World's Fair

Preface | Pt. 1 | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3 | (Sidebar 1) | Pt. 4 | Pt. 5 | Pt. 6

Pt. 7 | (Sidebar 2a) | (Sidebar 2b) | Pt. 8 | Pt. 9 | Conclusion

This post was written by new guest blogger Jason Delborne.*


George Cruikshank (1836), A London Audience, from Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The notion of the “public” often surfaces when we think about science. What does the public understand about science? How can we improve the scientific literacy of the public? Is there such a thing as public-interest science? How should the public hold science and scientists accountable? How do research findings affect public opinion about issues that relate to science and technology?

But I would argue that the public does not exist in a meaningful way – frankly, it just isn’t that useful to contemplate the whole of humanity in one big chunk. Better to consider the existence of many publics.

When politicians attempt to measure public opinion, for example, do they seek out the chronically infirm, the homeless, or middle school students? Of course not. The “public” that matters to them includes voters and especially those individuals likely to participate more actively in the political process. In fact, pollsters construct a public each time they sample opinions, to a greater or lesser degree according to the logic of those seeking information from that poll. The boundaries created by that construction – including some, excluding others – have repercussions for the allocation of power and resources. If felons can’t vote, why should legislators take their complaints seriously? Some do, of course – either because they have a moral commitment or because they recognize that parents and spouses and children of felons vote. But the point is that the exclusion of felons from the “public” creates structural barriers to considering their needs and preferences on par with non-felons.

So what does this have to do with science? I’m interested in scientific controversies, and empirical research in science and technology studies has found that scientific “truth” does not emerge from an objective and comprehensive consideration of the evidence. (This is much as Ben has been discussing recently, here and here, with respect to the very concept of objectivity and its historical contingency.) Instead, science is a social process. Recognizing this does not diminish the value or status of science in society; indeed, such a perspective enables a conversation about the trust we have in scientists to use their expertise to create reliable and useful knowledge. Those that fret over science’s social basis actually set science up on a pedestal that wobbles precariously with the most basic historical or sociological inquiry.

It follows, then, that scientific controversy is not just about what is true, but who determines what is true. Moreover, questions about who gets access to that truth and when matter a great deal.

A useful metaphor to capture this complexity is the notion of audience. An audience is the public that has access to a particular performance of science – a performance can be experienced live or through virtually any type of media. The repercussions for analysis are several:

  1. The term “audience” reminds us that all performances are bounded – spatially and temporally. Just as there is a difference between acting in a play, seeing a play, and reading a review of a play, so also is there a difference between performing scientific research, reading a journal article, and reading a citation to that article in another text.
  2. Audience members are not random collections of people. Ticket prices, marketing practices, and the location of the venue affect who has access to the performance. Likewise, the particular practices of science include and exclude people. Those included – by design, or happenstance – have the potential to participate in making sense of a scientific controversy. Those excluded may lack access to the evidence and may never even know that a controversy was occurring.
  3. As any actor knows, an audience plays more than a passive role. The energy of the audience members, their applause, their fidgeting, and even their suggestions (improv theatre) greatly affect the content of performance. Scientific audiences also have such power. Especially in scientific controversies, the audience created by one performance often “takes the stage” to enact a new performance, which constructs yet another audience. (The language of “framing,” while useful in the narrow sense of strategies for scientific communication, misses this more complex interaction.)

What matters here is that we avoid the twin traps of thinking of the “public” as undifferentiated and passive during scientific controversy. The metaphor of audience reminds us that multiple audiences can be constructed around scientific performances, and that these audiences have the potential to participate in the creation of what counts as true and why it should matter.


*Jason Delborne earned his doctorate from UC Berkeley’s department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. He was awarded a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship from their program in Science & Society, and he currently conducts research on the National Citizens’ Technology Forum on Nanotechnology at UW Madison. The above material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0525104. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation (NSF).


  1. #1 wjg
    January 10, 2008

    Great post. It seems that, to a very large degree, the Errol Morris essays (blogged by Ben here) both reveal this kind of audience-informed participation in truth (Sontag’s reference to pictures not included in her essay; curators’ appeals to “obvious” aspects of Fenton’s psychology and the nature of photographic aesthetic construction) and participate in it (his own carefully tracked assumptions, his choice of NYT blog as medium of transmission, the over 1000 responses to the blog catalogued beneath the entries themselves, and the footnotes of later blogs referencing those self-same responses). The truth of the photos, but more importantly the truth of the nature of photography.

    Scientific truths, and the truth of the nature of science. Nice.

  2. #2 Rebecca Haden
    January 11, 2008

    Excellent points here! It seems to me, though, that it isn’t possible to ignore one central point about science and the public, and that is that the overall level of scientific knowledge is very low. Unless we are thinking about a very specific and limited audience, we have to admit that most Americans, including educated, intelligent Americans, do not have enough background in the sciences to evaluate public science reports. This means that people whose performances are about science have more responsibility than those who write about sports or cooking or literature, or any of the many topics on which we can assume a certain level of shared information. Most readers have to accept what they read about scientific controversies on faith, and many of those who write about scientific controversies for the public do not themselves have enough background to evaluate the information they are reporting.
    I can’t help but feel that this is a special problem for scientific controversies on topics, such as stem cell research, for example, which can affect voting and other responsibilities of our citizens.

  3. #3 Jody
    January 15, 2008

    I’ve been thinking about the post for the last couple of days. Contrasting framing with audience has been something that has really stuck with me. I’ll offer two quick anecdotes. First, in a writing seminar I offer to freshmen (mostly) I stress the need to understand and address various audiences (not publics). The class is mostly (but not entirely) comprised of science and engineering students. My hope is that by catching them early I can combat the stereotype that they are bound to encounter and adopt over the course of their training that “the public” is “scientifically illiterate” and therefore can’t be trusted to contribute anything of value to debates about science. Rather, by putting the conversation into the context of audience, we read and practice writing for different audiences, which requires different kinds of efforts. Audience here, as you point out, is inclusive, rather than the exclusionary role of the public. Contrast this with a course I recently taught on nano and society. Here, by an interesting confluence of events, I ended up with students mostly from either 1) STS or 2) the university’s business school. It was an interesting semester. In the nano class, we read a lot about “framing” of science for “the public” (and sometimes publics). Many of the students (especially the business students) really latched onto the framing stuff. Why? It sounds like marketing. It’s about understanding your potential target group and giving it to them. It’s unidirectional: I produce; you consume. Something about the whole framing thing has always rubbed me the wrong way; watching this unfold in class emphasized why that’s the case. Asking scientists to “frame” their science better isn’t about creating more democratic science, more participatory science, or more engaged science. It’s about scientists selling themselves better. It’s a continuation of everything that went wrong with the public understanding of science movement.

    In trying to think about how to put all of this together, I keep thinking of the opening to Foucault’s _Discipline and Punish_ where he contrasts the execution of the man convicted of attempting to kill the monarch and the prisoner instruction. The transition from execution to incarceration was felt not just but the convict, but by the whole of the society. In the former setting, we are an audience, a participatory not passive role. Power is only substantiated through our acceptance of it. Refusal to participate is a challenge to the system. In the latter case, the audience is removed. We are instead a disarmed, disenfranchised public. We cannot see what happens. We are merely asked to accept it. The same of course is true in science. An audience participates, a public is merely asked to accept.

  4. #4 The Urban Scientist
    February 24, 2008