Is popular science harmful to ‘real’ science?

Amy Wong

From TV shows like “Bang goes the Theory” to podcasts like “The Infinite Monkey Cage” and even blogs like “IFLscience“, popular science takes many forms in current pop culture. It even has its celebrity idols such as Brian Cox and David Attenborough. Once aimed at a niche audience, popular science now fully engages the general public. For example, the very first episode of the BBC’s “Wonders of the Universe” gained viewing figures of a staggering 6 million people and the overall series was received well worldwide. It seems science is now fashionable. The age of the ‘geek’ may be nigh but should society embrace it?

I, for one, think it’s fantastic more people are taking an interest in science. It is my belief that everyone should have a working knowledge of science in the same way it is expected of people to have a basic grasp of numeracy, grammar and politics. Science is an essential tool to understanding the world around us. However, where does society obtain this ‘working knowledge’? As a Natural Sciences undergraduate, it is easy for me to assume science is accessible to the general public. But not everyone can have, or even wants to have, a higher education in science. Plus, the compulsory GCSE in science  doesn’t result in people self-identifying themselves as scientists any more than I consider myself an artist or a historian. It becomes apparent that the role of popular science isn’t merely to entertain the masses — it is not just a pastime for us to share. Popular science is how the majority of people learn about the rich world of science. The stakes are higher than they first appeared. But does popular science generate an enlightened population or a bunch of misinformed ‘know-it-alls’?

The public have indeed been captivated by the wonders of science however the important question is whether they are better educated because of it. Many criticise popular science for being inaccurate and misleading. It is a sad truth that by presenting material in a way that is palatable to the mass public, crucial information and the beauty of the subject can get lost. Take the controversy over Brian Cox’s televised lecture “A Night with the Stars”. Many members of the scientific community criticised his explanation of the Pauli Exclusion Principle where he stated that no two fermions can occupy the same energy level rather than the quantum state. The choice of words was ambiguous, and the science was presented unclearly. Nonetheless it must be remembered Brian Cox was attempting to explain the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics in under an hour, which is certainly no mean feat. The subject matter had to be simplified somehow, and the general gist was still present. Surely we can forgive him for one minor inaccuracy? Probably, but we should not do so lightly.

No matter what discipline is explained to the general public, there will always be some level of ‘dumbing-down’. After all, we cannot all be experts in all fields. What differentiates science from other subjects is that it claims to consist solely of facts. When we scientists exhibit our knowledge, we exclaim this is how the world works. We do not present opinions or a perspective, but what we consider truth. So when facts go astray in the ether of mass media, should this not concern us? The very essence of science is being lost and is now open to interpretation to anyone.

Returning to the example of “A Night with the Stars”, a group of people took his explanation of quantum mechanics to mean that every particle in the universe, and therefore our consciousness, is interconnected. For those uneducated in physics, this inference was not a large leap. The concern is when inferences build it causes the spread of false information. Instead of an ignorant public, we now have a misinformed public, and the latter can be far more dangerous. Perhaps science is simply too hard to explain to those without a background in it. The alternative is to leave the ‘real’ science to scientists, but then what is the point of popular science at all?

In an ideal world, popular science should be truthful, enlightening, and entertaining. This notion should hold true for whatever the media: books, TV shows, radio podcasts, magazine articles, etc. Also, no matter what level the science is at, there must always be a careful balance of facts and fun. There is no point in presenting a subject if your audience is not engaged and equally, there is no point in an interested audience if your point fails to be made. Luckily, popular science often achieves this balance. Think about the numerous YouTube channels that present scientific concepts in easily digestible chunks; notable examples are “SciShow” and “Sixty Symbols”. The concept of popular science is sound, and it only ever fails when execution is poor. In addition, there will always be naysayers in the scientific community ready to demonstrate every flaw of popular science. We must remember popular science is not aimed at them, the ‘experts’, but to the general public who just wish to learn. We scientists must put aside our innate elitism and welcome popular science with open arms. Overall, popular science helps more than it hinders; it encourages more education than ignorance.

It does seem like the rise of science in popular culture has encouraged people to take further education in science. According to the Guardian, the number of students taking physics at A-level has risen by 19.6% in the past five years. The Institute of Physics reckons this is because the subject is now seen as fashionable. A career in physics was once regarded as exclusively for middle-aged men in lab coats. Now the area is associated with far more exciting areas like space technologies and computer game industries. Nevertheless the recent surge in science undergraduates has not been proven to stem from the trendy persona science now sports. There could be several reasons for the increased popularity of science. Perhaps students seek degrees in areas where job prospects are still relatively high, especially after the tripling of fees in 2012.

The popularity of science might just be a passing trend, but at least for now science is being perceived by the public as something cool as well as useful. As a scientist, I love my subject and welcome anyone who shares my passion. Popular science allows science to be accessible to all audiences. There will always be ‘know-it-alls’ ready to criticise every error in popular science but at the end of the day, more people than ever are engaged with science and are encouraged into science education. That is a win for both science and society.


Is popular science harmful to ‘real’ science?

One thought on “Is popular science harmful to ‘real’ science?

  1. kangkan says:

    Hi Philip,
    This thing crossed my mind as I was scanning through youtube and came across a lot of lectures on human behavior. I do see a certain danger in “oversimplifying ” science.My two main concerns are
    1.Poor public understanding of probability: In my experience,concepts that most people in the field take for granted like a probability distribution,sample error,explained variance.stochastic inference is poorly understood by public. Thus a statement like” an exposure to particular stress factor in early childhood accounts for 65% of the variance in another adult behavior” is often misinterpreted that as “the particular childhood stress factor is a necessary and sufficient condition for occurrence of the particular adult behavior “. This is a common example from my field. I find this especially frustrating.
    2. Also,in my opinion, students should expect to work hard while trying to understand scientific concepts. I think oversimplifying them opens them up to future disappointments.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s