A casual vocab lesson in popular science

Picture this: It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon and I’m having a coffee with other KI PhD students in Stockholm. We talk about work, science and interests, and I mention I’m really fascinated by popular science. The reaction: “What do you mean? What science is popular right now?”. I was quite surprised and never thought of the word-confusion around these terms.

So, what is popular science? It might be a bit counterintuitive at first, but it doesn’t refer to “the science that is popular at this moment” but rather refers to “popularizing science”. In other words: making science available (and attractive?) to the bigger population, not just scientists. Usually, it is done by scientists themselves, or by people somehow connected or interested in science.

A few weeks after the coffee-accompanied-confusion, I’m hiking with my cousin in Tyresta national park close to Stockholm (I can recommend it!). I tell him the same thing, though now using the term “science communication” (you won’t get me this time, linguistic confusion!). The reaction: “I thought you worked with biology, since when do you study communication sciences?”. Again, something I hadn’t thought of.

So, what is science communication? Very un-confusingly, “science communication” is communicating science, while “communication sciences” is the science of communication. Wait, did that only make it worse? Ok, science communication is something like “They are doing this great research, which could solve that problem, isn’t it amazing?”. Communication sciences is for example “What is the effect of this or that on how we perceive advertisements?”

Another point that could use some clearing up is that of “science in popular culture”. This is portraying science in media, movies, books etc. It can overlap with popular science and have as its goal to communicate actual scientific facts. However, it can also be fiction. In the best case, the fictive science is an imagining (and sold as such) of (so far?) un-invented things: science fiction. In the worst case it is plain non-sense sold as actual science: pseudo-science. And then there are all the levels in between, like the stereotypical portraying of scientists as middle aged white men… More on all of those things in other posts.

Picture: made by my phone, showing a happy popular science afternoon a while back.

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