Historical Moments: 1985, from Bodmer Report to Schaffer&Shapin’s work

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In the UK, where I am based, it is customary to highlight 1985 to students as a landmark for the public understanding of science movement. The reason often brought forward is that in 1985, the Royal Society’s report on the Public Understanding of Science, a.k.a the Bodmer Report was published.

Depending on your persuasion, diffusionist or social constructionist, the report either gave the PUS movement its institutional impetus, or it is the stroke that broke the camel’s back, prompting critical discussion of the report’s theoretical foundation: the deficit, or empty-teapot model of science communication. This model postulates an amorphous, passive, and largely scientifically illiterate public, whose appreciation and understanding of science will be enhanced if repeatedly exposed to the beneficial influence of factual knowledge.

Critics like Brian Wynne took particular issue with such un-nuanced characterising of “the public”. Audiences are multiple and varied, they said. They are not ignorant nor are they passive. Individuals encountering scientific knowledge in the public sphere actively produce an understanding based on their lived experiences, social, cultural, political circumstances. What is more, this knowledge ultimately contributes to science.

But as far as the scholarly community interested in the public understanding of science is concerned, such skirmishes were business as usual in the ongoing debate between diffusionism and constructionism. Had it been for the Bodmer report alone, 1985 would remain quite unremarkable. Yet, it seems that 1985 was a special vintage after all. At least two volumes appeared that year, both with a lasting influence on scholarly understandings of communication in and of science.

Read here the complete article.

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