The Arrogance of 'Pop Science'

Now that Time Inc. has sold Discover, its prize-winning popular science magazine, no major magazine or commercial television show started during the popular science "boom"

By Bruce Lewenstein | July 13, 1987

Now that Time Inc. has sold Discover, its prize-winning popular science magazine, no major magazine or commercial television show started during the popular science "boom" of the last decade has succeeded. What happened? And, more important to science professionals, what's going to happen?

The Rise and Fall

Between 1977 and 1986 nearly 20 new magazines, 17 new television shows, and more than 60 newspaper sections devoted to popular science appeared. Several of these new ventures breached the wall between products aimed at specific audiences and those intended for mass consumption by a general audience whose members hold nothing in common but their supposed interest in "science."

Of these ventures, the most prominent were three magazines (Discover, Science Digest, and Science 80, later 81,82, etc.) whose finances depended on commercial advertising. Science was to be an economic commodity that could be sold in the same way that skiing, sailing or city life are sold in magazines.

Not surprisingly, the new project excited professional science writers. Vocal about their support (through articles in the trade press and elsewhere), they helped create a media bandwagon. By 1980, the boom was on.

At first, signs were good as Science 80 doubled its expected circulation (to 700,000) and as Discover regularly sold more than 750,000 copies. But disturbing problems ap peared quickly, when a few magazines, such as Technology and SciQuest, folded by 1981.

Although some observers attributed the failures to magazine economics, others questioned the viability of popular science projects—especially those, like Science 80, which were supported by scientific organizations not primarily committed to popularizing science.

By 1983, the major commercial television series bad all been canceled. Then, in mid-1986, both Science 86 and Science Digest folded, their assets sold to Time Inc. Now, less than a year later, Time's own Discover has been sold, though it apparently is not dead. Once again, the media went into action, this time to declare that the popular science boom was over.

What Happened?

Most analyses have attributed the individual failures to a lack of advertising. This problem was especially pronounced after 1984, when a shakeout in the personal computer industry led to dramatic cuts in advertising.

A fundamental flaw in the economic structure of the mass-circulation science magazines exacerbated the advertising problem. As one advertising agency executive said, "We, the advertisers, couldn't read what was in the so-called 'science category.'

It had no unique niche. You have to meet a marketing need and they didn't do that." A less obvious problem was the magazines' very success. Maintaining magazine circulations is expensive, especially if they are above a "natural" level. Although the editors and publishers of the mass-circulation magazines claimed that they had loyal readers, several marketing studies and competitive analyses suggested that 300,000, not 700,000, would have been more viable levels of circulation.

Finally, the science magazines may have been too slick, too devoted to presenting science as a grand and glamorous pursuit of truth. They "suffered from the perception that they were irrelevant," said Owen Lipstein, publisher of American Health and former general manager of Science 80. "The science [magazines] were sometimes edited as though they were running for awards, not readers. They didn't contact the readers enough. 'What difference does it make to my life?' You always have to ask that."

Each of these reasons contributed to the folding of the mass-circulation projects, as did particular incidents and events that say much less about popular science publishing than about the management of individual companies and organizations.

But the perception of boom and bust is just one more sign of a media bandwagon that has obscured an underlying issue: the whole concept of "popular science" may be an arrogant mistake on the part of the scientific community. The fact is that "science" qua science is interesting only to science professionals.

Most people are interested in science only sporadically, or when it addresses their particular concerns. And, contrary to the perception of "bust," a wide range of popular science projects remains to testify to the depth of this continuing interest.

The number of weekly science sections in newspapers, for example, rose about three fold from 1984 to 1986. Many magazines re main healthy, especially those serving readers with specific interests or memberships, such as The Sciences, Technology Review, and Astronomy. Several new publications, including this one, have begun just as the boom has "ended."

Even on commercial television, science is finding a place. At least two networks have special science correspondents, and the magazine-format shows routinely include stories related to science.

But the image of boom and bust was tied to an assumption that if people only understood science, they would appreciate its value. Science itself is inherently interesting, this view of the world said, and the mass-circulation magazines would prove that. The continued success of only those projects that have identified specific audiences tells us that non-scientists often do not accept the scientific view of the world—and that it is their prerogative not to do so.

Our challenge for the future is to present science without demanding that non-scientists accept the scientific world view. To continue to present science only on its own terms is to continue the arrogance that led to the "bust" of the science boom.

Lewenstein is completing a Ph.D. in history of science at the University of Pennsylvania, 2155. 34th St., Philadelphia, PA 19104-6310. For more detail, see Science, Technology & Human Values, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 29-41, Spring 1987.

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