Science Communication: Education or Appreciation?

By Michael Edmonds 17/06/2011 5

One of the things I enjoy most about science is learning how different things work. I like to learn the details, the interesting and esoteric facts about a topic, and I like to learn about how it fits into the “bigger picture.” Science truly fascinates me.

When communicating science there is sometimes the tendency to assume that everyone else is like this too. That everyone wants to know the details, the intricate, fascinating and the esoteric. However, this is, in my experience seldom the case.

I also love music. However, a lack of fine motor skills, no sense of rhythm and being tone deaf, and an inability to read music means I possess few musical skills and know very little about the underlying theory of music. Nor am I particularly interested in learning about it. Yet, I still have a deep appreciation for music. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned in this when it comes to science communication and the general public.

When we create a public talk or exhibition, are we planning to educate the public or do we want to create an appreciation for science?  Focusing on education may bog us down with too much information, turning off the majority of people. Perhaps instead, science communication needs to be light on detail and focus on the wow factor? The flashy, the weird, perhaps even what we would consider the inconsequential?

Granted, appreciation and education are not completely separate entities. I would expect that activities that create appreciation would also incidentally educate. And I think we should always be ready with more information for those in any audience who find science as fascinating as I do.

Like music, I suspect there is a large majority of the population who are not interested in understanding the details of science. However, this does not mean that they cannot appreciate science.

5 Responses to “Science Communication: Education or Appreciation?”

  • Couldn’t agree with you more. Most people get turned off by too much explanation. On the other hand if they are shown something interesting, they might be fascinated and would want to learn more. Maybe appreciation is the way to go. We dont need a world full of scholars.

  • I’d suggest it’s both, and that an ‘either/or’ is as equally unhelpful as privileging one style of communication over another. To me science communication is primarily a means of achieving an appreciation and background knowledge and understanding required to collectively solve societal issues – the education, the context, that enables citizens to participate in deliberative discussion to solve those issues. (Science communication as or for the purpose of engagement – appreciation in the sense of the awe and wonder inspired by the natural world and human scientific experimentation and technological advance is secondary – potentially useful if the communication is to be strategic – but still secondary). In my experience most people seek more information when they are presented with science in social context.

  • Nicely put, Vivienne.

    I certainly wouldn’t want to advocate an either/or approach as without educational/factual content science communication becomes a form of entertainment.

    I probably should have said in my blog that “focusing TOO MUCH on education may bog us down with too much information, turning off the majority of people.” It a tendency that I’ve noticed many academics/scientists can fall into if they aren’t careful. When you are so interested in a topic, it is too easy to forget that while other people may be interested in an overview they are not interested in the details. (And hopefully if scientists can come to grips witht his concept so can avid sports fans 🙂 )

  • Ah but the beauty for most is still more often in the detail. Humans are curious fixators… how many are really sucked in by even the most eloquent of overviews? And in terms of utility of science communication: by far the most successful utilitarian schemes are linked to a deep aesthetic … is it not more often the beauty that drives us to learn and act?

  • A good science exhibition should have several layers – something flashy to catch attention, and more info and depth for those who are interested or already have some knowledge of a topic. So I would suggest a science communicator should be aiming to both foster appreciation and to educate.

    I totally agree that some academics/scientists fall into the trap of too much information. And then “appreciation” is lost. I was shown a presentation recently focussing on a company’s innovations and technical advances. Heaps of info, presented using smart, interactive technology, but it didn’t engage or excite me. Wonderful science and great stories but buried in a mass of facts.