Public Awareness and General Understanding of Science and Technology


The need to raise awareness and a greater general understanding of science and technology is now irrefutable as we live in a world increasingly dominated by science and its applications. Sadly there is still a great deal of misunderstanding and ignorance of science and technology mirroring in many ways the continuing problems with the basic skills in literary, numeracy and information technology capability. I fully accept that many of the following issues have been aired before but hope this article will trigger further constructive debate on this important subject. Schools, colleges and universities have a major role to play in this endeavour but with the need to establish a culture of lifelong learning other agencies must be involved and that most certainly includes the media. I prefer to use the expression ‘general understanding of science and technology’ as opposed to ‘public understanding of science and technology’. The latter can reinforce the false demarcation between science and the public namely between a sect or guild of scientists and the stereotyping of the rest of the populace.

The commentators/communicators.

So, who should be the key players to bring about a greater understanding of science and technology? One view held is that practising scientists and technologists and researchers should take the lead. Many commentators argue that these practitioners should be trained to become more effective communicators and money allocated from research funds to facilitate this for those individuals who wish to engage in this activity. I fear this approach is somewhat flawed, as many of the researchers are understandably reluctant or unable to communicate their subject to members of the public. Researchers want to conduct their research and are not necessarily required to explain their discoveries, hypotheses and theories. Many feel that the very act of attempting to do so debases and dilutes the purity of their subject. It is one of the elements of the Guild of Science that is often perceived as a closed and somewhat inward-looking academic community, and I would argue in many cases should be respected. Effective communicators are a rare breed who have to possess a very special range of talents, especially in such a complex multicultural and multidimensional topic as raising general understanding of science and technology.
Other approaches need to be explored when attempting to communicate a wider understanding of scientific and technological advances and developments and there possible impact on the world. Joseph Needham used the wonderful expression ‘an ecumenical universe of science and technology, valid for every man and women on the face of the earth’. I take this to mean that science and technology cannot be divorced from other subjects. The evolutionary roots of science and technology are multicultural and they are very much multidimensional subjects and interact with art, experience, history, philosophy, politics and religion. Joseph Needham showed these important and crucial connections and bridges in his seminal and monumental work ‘Science and Civilisation in China’. An essential element must be the evolution of the subjects and also the critical contributions made by other civilisations e.g. Chinese, Greek, Indian, Middle Eastern and Roman. Joseph Needham succeeded in building bridges between different disciplines, civilisations and nations. Too often the media, books and science commentators adopt a western centric approach where other cultures’ contributions are underplayed, ignored or dare one suggest, the authors are themselves ignorant about.
This is not to say that there have not been some gifted scientists, commentators and popularisers of science and technology. Names that immediately spring to mind include Frank Close, Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, Martin Rees , Russell Stannard and the late great Jacob Bronowski but there are, sadly, very few and I feel this kind of proposal will not bring about the hoped-for changes. Very often non- scientists who possess an enthusiasm for the subjects can be the best communicators of science and its associated dimensions. A good example of this are Melvyn Bragg’s radio programmes and the subsequent publications based on the broadcasts.

Role of the mass media.

The mass media have a significant role to play in raising awareness and a critical understanding of science and technology in society. This is particularly the case at present with issues of global warming, possible flu pandemics, genetic engineering, GM foods, possible health hazards of mobile phones and mobile phone masts and water shortages. Too often for example TV programmes use hype and whiz bang approaches with special effects and theatricalisation of events that often trivialise the significance of the issues. They are too eager to impress the viewer, further reinforcing the sense that science is mysterious, weird and incomprehensible. The media too often fail to inform and encourage insight and critical analysis in the readers and viewers. Too often the media are only interested in stories and sadly scientific and technological research has become fair game just to provide mere stories. A recent example was the launching of the hadron accelerator at CERN where a great deal of the information given in the media was the possibility of the generation of black holes and the destruction of the earth! Too often the public are confused with contradictory and paradoxical statements as a result of the reporting of research findings in the media and on the internet and is often at a loss to make a balanced judgement on the issues presented. Surely popularisers should be explainers, stimulate and sustain curiosity and bring about general understanding in scientific and technological issues and topics that can be related to people’s lives. One particular challenge for the communicators is to avoid trivialising the subject or patronising the audience in their explanations. They should transmit the basic concepts and relate them to applications of science and technology.
Programmes on cosmology e.g. the big bang, black holes and natural history e.g. dinosaurs, theories of evolution attract large audiences. But surely the fundamental question raised by these well received programmes is whether or not they add to the general understanding of the basic concepts and principles that underpin science and technology? Such programmes awake interest and curiosity and offer real opportunities for building bridges from that to a greater and more sustained general understanding of the underpinning scientific and technological principles.
Two fascinating subjects associated with linguistics namely lexicical complexity and information theory highlight some of the factors that figure in communication in both the written and spoken form. I will only briefly mention some elements that relate to the issues associated with communication of science and technology and  cannot hope to do justice to this fascinating area of linguistics .For example information theory identifies some of the problems that popular science and technical journals and newspapers have when attempting to communicate information about science and technology. Science and technology, by, definition, can be dominated by specialised jargon and abstractions. Information theory has shown that different languages, general and specialised, possess a wide range of so-called redundancy, namely that the same word can have different meanings. For example the English language possesses great richness and this has evolved over a long period of time. The English language is high in redundancy and has as a result allowed its literature to possess great richness and super abundance in its vocabulary and in the skilled hands and imaginations of many writers has created a highly admired tradition. After all many dictionaries and Roget’s Thesaurus identify and map the evolution of the meaning of words that are continually changing but scientific and technological terms and words remain the same. This is because scientific and technological terms and words must have specific and unchanging meanings. A simple example is in the words mass and weight. In everyday language these words are used loosely but in science have precise and different meanings. Other examples are energy, force, pressure, strain, stress and work. Clearly in addition to these very fundamental words science and technology like many other disciplines create their only specialised languages.
A fascinating piece of research on lexical complexity in 1992 by Hayes attempted to quantify the degree of lexical complexity by carrying out a careful analysis of the proportions of jargon and uncommon words in various publications. Hayes assigned an arbitrary scale, for example, to English newspapers, 0 being the average. Any value under 10 is considered to be a typical day’s read and comprehended by the majority of the population.
He computed a range of values for a typical day (3rd June 1992) and these were as follows:
The Sun -11. Daily Mail -2.7. The Economist 0. The Times +3.4. The Guardian +5.5. The Financial Times +9.6.
He then extended his analysis to scientific journals:
Nature attracted an index of +40 and Scientific American, often perceived as effective reading material for the lay person, had an index of +15. Other more specialised journals had indices in excess of +50.
Obviously these high scores are understandable, but ensure that only specialists can hope to comprehend the content of these publications. The critical issue and challenge for the general understanding of science and many elements of technology is how journals like the New Scientist, Scientist American and other publications can communicate the concepts, ideas, theories and hypotheses to the general reader. A real challenge now is the management and transmission of such information on the internet where often little refereeing or validation is exercised. Not easy, because science and technology have their own language, with zero or little redundancy and the additional need to use mathematics adds to the challenge and difficulty in communicating the reality of the material. This challenging prospect, I feel, merits more research if we are to improve the way we create a greater awareness and general understanding of these strategically important subjects.
A continuing concern is how the public perceive scientists. Too often a particular stereotype is projected by the media, in films, television and the press. This in some ways reached an apogee in the brilliant portrayal of Dr Pretorius – played by Ernest Thesiger, in James Whales’ classic film ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ – an eccentric, frizzy haired, white coated individual obsessed with his research with little regard to the impact of his work on society. This image continues, although not so extreme, when science spokespeople appear on the media to explain some of the high profile cases cited above, they often come over as being distant and unable, certainly unsuccessful in communicating the basic ideas to the audience.

The role of education and training.

The role of education is critical in sustaining and developing an understanding of science and technology but perhaps some of the problems could arise from negative experiences at school, namely the impression that science and technological subjects are difficult when compared with other subjects. It is too often taught in a mathematical and abstract fashion. Many people cannot easily relate to scientific and technological ideas. Science is both practical and theoretical and at school and college, students are required undertake practical work, but the results are already known and usually reinforced by the presence of a text book stating the method, procedures and the result! It is therefore not surprising that many people perceive science as absolute and pre-determined and not much to do with curiosity. The heuristic approach developed by Henry Armstrong used a more open ended research-like methodology that could support a more sustained and clearer understanding of the subjects. Practical work should involve greater use of field work and the resources of museums and scientific and technological theme parks. As increasing numbers of people, particularly young people, access information from the internet on such sites as Wikipedia there is a need to develop a greater critical faculty in students so that they question the validity and authenticity of material on the internet and go in search of wider evidence.
Measuring performance improvement.
Another factor is how to gauge general understanding of science and technology? I have problems with some techniques to assess improvement and understanding, many of which ultimately resort to league tables and performance indices. After all we seem at present to have performance indicators and league tables for practically every activity in this country or are in the process of jettisoning them.
So how do we assess and gauge the general understanding of science and technology and its improvement over time? Simple questionnaires or surveys reduce the exercise to a form of Ask the Family, Who Wants to be a Millionaire or Mastermind. Most often these require just simple recall about the names of planets or who discovered gravitation etc. The crucial question is the person’s wider and more substantial understanding of the topic. This shows development of a critical faculty and the ability to more fully appreciate the foundations of the information and what it means through analysis, reflection and synthesis. This in a sense brings us full circle, and possibly there now needs to be a re-consideration of what we mean by the word understanding in this context.
Science and technological advance is not helped by the advocates and supporters of para-science and the doom merchants who assert that science and technology is destroying the planet and scare mongering about the end of the earth. It’s headline grabbing news but it does not improve the image of the subjects or engender a greater understanding of the issues associated with these often important issues.


As our lives become ever more dominated by science and technology the critical issues associated with science and technology become more important, indeed essential. It is a great challenge for the science community, the media and equally important for all people in education and training, to start building the bridges from the inherent interest and curiosity in science and technology that people possess to a greater understanding of these important subjects. Whatever happens, it clearly is important that we continue to seek ways, through formal and informal education and training and lifelong learning, to bring about a greater general understanding of science and technology among the public and it is essential that we ourselves know what the word understanding means in this context.
This article is an updated version of two previously published pieces that appeared in ‘Technology Innovation and Society’ titled ‘Public Awareness of Science and Technology’ published in Summer 1996 and ‘Bridges to Understanding’ in ‘Science and Public Affairs’ published in December 1999 . I am grateful for permission of the original publishers to use large sections of the earlier material.
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