Brand Science is dead, and it’s time to break up the company

Ask us what we mean by “science” and you’ll find us a little circumspect. In fact, we think the word “science” is close to useless.

This might seem odd, given we work at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. You’d think we’d be pretty keen on science – and we are.

But “science” is an ambiguous word, an over-complicated cipher used as often to denigrate and marginalise as to motivate and embrace.

The term does a great disservice to we who wish to see greater public awareness of the processes, knowledge and capabilities of science.

So here’s our call: stop using it. What do we mean by this? Exactly that: let’s stop using the term “science”. Or at least, use it much more judiciously.

What does “science” mean?

Even formal definitions, arrived at by scientists and philosophers over the centuries, are far from consistent. Depending where you look, science is:

  • a process whereby knowledge is produced via the testing of falsifiable hypotheses against empirical observations of the natural world.
  • the body of knowledge given over by that method.
  • a culture encompassing normalised ideals and expectations of its adherents, existing beyond the mind and lifespan of the individuals involved.
  • an industry (the definition most frequently implied in modern usage).

Informal perceptions of the word are even more diffuse. Science is, among other things:

  • that horrible class in Year 10.
  • the arcane and obscure dalliances of people in white lab coats.
  • the grafters behind the magic of the Ponds Institute.
  • the thing that makes iPads and flat-screen TVs.
  • something doctors use on people.
  • the confusing, technical, did-not-read material in government reports.
  • a universal good.
  • a universal bad.

Science, as a brand, is less like Apple and more like ACME, the catch-all company behind the coyote’s vast array of paraphernalia in the Road Runner cartoons. It can, and does, mean almost anything.

As a result, it communicates many unknown, and possibly unknowable, values and beliefs: it can enthuse and repel, horrify and delight. To scientists, the word is a shining endorsement; to others, a savage indictment.

So we in the science and science communication realms have to ask ourselves what’s important. If we’re to enhance public awareness of, or engagement with, science, what should our mission be?

Is it simply to garner support for Brand Science? Is it to vigorously strive to imbue Brand Science with positive thoughts and feelings, so that saying: “I’m a scientist” at parties ensures copious adulation, attention and intercourse?

We say that the most important thing is that people have the skills and knowledge to access the information they need to make the best possible decisions in their lives. In ways that make sense. And this begins with offering the best possible chance of knowing where to start.

But burying huge swags of information and processes under a blanket term as vague as “science” does not help this mission.

Think about it. What would motivate someone to google “science”, other than a philosophy assignment?

When we want to know things that are important to our day-to-day lives, we seek information using words that are personally, contextually and specifically relevant to our needs at the time. Want to know about a disease: type its name. Want to know about pigeons: type in “pigeons”.

It’s just as bad using the word at the institutional or governmental level. What does fighting for “science” funding mean? Is mathematics included? (Some say yes, others disagree). What about political science? (Get ready for an extremely heated debate there). Rather than clarifying, the term actively creates confusion and disagreement.

The word “science” is as meaningful, and meaningless, as “thing”. And like “thing”, resorting to using it is kind of lazy.

So it might be time to be more specific and relevant, less general and lazy. Let’s strive more to define what we do in terms of the problems, or the pursuits, we identify as worth undertaking, rather than resorting to easily ticked boxes such as “science”.

It’s something we have to do if we want to reveal the many wonders and delights that Brand Science encompasses, but that many would not even realise are part of the brand.

Brand Science has had its day – it’s time to rethink our marketing.

The authors are from the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) at the Australian National University.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published by The Conversation, here, and is licenced as Public Domain under Creative Commons. See Creative Commons - Attribution Licence