The view of science communication from 1926 – still relevant today?

Yesterday, I discovered a book with some strong opinions about communicating science. It was written in 1926, but the points made are still relevant in contemporary science communication.

I discovered the book by chance. I was sitting with my family in the warming mid-morning sun on London’s Southbank, drinking coffee and catching up. We were there relatively early for a Sunday but the pavements around us soon filled with bustling crowds as the Southbank’s attractions woke up for a sunny Sunday.

One of these attractions is a book market, set up under Waterloo Bridge. The booksellers keep their wares locked in huge metal containers permanently attached to the railings by the Thames. I sat and watched as these treasure troves were unlocked, and their contents carefully laid out on trestle tables. After watching for a while, I decided to investigate.

Almost immediately I found the book, and bought it on the spot; a first edition of the Pelican paperback print run of Julian Huxley’s ‘Essays in Popular Science’.

Returning to my family, I decided to have a quick look inside, and had a slight ‘science communication moment’. Huxley’s preface to the book, his justification for writing a popular science book, is striking. Much to my family’s annoyance, I ended up reading most of it out loud to them.

Here are some of the paragraphs that particularly caught my eye.

[note: the order of quotations are not the order they appear in the preface]

One of the duties of scientific men – not necessarily of all of them, but certainly of some of them taken as a group – is to make available to the lay public the facts and theories of their science, and especially to try to re-create something of the mental background that is engendered by those fact and those theories.”

Since the proclamation of the Bodmer report in 1985 that scientists need to communicate with the public, many have formed the opinion (although long held by those who popularised science like Huxley) that scientists have a duty to inform the public about their research. However, an important point identified by Huxley is that not every scientist should have this duty, or is even capable of it. I believe that scientists should not have an obligation to communicate their science, but it should be made easier and more support given to those who choose to.

A question posed recently on the science communication discussion list, psci-com, was ‘what is the point?’ Why do we communicate science? Why is it important that we bridge the gap between those who create scientific facts and those who do not know these facts? Everyone has their own unique take on this question, as did Huxley:

“Whenever the lag in communication between science and general thought grows considerable, whenever science, through laziness, pride, or pedantry, fails to make herself understood, and whenever the public, through laziness, stupidity, or prejudice, fails to understand, then we shall proceed to a lamentable divorce. It will not be merely the results of science which will not be assimilated, but science herself and the spirit of science will not be understood; and scientists will become an isolated caste in a half-hostile environment.”

It is clear that Huxley believed that both the scientific and the non-scientific communities need to make an effort to understand each other – a relationship needed to be forged. A report from the UK’s House of Lords in 2000 described a ‘crisis of confidence’ in science, and called for scientists to build a better relationship with those outside of the scientific community. Although improving, a better relationship between the public (for want of a better word) and scientists still needs to be developed.

“There is a danger, and in these days of manifolded information and broadcast amusement, that the world will become divided into those who have to think for their living and those how never think at all. I am not speaking of those necessary but limited processes of thought needed to accomplish some routine of business, but the real thinking which does not stop until it has enquired why and how of the most familiar facts and processes, and insisted on exploring the foundations of belief. The true philosopher or man of science (as well as the true man of letters or the true statesman) is thinking new thoughts, or at least seeking the material for new thoughts, everyday of his life.”

Huxley then goes on to describe how the routine of many people’s daily lives means that they do not interrogate the facts of life, as he believes they should. The information they receive is broadcast to a wide audience in a way that means that do not have to think about the content, or question it. I leave it to you to form your own opinions on this? Is this true? And is it true in the era we live in? And what about social media…?

Huxley also identified reasons for not only communicating science to the lay public, but also to scientists in other fields. Contemporary scientific research is increasingly specialised and new subfields are being created at an astonishing rate; those in one research field have little understanding of those in another. But this isn’t a new phenomenon:

“Science herself is overspecialised: her right hand knoweth not what her left hand doeth; scientists in bulk inhabit a city of water-tight compartments. Each of them is busily engaged in investigating the interior of his own compartment…”

As well as having strong views on the role of science communication, he makes an interesting observation about biology. Currently, there is an increasing medicalization of science communication, an increasing dominance of biological and health related stories over physical and chemical sciences. It appears that the opposite was true in Huxley’s day, and he makes a strong case for an increasing interest in biological sciences.

There is at the present day a growing interest in biological sciences… The chief concern of man up to the present has been with his environment. He has had to tame nature and harness her forces, To do this effectively he has had to learn to think scientifically about those forces: the result is epitomized in physico-chemical science and its brilliant application. To-day and the future, man’s chief concern must be increasingly with himself. With his very success in the conquest of the environment has come a new danger. Unless the civilized societies of to-day improve their measures for regulating human reproduction, for controlling the quantity of population, and at least preventing the deterioration of quality of racial stock, they are doomed to decay and to be submerged in some new barbarian flood. To achieve this man must at last consent to think scientifically about himself and the intimate facts of his life, instead of surrounding every vital problem with taboo or prejudice; and in this task, biology must be his chief servant.”

I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions of these paragraphs – do you think they are still relevant in contemporary science communication?

Book reference: Julian Huxley (1937). Essays in Popular Science. London: Pelican. pv-viii. 

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