Popularizing the Humanities vs. the Natural Sciences
Hearing about research advances in medicine, biology, or physics in public discourse is a common occurrence. However, the question of whether scholarly activity in the social sciences and the humanities should be popularized has always been left unanswered. What are the features of communication between humanities and society and the media? Are different fields of knowledge popularized differently? Physicists, linguists, sociologists, science communicators, and journalists discussed this question on the eve of the Day of Russian Science at the Total Dictation Conference in Moscow.
Representatives of HSE University’s Centre for Student Academic Development, ITMO University’s Center for Scientific Communication, and the Association of Communicators in Education and Science (AKSON) jointly organized a panel on science communication at the Total Dictation Conference.
According to Andrey Kozhanov, sociologist and director of the Centre for Student Academic Development at HSE University, society views the humanities as more obvious and therefore not in need of serious research. ‘Allocating money to CERN seems necessary and right for people by default, while providing funds for, say, research in social policy, education, or other fields in the humanities is not considered to be an obvious necessity or something good.’
Professor Kozhanov suggests that two methods can be used in order to prove the necessity and significance of humanities studies. One method is to refute apparent ‘common sense’. Everyone expects one result, but, in fact, there is a completely unexpected result. It is precisely cases like this that should be actively used in scientific communication. The second method lies in exotic areas and tasks of science—for example, sociology often explores subcultures or modern trends, which are also more likely to attract the public’s attention.
According to Sergei Popov, professor at the HSE Faculty of Physics, many people don’t know what researchers do.
They think that a researcher is someone who has read a lot of books and knows a lot of facts, like Anatoly Wasserman
People have an image in their minds of a stereotypical laboratory with scientists doing something. This image does not even begin to describe how research works, says Greg Yudin, a sociologist and senior research fellow at the HSE Laboratory for Studies in Economic Sociology. The sociology of science tells us that the boundary between the laboratory and the outside world is permeable—no one is interested in keeping it. And in this sense, those engaged in humanities research have an advantage, since they are almost always involved in communication with society.
The Alleged Static Nature of the Humanities
There is a difference in what is expected from popularizers of the humanities versus those of the natural sciences, says Alexander Piperski, a researcher and senior lecturer at HSE’s Faculty of Humanities. While the popularization of physics hinges on new breakthroughs, with linguistics, we expect a story explaining something fundamental.
‘There is a general view that the humanities are something static, while the natural sciences are dynamic,’ says Alexandra Borisova, a scientific journalist and president of the Association of Communicators in Education and Science (AKSON). ‘However, historians discover new facts, cultural scientists accurately identify the names of works of art, and lexical units acquire new meanings in the same way as new planets are discovered or refuted.’
Researchers in the humanities, too, can make a discovery worthy of becoming the next top Yandex search inquiry.
Vladimir Pakhomov, Head of the Total Dictation Philological Council and research fellow at the Vinogradov Institute of Russian Language of the Russian Academy of Sciences, gave the example of a study of Tyumen philologists about the emergence of the new phrase ‘in terms of’ (‘v smysle’) in Russian.
As for attacks on science by pseudo-scientists and para-scientists, here the risk is determined not by whether the researcher is working in the natural or the human sciences, but the extent to which their work is relevant or timely, the researchers believe. ‘In particle physics or art criticism there are fewer quacks, because this is pure knowledge, far from practice. But in history or biotechnology or medicine, you can come across them, because those are fields that have direct bearing on people’s lives or speak to the here and now,’ says Alexandra Borisova.
Scholars are no longer sitting cloistered in their ivory tower, watching the world from afar. Today they have to prove every day that what they do is of real value. Recently, new fields such as urban studies and cognitive science have proven this successfully. Support from the public helped them earn places in the Russian Academy of Sciences, notes Andrey Kozhanov. However, among fields that do not engage in communication with the public, the sociologist believes, there is sometimes competition and even academic cannibalism.
So far, in Russia, public support for research and science is not as significant as in other countries. ‘We produce 2-3% of the world’s scholarly and scientific research,’ says linguist Alexander Piperski. ‘Since our contact with the public is not essential for the functioning of research itself, scholars don’t see the point of wasting energy on popularizing it or gaining support for it.’
However, today research around the world is having to prove its legitimacy: the old ways that were used to explain to society why research activity in a certain field is important no longer work.
‘The discussion showed that we encounter different challenges when popularizing the natural sciences versus the social sciences or the humanities,’ says sociologist Andrei Kozhanov. ‘Expertise in the social sciences and the humanities is more eroded due to alternative sources of information and the influence of social media on public attitudes towards scholarly research. And in this sense, scientific communication in the interests of the “sciences of spirit” is faced with the need to search for special solutions and new forms of effective interaction in various target audiences.’
Thus, the social sciences and the humanities can talk about research processes in an accessible way, while the natural sciences have learned how to produce good news. This is precisely why the exchange of experience between scientists and communicators from different areas is useful.