Science, Media and the Public

(Also taught under title "Introduction to Science Communication")


In 2002 the Geological Society of America sent out a Press Release about geologist Kevin Pope's challenge to the theory that dust from an asteroid impact caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. News media from the Guardian to Radio 4 to BBC News picked up the story. Other geologists responded to Pope's claims in newspapers, on the radio and on television. A Time magazine article about this story contained a still from Dinosaur (2000) with the caption, "Even Disney has accepted the asteroid theory." implying through its caption that a Disney film works as a cultural barometer to the acceptance or rejection of scientific thought. The Time article showcases the uphill battle Pope faces to get his scientific ideas on the map since "even Disney" accepts the asteroid theory. Pope is not only fighting other scientists, but also previous media representations, created with the help of scientists who accept the asteroid impact theory, in the news, on the internet and in movies such as Deep Impact, Armageddon and Dinosaur. Realizing that "even Disney" is treating the asteroid theory as "scientific fact," Pope reached out to the public and other scientists through alternative communication routes: sending out a press release to promote his findings.

This episode clearly indicates that science communication is a much more complex process than merely publishing in scientific journals and attending scientific meetings. It also raises some fascinating questions about the nature, contexts and goals of science communication. Why was this particular story picked up by the media? Why was a respected scientific institution sending out a Press Release? How does a Disney film relate to scientific research? Introduction to Science Communication examines these types of questions as it explores the structure, meanings, and implications of science communication. Today the sciences are linked to society through many different channels of communication. The public interfaces with science during controversies on science and technology issues that involve scientists as well as journalists, politicians and the citizenry as a whole. Therefore, we will look at the contexts in which science communication occurs including the "public communication of science and technology" (PCST). We investigate the motivations of and constraints on people involved in producing information about science for non-professional audiences while analyzing the functions of public communication of science and technology. We will also try to link knowledge about PCST to research in communication more broadly, in order to develop new knowledge about science communication. To broaden our understandings of PCST we will construct our own public communications about science and technology.