20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Philosophy of Science

Is Popularization of Science Possible?

Gustaaf C. Cornelis
Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussel, Belgium

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: If the philosophy of science wants to pass along its views adequately to the public, it is important that the latter have a basic general understanding of science. Only in this way can "popularization of science" be meaningful from a philosophical and educational point of view. Is "good" popularization a possibility or merely a utopian phantasm. I conclude that popularization of science is possible if certain conditions are met. Scientists have to take responsibility and be honest in their efforts, both toward science as well as the public.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Popularization of science is nothing else than an endeavour to image scientific ideas in such a way that everyone (especially non-scientists) can grasp the fundamental concepts and have an idea of what science in essence is. Of course, no one really knows what 'science' is, not even the scientists themselves. Philosophers trying to describe what the scientific method could be and others trying to put down what the scientific method should be, found out (it took them a lot of time) that there is nothing like the 'one and only' scientific approach. The impossibility to give a distinct and unique definition follows. Nevertheless, the phenomenon 'science' and its results do exist. Although nobody can tell exactly what 'science' is all about, everyone should have an idea anyway. The question at stake here is whether this is possible and, if so, to what extent.

Mapping Science

Let us take the following into consideration. The best map one can make is, evidently, a scale 1:1 parallel projection of the surface one wants to chart. But such a map is clearly lumpish to handle and quite superfluous. In extremis, the most accurate image of an object is the object itself. Mutatis mutandis, an attempt to popularize science should then present science as it is. Ilya Prigogine strongly adheres this position (Prigogine, 1996). A 'good' book on general relativity theory is then nothing else than a complete historical overview (in extenso) of all papers on the topic. However, the reader is then supposed to be a scientist (already), which makes the whole enterprise unneeded.

So, one has to take the confined capabilities of the possible reader into consideration. Since the reader is not a scientist, a 'translation' has to be made, making science more accessible. Besides this, also a selection is imperative, because the scientific domain is quite vast. Inevitably, a (major?) part of the information to get a reasonable complete view of science is lost in the process. One cannot give a full account of science.

However, according to Carl Sagan (1996), it is possible to popularize science to a great extent, by means of a comparison of science with baseball. All fields of interest-from Newtonian mechanics to sociological models-can be effectively explained in this way. But doing so, the difference between the disciplines tends to disappear. The reader might well understand Newtonian mechanics and several sociological models by means of an analogy, but will certainly fail to understand science itself. There is more to understanding science, than merely the comprehension of the respective contents of the disiciplines.

Out of all this, free interpretation results. In two ways, popularization implies necessary interpretation. Firstly, since there is no 'standard interpretation' on hand, the author of a vulgarizing book has to write down his/her view on science and scientific matters alike. As Dennis Dieks wrote regarding the popularization of quantum mechanics "For the science popularizer [] there is no 'scientific picture' which he can attempt to represent with as little distortion as possible" (Dieks, 1996, 167). Secondly, the reader makes an interpretation of his/her own. The distance between 'science' and the layperson seems to get bigger and bigger.

Still, popularization seems to be possible. It is possible to popularize all specific scientific ideas (one at a time), it is possible to show how a particular specialist works (one at a time). Ideal popularization is therefore possible, taken that the reader has enough time (to compensate the loss by selection) and taken that enough popularizers can be found to adequately present the scientific content (to compensate the loss by translation). The key to all this is time indeed. Which should not be surprising, since every learning process takes lots of time. Hence, popularization of science does not have to be utopian. But are we on the right track with the existing attempts?

Some attempts

In 1991 David Lerner published his "The Big Bang Never Happened," a first class example of a wrong type of popularization. Lerner, a science journalist, came up with a strange but viable idea, seconded by a couple of astronomers. However, without any sense of selfcritique, the thesis that standard theory was completely crazy was presented by means of a popular work on astronomy. The title was-from a publisher's point of view-brilliantly chosen. It is always exciting to everyone to hear that a standard theory is becoming overthrown (another example is Boslough's "Masters of Time. How Wormholes, snakewood and assaults on the big bang have brought mystery back to the cosmos."). 'Science', i.e., standard science, seems to fail. Hence, presenting non-scientific thoughts as scientific ones in a popular manner and at the same time scorching a standard view, the layperson is harshly misled. Furthermore, with one particular standard view down the drain, other established theories (in other fields of science) could loose their convincing power as well, just because they are 'standard' theories. In this context, it is good to know that standard big bang cosmology is not what most of the people think it is. It is a rather humble theory, based on the Hubble-relation (taking into account several parameters, which means that the redshift does not necessarily imply an overall expansion). The theory tries to fit this and a few other empirical facts (like the cosmic background radiation) into a consistent whole. The parametrization makes it a very flexible theory (standard theory, for example, does not predict a specific age for the universe), still easy to falsify.

"A Brief History of Time," Stephen Hawking's 1988 best-seller, is an example of an excellent popularizer. Following the advice of his publisher, Hawking only kept one formula in the book, since every mathematical expression would have halved the sales (White, 1992, 222). In view of popularization, it is, of course, very important to reach a public as broad as possible. Hawking succeeded in this: in 1997 a twenty first revised edition appeared.

Do the sales make good popularizations? Yes and no. Pseudo-science has even better sales-figures and can hardly be recognized as good popularization of science. It is equally important that the content of the book is unbiased, non-speculative and clear, and regards standard science. Hawking's 1988 attempt makes a high score. It is objective, perspicuous and objective. With one exception: Hawking does not state that his thoughts on the arrow of time are speculative.

In 1994, the CD-ROM titled "A Brief History of Time. An Interactive Adventure" appeared. Without effort, one can now discover Hawking's universe. The complete text is online and animated graphics make the most complex concepts crystal-clear. But two disadvantages must be considered. For one, the CD-ROM is not available to everyone. And secondly, the majority of the users will read the book only partially. As far as the content goes, it is an superb popularizer. It's the medium that doesn't satisfy.

The twentieth edition of "A Brief History of Time" was a revised edition. Hawking includes the latest theoretical ideas and empirical results in this version (which is no longer a pocketbook edition). Most importantly, though, the book is illustrated with beautiful photographs and lucid diagrams. The benefit is evidently twofold. Pictures magnetize the layman and, after the book is bought and one starts reading it, they make understanding very easy. The illustrations of the first edition seem to be very cheap in comparison with the latest publication. The new text though doesn't differ much from the original edition and the style is still the same: very transparent and fluent.

All this contrasts sharply with Hawking's "The Nature of Space and Time," a book he wrote with his close friend and colleague Roger Penrose. Actually, the book is a compilation of a series of talks, a debate between the two authors, held in 1994 at the University of Cambridge. The result is unfortunate example of bad popularization. Needless to say it didn't serve the popularization of science, nor its audience. The text is obscured by ambiguous, sometimes even shabby illustrations and very complex formulae (tensors and differential forms!). Only graduates in mathematics or physics can grasp the whole story. This shouldn't be a problem if the book wasn't presented as another 'best-seller' written by the most famous popularizer of science!


Lerner's publication shows that popularization is hazardous: pseudo-science lurks. The layman, intrigued by science and eager to learn, doesn't know and should be protected. But how? Popularizers should take an effort to present science objectively, making sure that the distinction between science and pseudo-science (if we don't know what science is, we still could tell what it isn't) is clear. Any confusion should be avoided, so I agree with George Gale when he writes that "We should avoid wherever possible the more speculative aspects of today's cosmology. Although it is possible that it is just these aspects of cosmology that the public most desires, we have here a case in which forbearance is the best policy. This, because, cosmological speculation is just that: speculation. And speculation is not science; indeed, it is not even popular science. We serve our audience and ourselves badly when we mislead them by presenting speculation within a scientific context." (Gale 1996, 180)

However, from a methodological point of view, speculation is fundamental in cosmology. According to Ilya Prigogine, it is necessary to present science as adequately as possible (Prigogine 1996): ideally presenting science as it is done, in its own language. Therefore, speculation cannot be left out of the picture. When Hawking described in "A Brief History of Time" his own particular view on time, a view which still remains very controversial, he showed the layman that science is still developing and depending on speculation. But the layman couldn't make the difference. So, although the book is certainly a very good popularizer (at least because of its distribution), Hawking should have flagged clearly his latest views as highly speculative. Anyway, Hawking's "Brief History" shows that 'scientifically correct', 'ideologically acceptable', 'effective' or 'objective' vulgarization of science is indeed a reachable ideal. It is most important, though, that the authors are clear about their own views and don't use popularization for their own purposes.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


John Boslough, Masters of Time. How Wormholes, snakewood and assaults on the big bang have brought mystery back to the cosmos. Dent, 1992.

Gustaaf Cornelis, Popularization of Science. The Democratization of Knowledge in Perspective. Communication and Cognition 29 (2) 1996.

Dennis Dieks, "The Quantum Mechanical Worldpicture and Its Popularization" in Cornelis 1996, 153-168.

Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time. Bantam Press, 1988/1997.

________, A Brief History of Time. An Interactive Adventure. CD-ROM (created by Jim Mervis and Robit Hairman), Blasterware, 1994.

________ and Roger PENROSE, The Nature of Space and Time. Princeton University Press, 1996.

David Lerner, The Big Bang Never Happened. Simon and Schuster, 1991.

Ilya Prigogine and Gustaaf Cornelis, "Unity between Science and Culture." In Cornelis 1996, 239-248.

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World. Science as a candle in the dark. Headline, 1996.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Back to the Top

20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to the WCP Homepage