PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology


'Information transfer', 'translation' or what?
A constructivist contribution to the theory of science communication

Hans Peter Peters   Forschungszentrum Jülich, Germany

Arlena Jung   Forschungszentrum Jülich, Germany

Frequently, scientists complain about inaccuracies and biases in the public communication of science. Classical analyses (e.g. accuracy studies) interpret these communication problems as regrettable side-effects of simplification, prejudices or incompetence of science communicators (e.g. science journalists). From a constructivist point of view, however, these "distortions" are just the tip of an iceberg and point to the more general phenomenon that scientific and public constructs of science and its research objects differ – and need to differ in order to make sense in their respective contexts.

The paper wants to contribute to the discussion about the theory of science communication. It starts with the provoking proposition that scientific knowledge is usually incomprehensible and meaningless outside of science. It criticizes common metaphors like "information transfer" or "translation" that hinder a true understanding of science communication, feed unrealistic expectations, and lead to suboptimal communication strategies. The paper then outlines an alternative concept of science communication that accepts the fundamental difference of scientific and lay constructs and makes suggestions for the possible contributions of science and the role of scientists in the formation of public constructs.

In this concept the audiences of science communication and their information demands are the crucial points of reference. Unlike the information transfer model, in which "accuracy" serves as internal criterion of successful communication, the constructivist communication model lacks internal quality criteria. Such criteria thus have to be defined externally. The paper argues that the utility of knowledge constructs for their users is the key to assess the quality of science communication. However, since there is no universal way to define that utility it has to be determined either empirically – what do users expect from science communication? – or normatively, drawing on concepts like the "well-informed citizen" or "scientific citizenship".

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.