27 September 2005

Plus ça change

The September 21 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association recalls a feature from 1905, in which they reported on a study of the public understanding of science that appeared in the August 1905 issue of Popular Science Monthly. The report, by Prof. John M. Coulter, seems eerily familiar.
Matter describing scientific research that is now published in popular magazines and in newspapers is scant in amount, sensational in form and usually wide of the mark.

The usual method of presentation is through a middleman, a reporter, who presents the matter in a “popular way,” and in so doing makes misleading statements and almost entirely removes the scientific atmosphere.

The 1905 JAMA emphasizes the popular focus on practical results.
[Prof. Coulter] calls attention very pointedly to the common misconception of the practical nature of research. When a scientific man brings out a discovery which is of marked commercial value, the laity is apt to comment on the commendable transferal of the investigator’s energy from some useless laboratory experiments to a field of practical value. In this there is disregard of the fact that the so-called practical discovery is based on and is the result of, in many cases, years of laborious and patient study, which had been considered by the average layman pure waste of time.

How far we've come...


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