A Universe in Expansion

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
26 December, 2017
Editorial: 161
Fecha de publicación original: 30 marzo, 1999

One must draw back in order to leap better

Over the last fifteen years, I have taken part in numerous debates and forums on the social communication of science. At all of them, the burning questions were, invariably, whether information on the world of science in the mass media is good, bad, sufficient or insufficient; whether science journalists are born to the profession or learn it, and, in either case, how they relate to the scientific community; what members of this community think of how their work is reflected in the media; what the best means of increasing the volume of scientific information and teaching are, without falling into sensationalism, “headline-itis” and the other pathologies which seem to automatically affect scientific information; the need to fulfil these objectives as part of the learning process in a democratic society, etc. These debates, although it was not always immediately obvious, were fertile and bore some fruit. But, strangely enough, the debate has become stagnant. This is even more surprising when we take into account the powerful variable that the Internet has introduced into the world of the social communication of science.

These days, although we don’t live in the best of worlds, there is more scientific information in the media. Nevertheless, at the same time, the concern of scientists and communicologists has also increased because of what they call the “limited or trivial handling of the social communication of science”. Exactly what many warned against fifteen years ago. On the other side of the equation, however, there has been another noticeable change: there are more and more people interested in what is going on in the world of science and technology and, above all, the social communication of science.
Last weekend we were witness to another episode in this apparent disparity: The I Congreso sobre Comunicación Social de la Ciencia(First Congress on the Social Communication of Science), held in Granada on the 25, 26 and 27 March, magnificently organised by this Andalusian city’s Parque de las Ciencias (Science Museum). More than 400 participants faithfully attended the sessions, encouraged by the umpteenth confirmation of the divorce between the growing importance of science and technology in our daily lives, on the one hand, and the difficulty of integrating this process into a scientific culture on the level of public opinion, on the other. The very fact that the only new thing at these meetings is the number of people attending them, should make us sit back and think about what is going on.

The way I see it, the problem is not specifically one of the social communication of science, but instead of a communications models on which we make demands that can no longer be lived up to. Over the last few years, new systems for the processing, transmission and reception of information, amongst other things, have burst on to the scene and spectacularly multiplied the number of emitters and receivers, as well as our capacity for densifying information (everyone receives more information on subjects that interest them and we get them more and more via means of complex and easy to use information systems). All this is altering our perception not only of communications, but also of our role in it. We have become more demanding as far as the immediacy of information, its quality and our own participation in it is concerned. For some people it’s a case of “I’m not in the picture, therefore I am not”. For others, it’s selecting what they want, “custom-made”, “a la carte”, “personalised” information. In both cases, the result is that the information world is being constantly fragmented into thousands of pieces.

The social communication of science is not exempt from this straitjacket, and neither is the scientific community, because even the way they communicate the results of their research is starting to be affected by the technology of the Information Society. But this change directly attacks the mass communication media’s own model. The constant growth of emitters corresponds to a “disproportionate” growth in the volume of information in circulation, or stored in different places, ready to be put into circulation at any time. These days no individual, organisation, institution, administration or company that considers itself of any social value is without its press office. And what it produces is, basically, aimed at the media which are recognised as valid intermediaries between emitters and receivers.

The results are evident. The volume of information that the media have to deal with has shot up in just a few years. The same has occurred with other media of different kinds, categories, subjects and circulation as they try to deal with this increase in information. At the same time, formats have remained stuck in those dictated by the time of the Industrial Revolution. The printed press, firstly, and then the audiovisual media, compress information into fixed spaces (80 pages, half an hour, five minutes. etc.) displaying it in accordance with a vertical and hierarchical organisation. At a time when the information universe is expanding this is bound to cause critical problems: it has all the symptoms of a communications model in crisis. Only what fits into the format can be published, and only that which a hierarchical way of organising information permits. Consequently, the job of sorting out what is to be published, or not, is a crucial one, but it does not address the fundamental problem: the limit to the amount and variety of information that the media can cover, just when this amount and variety is growing before our very eyes.

In the case of science, this crisis is particularly noticeable, because of the role that important scientific magazines play in passing on information to the large media. These magazines fight desperately just like any other press office for a little bit of space in the printed press or fifteen seconds of glory in the audiovisual media. If we add to this the fact that the analogue bottleneck that the social communication of science has to pass through is a very small one, it is not difficult to understand why the debate has stagnated. It revolves around a giant black hole that feeds on “rejected information”, information that “could have been” but never made it, that could have been dealt with in a particular way, but never got any nearer to this ideal, or that should be like this or that but, nevertheless, remains an impossible Utopia.

Quite the opposite is happening in the digital interactive media, in particular the Internet. The Net offers us the opportunity to communicate science in a different way, without these limitations and with an individual participation hitherto undreamed of. In this regard, we are on the brink of a very important change: the transition from public opinion based on a reductionist vision of events going on around us, to personal opinion based on individual selection of information supplied with maximalist criteria. To get to this point we have to “discover” the enormous possibilities scientific research offers us in order to develop new media adapted to the needs of the social (I would almost say personal) communication of science. If we take universities and research centres as an example, we see that the information they usually offer on the WWW is more that of a static poster type than of an information service directed at public opinion, industry or even their counterparts in the scientific community. In other words, there is a world of opportunities available for the development of new media based on scientific information, both for the research community itself as well as the general public. Our modest experience in the Associació Catalan de Comunicació Científica (ACCC) with a simple distribution list in which journalists and scientists from Spain and Latin America take part, is sufficient to give us an idea of the enormous possibilities of the medium.

Seen from this perspective, the question is, consequently, not whether we lack scientific culture or not, but how we are going to take part in the culture of the networks. And this entails everything, from dismantling the hierarchical structure of information, to the point where we process it in collaboration with the interested sectors and design flows of communication that bring together supply and demand (in the same way as forums on the social communication of science do now, despite the wide disparity of subject matter, as a result of, amongst other things, the fact that they still reflect the heirarchicalisation of information: the bearers of knowledge on the one side and the knowledge seekers on the other).

Hopefully, the II Congress on Social Communication of Science will come into line with the Information Society, making room for the incipient representation of scientific new media on the Internet and making an effort to network even the participants. In Granada we all behaved just like the good children of the Industrial Revolution that we are: we handed out papers, got an excellent book of proceedings and enjoyed the physical contact at the sessions. The next congress should be capable of keeping us in contact both before and after the physical sessions, feeding debate through the Net and encouraging the proliferation of initiatives that evolve into new media before, during and after the congress.

Translation: Bridget King.