How can we solve the popular science conundrum?

A thought-provoking history and ideological chasms underlie this idea.

When we think of pop music we know exactly what we are talking about. People might differ sometimes on some songs but can agree on their shared ‘feelings’ and expectations from pop music by and large. The term pop music is of course a shortening of ‘popular music’. And the same goes for a term like ‘pop culture’ for instance. But what is ‘popular’ science?

Popularity has no place in measuring the trustworthiness or acceptability of a scientific idea; and whether someone likes a scientific idea or not makes no difference to science itself. Unlike its use elsewhere, the term ‘popular’ in science mostly refers to the medium of communication.

A letter published in Nature around the Christmas of 1872 was what prompted me to write this issue of Confluence. Titled “Popular science in 1872” the letter talked about how “scientific information in a popular form is one of the demands of the age” but soon after referred, rather curiously, to a popular science piece from the now-defunct London illustrated magazine The Belgravia. The author wanted to summarise said piece so that “professed students of science” would not lose out on it. Presumably, these students were not looking for scientific insights in a general-interest publication.


This reminds me of two models with which we view science communication today. First we have the deficit model which assumes the role of provider–receiver between the scientific community and the general public. The latter is presumed to have a deficit of scientific knowledge that the former can fulfil so that society may take better-informed, more scientifically-minded decisions.

This model is criticised for being disdainful of society by and large. But to me there is some sense in it. Just as you may not know as much about baking as your local baker or as much about medicines as your neighbourhood pharmacist, they too may not know as much about your own field as you do. By various perspectives we become experts or learners of various things—and science is no different. There are experts in the sciences whose efforts at disseminating knowledge can help us improve our own understanding of science.

The primary takeaway from such a model as this is that science communication, if intended to fill a deficit, can necessarily not take place on an extremely technical level. It has to be—for lack of a better phrase—brought down to the level of those who lack a certain academic understanding of it. This is where popular science gets its criticism of being too watered-down or outright incorrect.

Image courtesy XKCD.


There is a second way of looking at science communication, called the continuity model, which pretends to eschew the idea of a deficit but in reality just softens the blow. Rather than view the process of science communication as a scientist–public affair, the continuity model brings in several other strata.

Broadly, knowledge starts off as communication between people who are niche experts in their field. They then communicate it to people who are experts in their field but not in this niche. This communication sees a tiny bit of dilution of scientific rigour. Next, experts in this field communicate it to experts in allied fields, further diluting the science.

This proceeds similarly going next to experts in unrelated sciences, then to general experts, at which point it can be codified as an academic work that strips scientific rigour in favour of pedagogic straightforwardness. And this too finally makes its way, in its most diluted form, to the general public as “general knowledge” by which point it has lost all its technicality and been watered down to its abstract basics.

The continuity model, like the deficit model, calls for a ‘dumbing down’ of science albeit gradually this time, and without attributing it to a deficit in knowledge.

Popular ire

The idea of ‘dumbing down the science’ is clearly prevalent across both these models of science communication. This is argued as a necessary aspect of science communication. Ironically, this is precisely what draws the ire of many in science: popular science is seen as a reductionist, inaccurate, even incomplete portrayal of science that tosses aside nuances in favour of a certain flavour of theatrics.

Does popular science have to be double-edged? If you are a scientist what would your solutions be for your field? And for everyone else, have you ever had any complaints about popular science at all?

(Comic panel courtesy, XKCD.)

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