generations with sound scientific understanding.

To conclude, investment in education (general form imparting non-genetic information from generation to generation) to sufficient equip for future generations is an imperative for any government of PNG.  Failure to achieve such a target will be a great disservice to the future generations of this nation.

Popularisation of Scientific Knowledge in Papua New Guinea - By:  Dr Yurikobanyal Mua, Dept.of Chemistry, UPNG - presented at Waigani Seminar 1997
e-mail author:  c/o John Evans John Evans et al
Papua New Guinea © 2000 published in www.pngbuai.com

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