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My task is to address the question of how the scientific community views the public understanding of science and whether there needs to be a re-conceptualization of the challenge to foster the public understanding of science, and also whether there is a need to re-examine assumptions. I am compelled to begin by acknowledging a debt to an important book, Inarticulate Science, written by Edgar Jenkins and his colleagues at Leeds. Inarticulate Science is an outstanding contribution on the concept of the public understanding of science and I think of my contribution today on this topic as a footnote. My perspective is somewhat different in that I have school settings in mind rather than adult learning (also see Lewenstein, 1992). I want to address the question of how the science community should think about the public understanding of science with respect to what happens in schools; and by school I mean K-12 school plus the undergraduate science education of non science university majors. Also, I make my remarks from a cultural perspective in that I think it is important to think about how scientific ideas contribute to and influence the worldviews we construct for ourselves. Specifically, I am interested in science as an aspect of different systems of meaning that people construct for making sense of their worlds: "An aspect" of meaning because science is not the entire ball game except for a few people who chose to elevate science to the level of metaphysics; "different systems" because even among scientists there are differences as to how science is used in the construction of meaning. I also want to preface my remarks by noting that I am of course speaking from my experiences as an American science educator. What is happening in the USA, however, does not appear to be unique (see Gaskell, 1996; Sjøberg, 1996). For example, several industrial nations including Norway are involved in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (National Research Council, 1996) for what appear to be the same reasons. UNESCO is promoting Project 2000+ which has a parallel form in the USA. The slogan "Science for All" can be heard worldwide; but, I also think that given the enormous size of the American scientific and education establishments along with publishing interests that what happens in the USA can hardly go unnoticed or unfelt. Nonetheless I will be at pains not to appear overly Yankee-centric. The structure of my remarks will be as follows. I begin with a celebration of science but then move on to discuss what concerns the scientific community has about the public. From here I address the key problematic element within the scientific community itself, the epistemology of scientific positivism. This epistemology creates considerable difficulties for the community of science within the public square. Finally, I begin with the end. Let me say at the onset where I am headed. Yes, the science community does need to re conceptualize the challenge and re-examine its assumptions about the public understanding of science. The science community's historic perspective on the public is grounded in the legitimate interests of science; but, the promotion of the public understanding of science needs to be grounded in the public's legitimate interests in science. The distinction between the prepositions "of" and "in" is crucial and I owe this insight to physicist Martin Eger (1989). Eger's distinction is similar to Ziman's (1984, 1991, 1992) science insiders and outsiders, which was also adopted by Jenkins (1992) and Layton et al (1993).


SLCSP Paper # 146

Published Citation

Cobern, William W. "Public Understanding of Science as Seen by the Scientific Community: Do We Need to Re-Conceptualize the Challenge and to Re-Examine Our Own Assumptions?" Seminar for Science, Technology and Citizenship. Leangkollen, Norway. 18-19 November 1996.