The public face of philosophy

On 8 March 2018, we held a workshop on the public face of philosophy, featuring Julian Baggini, Steve Bramall (SAPERE), Christina Easton (LSE), and Gail Cardew of the Royal Institution.

Julian, Steve and Christina all made interesting and insightful contributions, and I may return to them in future posts.  For the moment, I want to record a couple of things that Gail said.  She is Professor of Science, Culture and Society and Director of Science and Education at the Royal Institution, and I invited her because I want philosophy to learn from the experience and expertise of science communicators.  Science communication is a profession in its own right with journals, higher degrees and careers paths.  There is a whole world of people communicating science at events like STEM fairs, in addition to high profile professors of the public understanding of/engagement with science.

Gail discussed the history of this field and the problem of finding a word to capture what it is supposed to achieve.  Can the public be expected to understand science, in any meaningful sense?  Perhaps not, so replace ‘understanding of’ by ‘engagement with’.  But engagement is a rather undemanding term that sets low and vague success-criteria.  It was evident that she regards this as an unsolved problem.

She said two things that stuck with me:

  1. Science communicators are trying to move away from a deficit model in which the public are taken to be in a defective condition of ignorance and unrigour, and the role of the science communicator is to repair this deficiency.  This model fails because many of the public are experts and in any case no-one likes to be patronised.
  2. Science communication bodies such as the Royal Institution do research into public attitudes towards science and scientists.  For example, there is research on the extent to which the public trusts scientists.

On the first point: philosophers, be honest.  How much of your public engagement is premised on some version of a deficit model?

In place of the deficit model, Gail proposed an approach to the public that she summarised thus: Go to where they are.  Speak the language they speak.  Help them change in ways they want to change.

On the second, it should be embarrassing that so far as I know there is no research on public attitudes towards philosophy and philosophers.  According to Gail, there’s a lot of talk about ‘the public understanding of science’ but not enough about ‘scientists’ understanding of the public’.  My anecdotal feeling is that philosophy is much worse in this respect (but I have no empirical data…).


EDIT: Pat Stokes has already been there and done it:

Stokes, P. (2017). ‘Science communication and the public intellectual: a view from philosophy’. JCOM 16 (01), C03.


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