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Popularizing science presents ‘grave’ problems

What is gravity, and how does it work? Those basic questions form the basis of an article, “The Gravity of the Situation,” in the latest issue of The American Scholar (not yet posted online).

Author Jethro Lieberman explains that the answers to the gravity questions might be too complex for popular understanding, even if experts knew all the details with certainty.

By the way, they don’t. Lieberman quotes science journalist Richard Panek’s 2019 assessment of the issue:

Nobody knows what gravity is, and almost nobody knows that nobody knows what gravity is except for scientists, and they know that nobody knows what gravity is because they know that they don’t know what gravity is.

Lieberman extends his discussion beyond gravity to incorporate other scientific concepts. While he doesn’t address climate science, it’s hard not to see parallels between the problems he describes and the damage done by scentific “popularizers” (I’m looking at you, Bill Nye) who preach that global warming alarmism is based on “settled” science.

The following passage from Lieberman’s article ought to serve as a valuable warning for all of us, including those with a better grasp of science than I possess.

Duck into any bookstore or search any online bookseller and you’ll find an ever-expanding section of popular offerings standing ready to initiate inquisitive readers into the latest scientific mysteries, and all without the need to understand math or have any feeling for experiment. (A growing number of websites offer the same.) It’s cheap, It’s easy. It’s entertaining.

It’s bogus.

… If you try to keep up with developments, the stories become so well worn that, in succeeding books, you begin to notice subtle difficulties that the authors gloss over. After some time, you might begin to suspect that the accounts they provide are deflections from reality, like starlight around the sun, because the popularizers are loath to admit that a subject that enraptures them has loose ends, vague contours, or gaping holes. These writers’ longing to instill in readers their own passion and even reverence for the science often overwhelms their prudence. Instead of giving their readers the whole truth, popularizers take to papering over theoretical weaknesses with jargon, fuzzy talk, or even outright silence.

And Lieberman doesn’t even mention the potential impact of politics or professional peer pressure. Add these factors, and the problems for popular science mount.

 

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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