Revisiting the web model of science communication How to deal with information instability, diversity and controversy
Kristian H. Nielsen
More than twenty years ago Bruce Lewenstein, based on his study of the cold fusion controversy, proposed a web model of science communication. Today, in a networked world of web-based communication, Lewenstein's original idea that "the complexity of interactions among all media" must be taken into account seems almost "too obvious" as Alice Bell recently noted. This paper reflects on Lewenstein's model and raises questions about its current implications for the world of science communication.
Lewenstein suggested that the emergence of electronic media and the permeable boundaries between traditional and non-traditional modes of science communication would have ambiguous effects. The surfeit of information made possible by new and more channels for science communication would produce added complexity and confusion. It would lead to increased information instability and potentially to misjudgments in science and the public sphere. Conversely, the scientists involved in the cold fusion saga seemed to make good use of many different sources of information, and, Lewenstein added, easy access to all sorts of information could have hastened the time needed to form sound scientific judgments.
Lewenstein's web model depicts communication in science and public communication as relatively haphazard and highly interconnected processes. Still after twenty years, this idea merits recognition. It also means that science communication researchers should strive to make all links in the web of science communication amenable to research, not just those that are being enforced strategically by scientists, public information officers and reporters. As important as studies of science communication in the mass media and social media are, they need to be complemented by more research into the more peripheral corners of the web. For science communicators, the web model encourage emphasis on the diversity (and controversy) involved in scientific communication.