Something ticked off the lifetime to-do list: I have managed to get the words “anti-quackery underpants” into a scholarly publication. An encyclopedia. This encyclopedia. It’s page 586 of volume two, if you’re interested, part of the entry on Popular Science Media.
It’s these underpants I’m referring to; the ones sold via badscience.net. I noticed recently that SciCurious has just gone into merchandise too, including underwear. This is just a funny and recent example, my broader point is that the popularisation of science exists across a range of platforms and is something (at least some) people like to buy.
The term “popular science” is a bit weird. We might take it quite strictly as a category of contemporary bookselling (i.e. the sign above Dawkins and Hawkin at Waterstone’s), but historically the term means a lot more than that. It has a sometimes uncomfortable relationship with both scholarly and popular media, and in a way, is quite explicitly neither. As such, it can be quite slippery to pin down, but as I attempt to define it in the encyclopedia entry, popular science is:
science to be consumed in our free time, largely for personal rather than professional reasons. It is science for fun: to experience the wonders of nature, learn more about an issue which is important to you, on a friend’s recommendation, or simply because a piece of promotional material caught your eye.
The underpants example help demonstrate the way in which popular science may exist on a range of media platforms, but also how inter-connected popular science media is. It spins-off from one format to another (and has done for centuries): blog to book, magazine to blog, museum to magazine, book to toy, live show to toy, toy to museum, museum to book, documentary to live show, book to documentary, documentary to book, live show to book, book to blog, blog to underpants.
I also wanted to use the underpants to emphasise that popular science as something audiences enthusiastically buy into. People queue round the block for science, they sell out the Royal Albert Hall, they sign petitions because of it. Ok, so we might argue that it’s still a very limited group that do such queuing/ buying/ signing, but science has its fans. Again, this has been going on for centuries. I think this is important to remember this. Scholars in the field often conceive of popular science as if it exists largely to let science show off; that it only invites non-scientists to play so as to reinforce a boundary between those clever professional scientists and everyone else. Read thus, one would wonder why the audiences of popular science would bother. And they clearly do bother. And they come back, again and again. And they buy branded pants (and calendars – the weridos). We might argue that popular science does still patronise it’s audience through it’s very existence, but audiences seem to feel they are getting something out of it too
(For the academically minded, I’m referring to the slight difference between Hilgartner’s take on the subject and Fyfe and Lightman‘s. Personally I both apply and take some scepticism to each of those approaches, and in addition like to fold in Bourdieu’s approach to cultural consumption).
My encyclopedia entry is nothing especially profound. It’s a basic primer. If you are interested in the topic, the entry’s list of recommended readings includes:
- Fyfe, A. & Lightman, B. (eds) (2007) Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.
- Gregory, J. & Miller, S. (1998) Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility. New York & London: Plenum. Chapter six.
- Hilgartner, S. (1990) ‘The Dominant View of Popularization: Conceptual Problems, Political Uses“, Social Studies of Science, vol. 20(3): 519-539.
- Leane, E. (2007) Reading Popular Physics: Disciplinary Skirmishes and Textual Strategies. Hampshire: Ashgate.
I also wrote the Communicating Science to Children entry. Obviously, everyone should read that too because <irony> it’s seminal stuff </irony> but I’m aware this encyclopedia is a couple of hundred quid (it’s very much a publication for libraries). I have a paper from 2008 on a similar topic you can download for free (pdf).