long . lines and ripples

Scientific Publics

I am not a scientist, but a hobby can sometimes bring you near a scientific community. For example, birding, astronomy, fishing, and amateur radio are all activities that have led me to learn a practical version of scientific principles, to follow press releases about new scientific work, and, on occasion, to look into actual scientific publications. What I learned is that scientific communities have distinct ways of relating to the public, and that the meaning of “the public” changes, depending on the activity that leads ordinary people to care about scientific work.

The issue of how science communicates with the public gets a lot of attention these days, largely because of one pressing issue: climate change. But the idea of a scientist “communicating with” the public is also a narrow model of the relationship between science and the public: science knows things, and people receive that knowledge. This has to do in part with the nature of a “science” of “climate.” The climate is everywhere, we all feel it and live with it. Yet the scientific study of climactic patterns can lead to conclusions that run contrary to common-sense knowledge (e.g., more snow associated with warming, the occurrence of random variation in weather versus climate trends, etc.). So climate scientists find themselves in the position of telling a public, which “participates” in the climate through the living of ordinary human life, things that the public thinks it knows, but doesn’t really, at least not in a rigorous, systematic–scientific–sense. Science becomes a scold, and the public a child. Because everyone knows something about the climate, scientists are in a position of working against the public’s intuitive and strongly-held ways of knowing. And the public, on this issue, is everyone on Earth.

I have no suggestions about how to fix this. But it has occurred to me that there are other ways that science relates to a public, and that we can give a more detailed picture of a “public” for other scientific work that is different than the amorphous and recalcitrant public for climate science.

Science as Government (Fishing)

In the fishing world, ecologists and biologists do scientific research that contributes (1) to a model of fish habitats and (2) to knowledge about actual fish populations. Ideally, this research informs the regulations that govern the sport. So this public, largely people who fish casually, is almost like a citizenry, and the scientists provide the legitimacy to the government that makes the laws. There is also a more hardcore subset of the public that wants to know how and why fish behave, because this makes them better at catching fish. Science supplies practical knowledge to this group, which wants better tradecraft. Overall, science is relevant to sport-fishing because it shapes how the sport is practiced. The fisheries biologists supply their public with (1) regulations that put guardrails on public activity and (2) expertise that improves practical knowledge of how to fish.

Science as a Museum (Astronomy)

Astronomy is a case where there is usually a great distance between science and the public. Modern astronomy requires big, state-level budgets, complex institutional support, and prohibitively deep training in mathematics and physics. The “public” for astronomy is made up of two groups. First, the amateurs with the backyard telescopes, who look with aesthetic appreciation at the same deep-sky objects that have been known to science for hundreds of years. Second, an uninformed set of laypeople, whose interest stops at journalistic write-ups about exotic supernovas, giant stellar collisions and, of course, aliens.

The activities of professional, scientific astronomers generally give the amateurs a body of knowledge that has no parallel in the amateur world. Scientific knowledge does not conflict with intuitive knowledge of the cosmos, so much as it builds a structure for it, broadening the sense of what the universe even is. Scientific astronomy suggests something so huge and strange that the only rational response is amazement. Astronomy create a museum of its discoveries, and the public walks the halls in wonder. The astronomers and physicists are the benevolent curators of this knowledge. Because they speak about worlds and forces that might as well be fantasy, about timescales and distances beyond the concerns of the human lifespan, they are generally received by the public with respect, fear and pleasure.

The Scientific-Public Partnership (Ornithology & Birding)

A third example is birding. This is one of the most interesting communities because, I would argue, the general hobbyist birder has a closer relationship to the scientific community than almost any other example I can think of. In some birding books I come across, I am unsure whether they are primarily intended for a scientist or the general public.1 Take a page from this book from 2019 by Roger F. Pasquier, called Birds in Winter, which was published by Princeton University Press:

Supplemental feeding may also influence the subsequent spring’s breeding schedule and success. When half the Song Sparrows on Mandarte Island, British Columbia, were provided supplementary food through one winter, there was no difference in survival by adults and only inconclusive evidence that more young with access to the feeders survived. The following spring, pairs with territories where there had been feeders began laying eggs 25 days sooner than the unfed pairs, but their broods were the same size and the later-nesting, unfed pairs fledged more young (Smith et al. 1980). A similar experiment with Blue Tits ( (lyanistes caeruleus) in County Down, Ireland, found that even when winter supplemental food was cut off six weeks before normal egg-laying dates, the birds that had had the benefit of additional food began laying eggs 2.5 days sooner than the control population. Their clutch and subsequent brood sizes were no greater than those of tits that had foraged entirely in the wild that winter, but they fledged an average of almost one more chick per nest (Robb et al. 2008).

Roger F. Pasquier, Birds in Winter (2019), P. 133

Rarely will you come across a literature review, with citations to scientific papers and the detailed results of recent experiments, in most publications meant for non-specialists. But this text, which is representative of a genre of mixed-audience writing, has something to offer both public and scientific practitioners. It indicates something about the study of ornithology itself, which requires great care–and considerable cleverness–in experimental design, familiarity with the existing research, the resources and ability to carry out sound fieldwork, and in some cases statistical and/or genomic expertise. But the nature of the scientific work itself–unlike, say, astronomy or climate science–is not beyond the grasp of the average human intellect.

The author of this book, Roger Pasquier, works at a museum in the ornithology department, but is not a credentialed scientist (he has an undergraduate degree in Art History!). Yet he could nonetheless organize, if not synthesize, a whole segment of research, on the habits of birds in winter, and bring it into a single summary that gives both scientists and the birding public a resource. One could use the book in ways more or less rigorous, depending on your needs: to keep track of current trends in scientific literature, or just skim it broadly to gain an overview of its themes. Either way, the book is emblematic of the cooperation between ornithologists and birders: birders collect sighting data for use by scientists, scientists do studies which tell you more about something happening in your backyard, and so on. It is one of the best examples I have seen of a scientific community in exchange with its public; both have knowledge to offer and scientific expertise provides context for a process whose complexity always exceeds the ordinary pleasure of observing.2 People spot rare birds all the time, and that work informs scientists; scientists, for their part, study long-term trends that inform the hobbyist birder’s understanding of the individuals that she encounters in the field. The two sides work together, each with their own aims that work, by intention or not, in support of the other group.

  1. There is also an older tradition of birding that is more naturalistic and impressionistic, about the experience of watching birds in their habitat[]
  2. Birding also has a niche for a third type of person between the scientist and the public, someone who I will call for now an “expert amateur,” a “naturalist,” or a “popularizer.” I am thinking of someone like David Allen Sibley or Kenn Kaufman. Making a mental note to think more about this type. []