Science Four Ways?


Still from Woman in the Moon (1929, Fritz Lang) (via Walking on the moon without spacesuits!

Portrayal of science and scientists in media and film has for generations misrepresented what we do and who we are. Caricatures of the lone mad scientist toiling in the laboratory might capture our passion, but miss an essential point – that science is a social endeavor that can benefit society.

But are there four different kinds of science? A recent book suggests that there can be science four ways.

Lab Coats in Hollywood – Science, Scientists, and Cinema” by David A. Kirby (MIT Press, March 2011) suggests that there is science “four ways”:

• “public science” – the kind of science that the majority of the public is likely to know;
• “Expert science” involves facts that, if disregarded, only provoke irate letters from people like readers of Science;
• “Folk science” is science that people think is true but isn’t;
• Lastly, “unsettled science” covers the vast area where science is either silent or has not reached consensus.

How best selling authors or film and television directors navigate these four “kinds” of science while maintaining a compelling story line has a profound impact on how science and scientists are perceived by their audience. Kirby’s thesis is essentially that communicating the cultural meaning of science trumps that of absolute scientific accuracy – essentially what I maintain – that communicating the value of what we do is of utmost importance.

I note that much of the science blogosphere focuses on battling “folk science.” I would rather focus my energies on exploring and articulating “unsettled science” as it unfolds.


  1. #1 CM Doran
    May 18, 2011

    This book sounds interesting…unsettled science….interesting term. I too like the unsettled–because it’s part stepping back and looking at a situation, part deciding how to study or portray it, and part being able to say “I don’t know, but these things [x, y and z] are interesting; here’s what we need to discover”….isn’t this a scientist’s motivation? Thank you for writing.

  2. #2 TheBrummell
    May 18, 2011

    All four of these ways appear to be using the word “science” to mean “a collection of facts”. Where’s the way dealing with science as a way of knowing? It’s a (set of) methods, not an encyclopedia of facts!

  3. #3 Ender
    May 19, 2011

    “All four of these ways appear to be using the word “science” to mean “a collection of facts”. Where’s the way dealing with science as a way of knowing?”

    You mean the scientific method? The one we use to obtain scientific facts?

    It’s a (set of) methods, not an encyclopedia of facts!”

    Yes. You definitely mean the scientific method.

  4. #4 TheBrummell
    May 20, 2011

    Yes. You definitely mean the scientific method.

    Indeed I do. My question stands: why are all of the 4 ways about facts, science as a noun, and none about method, science as a verb?

  5. #5 Ender
    May 25, 2011

    Because that’s what the subject was!

    There are no comparable methods to “public science”, “Expert science”, “Folk science” or “unsettled science” because those aren’t methods, he wasn’t talking about methods, and methods are irrelevant.

    Why do you choose to talk about the scientific method when he is talking about scientific knowledge? Is it because you don’t realise that ‘science’ can refer to both these things?

New comments have been disabled.