Let's Defend Popular Science

I happen to think pop science gets a bad rap. It's regarded as dumbed-down science at best, or unreadable if not dumbed down (but seriously, how is Scientific American considered unreadably technical?).

I can see how this bad reputation comes about; it's difficult to balance the deep technicality of science with the ability to entertain and inform a public largely unfamiliar with these technicalities. This isn't to say that the average person is stupid - in fact, patronising your audience makes for terrible science communication and angry reactions - but to say that science is heavily specialised. Writing about specialist concepts for a general audience is hard, and it takes time. So most of the people doing it aren't the people who have been working in these fields. In fact, they're unlikely to have any scientific training whatsoever.

In an age where most people won't go a day without using some kind of scientific achievement, good popular science is more than just desirable - I'd argue that it's a necessity. To make good decisions about your personal health, or your energy consumption, or the way you approach the world, you need some measure of scientific literacy. This is not a question of elitism or having had enough of experts; this is a question of simply needing the tools to interpret the evidence. Having these tools isn't encouraged, because it doesn't do politicians or business any favours. It does you - an individual trying to survive - a favour. It does you one of the greatest favours there is: a toolkit to assess all the bullshit coming out of the world. It matters, dammit.

Even for people with scientific training, good popular science can still be valuable; while it might not provide the mathematical detail, it provides a good conceptual base and a strong narrative to organise information. While textbooks and papers have more technical detail, they're also not suited for casual reading, or for reading for long periods.

Finally, good science communication inspires people. The universe is a huge and beautiful world, with wonder to be found everywhere you turn. Good science communication reflects this - in fact, it finds the words to describe this where another might stand dumbstruck. It inspires people to do something bigger, to learn about our universe, to work on understanding it, to teach others - or simply to improve oneself.

We need popular science - whether to give people the tools they need to avoid being swayed by charlatans and bullshitters, to help provide a strong conceptual foundation or to inspire people. A world where science is utterly inaccessible to the general public is a world of the worst elitism and snobbery and separation. As flawed as popular science may be, it is still vital.