Popular science is science that’s not for scientists. However, when we examine the exact boundaries between popular science and real science, they break. What counts as genuine scientific knowledge? What is popularized science?
The traditional model of popularization splits the production of scientific knowledge in two steps: the scientists develop real knowledge, and the popularizers spread it to the public. The popularization aims to be an “appropriate simplification” of the genuine. This way, one scientific theory has two superimposed interpretations: the actual scientifically rigorous one, and the “vulgarized” popular one. In translating actual knowledge into non-scientific terms, some scientists fear that there is a distortion and oversimplification that lose sight of the essence of the subject.
Popular science may be taken as less valid because it is easier to understand than real science, and loses value because it may be “dumbed down” for the general public. However, this claim assumes that the essence of scientific knowledge can be contained in the words and figures of genuine sources like journals and science for scientists. This gives scientists the power and authority to determine which popularizations are more valid than others. This follows what Eric S. Raymond calls the cathedral: knowledge is released, but the legitimate science and its popular representation is restricted to an elite group of scientists who choose which ones are appropriate. (Even our lecturer told us a trick that she uses to get rid of books she doesn’t like from the library.)
Scientific popularization definitely needs quality control and supervision—only the ones who produce the knowledge actually know what is appropriate or not. However, popularization should not be discarded so quickly: there is value in simplification and abstraction. Abstracting the signal from the noise in order to explain something in layman’s terms forces scientists to rephrase certain principles and maybe even realize they’ve made a mistake. Maybe sometimes they just find a better way to phrase a principle.
In this light, the questions stated at the beginning change to the following: should science be left to the scientists alone? How can the general public participate in science without necessarily being a scientist? This is more attuned to the cathedral’s counterpart—the bazaar. In the bazaar model, science is developed over the community, in view of the public. The bazaar lets the public cooperate in the development of science. The participation of the public in scientific affairs does not have to be in the laboratory, just understanding the scientific principles is enough. This way, the public can make more informed and rational decisions, can support science and understand its benefits, and can act in a rational manner.