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Sound Science for the Masses

The Science Critic: A Critical Analysis of the Popular Presentation of Science. Maurice Goldsmith. Routledge & Kegan Paul, New York, 1987. 217 pp. $29.95. From time to time, experts concerned about the public's generally poor understanding of science propose to solve the problem by creating a new profession called science critic. By science critic these experts do not mean the consistently negative science gadflies like Jeremy Rifkin. Rather, they mean specially trained professionals, like art

By | March 9, 1987

The Science Critic: A Critical Analysis of the Popular Presentation of Science. Maurice Goldsmith. Routledge & Kegan Paul, New York, 1987. 217 pp. $29.95.


From time to time, experts concerned about the public's generally poor understanding of science propose to solve the problem by creating a new profession called science critic. By science critic these experts do not mean the consistently negative science gadflies like Jeremy Rifkin. Rather, they mean specially trained professionals, like art or literary critics, who would present to the public a balanced view of science.

British science writer Maurice Goldsmith argues that science critics are urgently needed to bring society to a new level of sophistication about science. Given the challenges of modern times, Goldsmith writes, the old forms of communication between science and the public are no longer adequate. Journalistic accounts of science tend to be gratuitously negative and scientists' accounts defensively optimistic. Science critics would counteract this superficiality with broad vision, in-depth knowledge and detached judgment.

What Goldsmith seems to be saying is that the public would appreciate science more if the relationship between the scientific community and the public were more open, more familiar, more human. To the extent that the scientific community keeps its distance, it creates fear; to the extent it resists criticism, it creates suspicion.

In advocating more open cooperation between science and society, Goldsmith's views are consistent with those of many observers. In proposing the science critic as the means to that end, however, he is on shakier ground. He leaves many questions unanswered. Who would qualify as a science critic, and who would decide? Would MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum be too negative? Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan too enthusiastic? And if such critics were a separate, specially trained group, rather than practicing scientists or journalists, who would pay them?

More to the point, would these critics really have much impact on the general public's knowledge and appreciation of science? Most of the public does not read art or literary criticism, or science news. Would science criticism be any different?

And why create a profession? Are there not some people doing an admirable job of science criticism, by Goldsmith's definition, right now? Goldsmith does not indicate whether he regards anyone living today as a science critic in his sense of the term, but others would argue the case (while still others would disagree) for both Sagan and Weizenbaum, and many others.

Goldsmith's actual description of his proposed profession of science criticism covers only five pages of the text. Most of the book is devoted to Goldsmith's impressions of past and present attempts to communicate science to the public, presumably to establish the need for critics. Having been a science writer and editor in Britain for 40 years, Goldsmith gives mixed reviews to newspapers, magazines, books, television, film, radio, museums, science fiction and the educational system in the Western world, and a low assessment of the prospects for science literacy in the Third World.

More than half the book consists of appendices. The first section gives data on British and American science writing associations and awards, some of it inevitably out of date. The second section gives examples of science writing, about half from his own work, showing a trend away from "straight reporting of science" and toward "seeking to express the social impact of science and technology."

It is not clear for whom this book is intended. It is too diffuse and incomplete to be a useful introduction to the field of science communication, yet offers little that is new for those who have previously studied the issues.

Still, for people who specialize in communicating science to the public, the book has a positive value much like that of sitting down with the author for a long, leisurely lunch, during which he offers a smattering of useful anecdotes, reminiscences and opinions based on his years of experience in the field, and then gives his visitor a stack of material to take home.

Goodell is an associate professor of science writing at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139.

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