Posted by: soniahs | September 19, 2010

Exam readings: Popular science books and journalism

I’m starting in on my next list of readings, on science communication (for exam 2). Yes, I’m still prepping for exam 1. So yep, I’m busy…

The next few summaries will all be chapters from Handbook of Public Communication of Science & Technology, which is overall a fairly thorough overview of the field. I’ll be posting them a few at a time, starting with some material on genres of science communication.

First, “Popular Science Books” by Jon Turney:

Summary: Turney describes the historical development of the genre of popular science books, which he defines as books “intended to convey non-fiction truths” to non-specialists; the level of technicality can vary widely in this genre. According to Turney, books are versatile, cheap, allow extended exposition, and have cultural cachet. The book form is a cultural constant, and has developed over time, having evolved from specialist journals within scientific disciplines. Early attempts at popularization were highly technical (e.g., Newton’s Principia). A few books have been both technically important and popular (Origin of Species), but there has been a divergence between straightforward science and exposition in the genre. Widespread higher education starting in the 1970s has led to a boom in the field. Both scientists and non-scientists are popularizers. The study of popularization has several foci: political impacts of pop sci books, how they depict science, and the rhetoric/explanation of complex concepts. Recently, there has been more consciousness within the scientific community of how popularizations are received; this has led to both increased critique of these books and more scientists writing their own books.

Comments: While Turney is (over?) optimistic about the future of the book (from the perspective of a humanities program), it seems to be the case that there’s a renaissance in pop sci publishing right now. The book format lends itself to narrative development, suggesting that it’s good for storytelling about discoveries and people.

Next, “Science Journalism” by Sharon Dunwoody:

Summary: Dunwoody focuses on mass media, as the main post-formal education sources of science information (especially the Internet.) She outlines the history of science journalism: in the late 19th century, magazines, when popularization was part of the job of scientist; in the 20th century specialization and professionalization led to negative opinions of popularizers form professional societies; by the 1980s, began to see specialized science writers/journalists, esp. in space race and environment (though only ~2% of stories about science issues.) Today, the science writing field is print-oriented (including online media), with the majority of stories about biomedical issues (“news you can use”). Coverage on TV reinforces themes of certainty and “sacredness” of science. Journalistic norms: episodic (hard to discuss process), news pegs, mainstream ideas presented (either scientific or editorial establishment), and scientists as “white knights”/problem-solvers. She also identifies several trends in the field: the shift to the Internet requires new skills (timeliness, multimedia, competing narratives), scientists with media training can influence journalists, and need to be responsive to audience desires in face of declining readership and shifting media use. Another issue is appropriate training: both formal sci. journalism training and years on the job make journalists effective.

Comments: Identifies key problem areas from science perspective; these are areas of discussion among scientist media commentators. First, objectivity and balance: when reporters can’t judge competing science claims, the default is to offer more than one viewpoint (thus giving both viewpoints validity- e.g., global warming). Second, accuracy, which is typically related to level of detail and omission of detail: while scientists read articles as scientists & focus on what’s missing, the public actually does tend to pick up on the main messages.



  1. the ‘book’ is valuable in presenting mysteries and questions in multi-sensual forms – i have been working with two-letter words – how do they visually relate to one another – what kind of story can one formulate from these two-letter words? what is the visual stimulation from non-random letters? when pronouncing these two-letter words what ‘feeling’ is generated in the body? what happens when one traces the shapes of individual letters of the words?

    of course i am coming from a book-arts perspective – the book as object with desirable content

  2. And of course the science communication perspective is more toward the book-as-information-container perspective than the book arts perspective. There’s definitely a trend towards making the medium of communication transparent, rather than foregrounding it, in this tradition…


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