Definitions

radicalness

Popular science

Popular science, sometimes called literature of science, is interpretation of science intended for a general audience. While science journalism focuses on recent scientific developments, popular science is broad-ranging, often written by journalists and is presented in many formats, which can include books, television documentaries, magazine articles and web pages.

Role

Popular science is a bridge between scientific literature as a professional medium of scientific research, and the realms of popular political and cultural discourse. It generally attempts to wield the authority of science, sometimes even on social and political issues, but in a manner different from professional science. Many science-related controversies are discussed in popular science books and publications, such as the long-running debates over biological determinism and the biological components of intelligence, stirred by popular books such as The Mismeasure of Man and The Bell Curve.

The purpose of scientific literature is to inform and persuade peers as to the validity of observations and conclusions and the forensic efficacy of methods. Popular science attempts to inform and convince scientific outsiders (sometimes along with scientists in other fields) of the significance of data and conclusions and to celebrate the results through epideictic rhetoric. Statements in scientific literature are often qualified and tentative, emphasizing that new observations and results are consistent with and similar to established knowledge wherein qualified scientists are assumed to recognize the relevance. By contrast, popular science emphasizes uniqueness and generality, taking a tone of factual authority absent from the scientific literature. Comparisons between original scientific reports and derivative science journalism and popular science typically reveal at least some level of distortion and oversimplification which can often be quite dramatic, even with politically neutral scientific topics.

Popular science literature is often written by non-scientists who may have a limited understanding of the subject they are interpreting and it can be difficult for non-experts to identify misleading popular science, which may also blur the boundaries between formal science and pseudoscience.

Common threads

Some common traits of popular science productions include:

  • Bridging the is-ought gap
  • Entertainment value or personal relevance to the audience
  • Emphasis on uniqueness and radicalness
  • Exploring ideas overlooked by specialists or falling outside of established disciplines
  • Generalized, simplified science concepts
  • Presented for an audience with little or no science background, hence explaining general concepts more thoroughly
  • Synthesis of new ideas that cross multiple fields and offer new applications in other academic specialties
  • Use of metaphors and analogies to explain difficult and/or abstract scientific concepts
  • Very limited mathematical formulas or complicating details

Notable popularizers of science

Some sources of popular science

Notes and references

  • McRae, Murdo William (editor). The Literature of Science: Perspectives on Popular Scientific Writing. The University of Georgia Press: Athens, 1993. ISBN 0-8203-1506-0

See also

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