Exploring natural knowledge: Science and the popular

Mary Fissell, Roger Cooter

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

14 Scopus citations


Today, science is something we think we recognize when we see it; it is a part of our cultural landscape. Regarded as easily distinguished from religion, it involves the production of new knowledge rather than the reproduction of faith. Science’s stated mission is to tell truths about the natural world - truths produced by trained scientists working in specific fields. There is much argument about details, but a single method is held to lie at the heart of its production. The processes by which new scientific knowledge is diffused or reformulated for different audiences are also generally regarded as unproblematic. First elaborated and validated in specialist journals, scientific ideas are usually thought to make their way into undergraduate textbooks and subsequently, or simultaneously, undergo popularization or reframing for a wide audience. Newspapers, magazines, television, and radio help perform the task. Ultimately, a few scientific ideas become so widespread that they can be referred to in the shorthand of jokes or cartoons. This commonsense model of the production and diffusion of scientific knowledge is something like a fried egg, sunny-side up. At the center, the self-contained yolk represents new knowledge generated by scientists. Surrounding this is a penumbra of ever-thinning white, representing diffusion. Finally, the crackly bits at the outer edge of the white - those jokes and catchphrases - barely resemble the self-contained yolk. As another historian has described it, the transfer of scientific knowledge is often seen simplistically as moving from areas of high truth concentration to those of low truth concentration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge History of Science
Subtitle of host publicationEighteenth-Century Science
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages30
ISBN (Electronic)9781139053549
ISBN (Print)0521572436, 9780521572439
StatePublished - Jan 1 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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