Today the BBC radio news reported that a study showed that a high-fat diet actually prolonged life. On hearing this, some listeners may have breathed a sigh of relief (it was broadcast just before Christmas and the attendant overeating). Others may have been sceptical. Others may have wondered just what form the study took. But there was no time for that in a one-minute report. Every day the newspaper or radio news asks us to believe new pieces of scientific knowledge like this. People may believe and act on some of them: parents turn their babies over to reduce the risk of cot death; cooks use more olive oil to increase their intake of mono-saturated fats; or green consumers boycott deodorant sprays that contain CFCs that might harm the ozone layer. Or they may doubt what they hear, despite the scientific label on the facts: sheep farmers may remain sceptical about the uptake of Chernobyl radiation by their lambs, and diabetics may refuse to accept assurances about genetically engineered insulin being identical in its effects to the animal insulin they had been taking.
Our attitudes towards the authority of scientific facts are shaped in part by the discourses in which we encounter them. I will argue here that facts in popular science are endowed with an authority they did not always have within the specialist discourse from which they emerged. In the BBC report, for instance, the finding of the study was separated from any methods or sample that could limit the claim. This happens, not because of any desire to misrepresent, but because the narrative style of much of popular science—television documentaries, newspaper features, popular science magazine articles—emphasizes the immediate encounter of the scientist with nature, 1 whereas the narrative style of most scientific research reports emphasizes the concepts and techniques through which the scientist conceives of and delimits nature. Thus, despite the sense of impersonality and abstraction they may convey to non-scientists, scientific texts do, in fact, foreground the human and social elements of science. 2 One effect is that popular science texts do not suggest how scientific facts could be questioned or modified. That is one reason why non-scientists can have such difficulty in understanding scientific controversy or changes in scientific thinking.
In an earlier study (Myers 1990a: ch. 5) I compared scientific articles in