Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Summer 1998

Book Reviews

Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility

Veronica Calderhead
Physical Sciences Librarian
John Cotton Dana Library
Rutgers University
Campus at Newark

Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility. Jane Gregory and Steve Miller. New York: Plenum Trade, 1998. 294 pp. $29.95 (ISBN 0-306-45860-8)

A recent headline in The Chronicle for Higher Education states that "Americans Have Interest in but Ignorance of Science" (July 17, 1998). Jane Gregory and Steve Miller, authors of Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility, demonstrate that very little new exists where the popularization of science is concerned regardless of the information era. In fact, the levels of science literacy is neither declining nor increasing, however there are important distinctions to be made when referring to the public, there is no single monolithic 'public'.

The authors have compiled one of the most thorough and most readable surveys of science literacy in print. Moreover, the theory and philosophy of science information dissemination, the philosophy of informal science education, the role of different media are all presented using the most illustrative of examples. The authors take their examples from history and/or current everyday life, be it the glove of OJ or Faraday's Chemistry of a Candle, the layperson will recognize most, if not all, of the popularized illustrations.

Early chapters present the authors summaries of what science literacy and popularized science has meant over the centuries, and what it currently means for government, industry, academe and the populace. The authors do not assume any point of view; in fact, there is an excellent chapter that marshals the arguments for and against a scientifically educated public.

It should be noted that this book is not solely a listing or summarizing of all the programs that have existed and the impact of them. A discussion on power paradigms of scientific information demonstrates some exciting shifts, albeit resulting from unfortunate circumstances. Lay persons are finding themselves single area specialists in areas such as health and the environment; persons living with HIV and Aids, patients currently undergoing cancer therapies, environmental activists, are just a few examples of groups concerned enough to acquire a high level of science literacy. They have all demanded to know more, and in some cases have re-directed the scientists' research agenda. This demand is a grass roots example of a paradigmatic change.

It is difficult to find any stone unturned in this work. The critical reader will scramble to find examples or phenomena not discussed by this versed duo. Just as one clings to a topic they feel could counter a point in the book, the authors present the counter argument as if on cue. The reader who is seeking a point of view or a political leaning should look elsewhere. As mentioned earlier, this is a summary of informal science education not a position piece. The in-depth analysis of mass media and science journalism though goes beyond the typical review and summary treatment. The extensive and varied experience the authors (editor, science writers, professors, scientist, etc) bring to this book render it the most interesting of its kind, as well as being a real joy to read.

There is a curious lacuna in this work in so far as there is very little coverage of the web and its impact on science literacy. It is possible that like so many of the phenomena we encounter daily, its impact will be less than we think, nevertheless it would have been an interesting discussion.

The audience for this book is varied- every library, science, public, academic should consider this title. The price is reasonable enough that it allows all interested individuals to purchase a copy, rather than to queue up in what promises to be a long list of library users. The scientist, both amateur and research, the journalist, the student of science history, philosophy and sociology, journalism, communication, librarian and library science, the high school science teacher, are all potential readers. The survey of this topic is comprehensive enough to be considered a textbook example of the survey or review method.


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