Ditching the “public” in science communication

Every now and then it’s nice to catch an infectious meme of thought that probably isn’t all that helpful. And when you do, it can be pretty darn surprising how pervasively it’s held.

So here’s a likely one for we science nerds:
The idea of science outreach to the “public.”

The quote marks there are obviously intentional, but I admit that I hadn’t thought anything of it until skimming a paper about the (erroneous and overly simplistic) deficit model in science communication and noticing a line about a small number of scientists’ perception of that word. In said paper, 13% of surveyed scientists felt the term “public” should be rejected altogether.

Which can admittedly be a pretty challenging idea if you’re in the science communication business.

All the same, the motivations behind such semantics are worth considering, and although I’m usually not one for dropping words out of political correctness, I do think dropping the idea of “the public” from science communication strategies has some merit. So if we’re going to think there is indeed a “public” for science outreach, let’s take a look at a few of the possible negatives:

It makes the scientist seem somehow separate

This is the most obvious, but for there to be a “public” unto which we should do science outreach immediately implies the public is something “out there” or external to the scientist or communicator. And while that may seem like word play, it can lay the groundwork for some less-than-great tendencies such as “us vs them” mentalities or broad presumptions about characteristics.

Assumptions about a lack of knowledge are easy

If there’s any transfer of knowledge at all in science communication, and if the public is an external entity that “needs” said knowledge from the scientist/communicator, it’s easy to see how there’s a likely tendency towards subconsciously (or otherwise!) assuming the “public” is intrinsically ignorant or unscientific. And whereas one’s audience may indeed sometimes be ignorant of certain ideas, we can’t make the same assumption more broadly. Moreover, science communication is often more about encountering values and perspectives rather than a lack of knowledge.

We forget other scientists

To provide any tangible definition to the idea of a “public” in science communication, it’s pretty difficult to not use scientists or academics as a unitary group on the other side of the fence. This then would imply that scientists have no need for the knowledge shared by other science communicators, and yet we all know that it would be pretty absurd to expect a physicist to list the proteins in a microtubule or a biologist to provide the wave-function for a particle in a box. And if these examples are trivial for you, there’s likely plenty of much more significant examples out there (take climate change for an easy one).

There’s a lack of differentiation

Constantly talking about “the” public as one thing makes it easy for it to seem just like that. And yet the real public is actually an immensely diverse group of individuals with all sorts of different knowledge levels, interests, values, and predispositions. Science communication is missing out then if it feels there is a “strategy for communicating with the public.” Rather, each engagement is better served, whenever possible, by tailoring to the needs and interests and understanding of the individuals forming the audience in that specific instance.

It discourages setting meaningful and tangible goals

I’ve mentioned this somewhat already in another post (with an ironic title), but if the general prescription of science communication is to do more outreach to the “public,” then we’re likely missing out on the why or the significance of that work. Indeed, often the best intentions of science communication are not simply to raise a general awareness and understanding of scientific ideas but also to deal with a serious matter affecting public well-being or to change policy. That’s not to say that increasing the “bottom-line” of science engagement is not a worthy cause (it is, my opinion!), but it’s harder to aim for much else when the audience is a, broadly-brushed, “other.”

And again, I’m not trying to make “public” a dirty word here. In fact, it can sometimes be a useful one given that, in most conversations, we have little need of being so precise. There’s also nothing to say we can’t, in the same breath, include ourselves in the term and resist viewing our audience in a monolithic fashion.

But it does seem to make some bad thought habits a little easier. Moreover, even if your goal is to raise knowledge and awareness about one specific topic very broadly, you’re probably more accurate in noting that you want to spread that idea to “everyone” or “as many as possible” and not some “public” other. And if it’s not so broad, then you’re likely more effective to be directly thinking about your audience anyway.

So the next time you catch yourself saying “the public” this or that, take that extra pause to double-check that you’re still focusing on your goals and what’s best for the audience. Generalizing and externalizing is easy after all, for all of us.

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