Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Popular Culture

Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Popular Culture

Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Popular Culture

Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Popular Culture

Synopsis

Science news is met by the public with a mixture of fascination and disengagement. On the one hand, Americans are inflamed by topics ranging from the question of whether or not Pluto is a planet to the ethics of stem-cell research. But the complexity of scientific research can also be confusing and overwhelming, causing many to divert their attentions elsewhere and leave science to the "experts."

Whether they follow science news closely or not, Americans take for granted that discoveries in the sciences are occurring constantly. Few, however, stop to consider how these advances--and the debates they sometimes lead to--contribute to the changing definition of the term "science" itself. Going beyond the issue-centered debates, Daniel Patrick Thurs examines what these controversies say about how we understand science now and in the future. Drawing on his analysis of magazines, newspapers, journals and other forms of public discourse, Thurs describes how science--originally used as a synonym for general knowledge--became a term to distinguish particular subjects as elite forms of study accessible only to the highly educated.

Excerpt

Modern science seems to suffer from a paradox. Numerous observers have noted “the awesome authority that science possesses” in the western world. Sociologists Barry Barnes and David Edge have claimed that “in modern societies, science is next to being the source of cognitive authority.” Simply labeling a piece of information scientific has often commanded attention and respect, if not assent. Science has, by most accounts, become an especially powerful incantation in American popular culture, even to the point of inspiring supposedly “childlike faith.” As early as the 1920s, journalist Frederick Lewis Allen claimed that in the minds of the “man in the street and the woman in the kitchen” the “prestige of science was colossal.” In a variety of surveys, Americans have consistently expressed their positive views of science as an engine of progress and a force for good in the world. Popular movements, such as those that arose around eugenics and public health reform during the early 1900s, have occasionally clothed themselves in scientific garb. And American consumers have routinely demonstrated their enthusiasm for science-enabled technologies. By the closing decade of the twentieth century, anthropologist Christopher Toumey reflected that the symbolic power of science as a means to “answer any of life’s questions” was so great that American citizens respected it “as a kind of religion.”

It hardly seems any wonder then that many modern science watchers have concluded that modern science has “become too important to be ignored, even by those who do not understand it or who reject it.” And yet, Americans seem to have found ways to ignore it easily enough. Philosopher . . .

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