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Science as religion? Science communication and elective modernism

Mason-Wilkes, Will 2018. Science as religion? Science communication and elective modernism. PhD Thesis, Cardiff University.
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My central concern in this thesis is how science should be understood by the public. I argue that science should be understood, and valued for, the formative aspirations of the scientific community. The formative aspirations of the scientific community are the values members try to uphold as members of the group, even when this is not always possible. These aspirations are constitutive of the scientific ‘form of life’. I argue that science and religion are distinct forms of life, and through their formative aspirations can be differentiated from one another. Drawing on the theory of Elective Modernism (Collins and Evans 2017), I argue that the formative aspirations of science overlap with democratic values. Media representations of science shape public understanding. Non-fiction television is a ubiquitous and trusted medium for the communication of science. Non-fiction science television programme makers were interviewed to understand the process of science television production: the pressures, tensions and constraints inherent to this process. I analyse representations of science in British non-fiction television programmes and argue that a ‘religious’ portrayal of science can be identified in some programmes. I identify a contrasting ‘secular’ portrayal of science in other programmes. The religious portrayal presents science as providing a definitive creation narrative. In this portrayal scientific knowledge is presented as a set of certain and immutable truths which are revealed by nature with little or no human intervention. In this portrayal science is presented as providing meaning. The secular portrayal’s representation aligns more closely with a sociological understanding of science. In this portrayal scientific knowledge is represented as requiring human skill to produce and as being subject to change, revision and debate. Science in this portrayal is represented as producing both positive and negative outcomes for society. From the perspective of Elective Modernism, if citizens are to properly understand, engage with and value science they need an understanding informed by sociological conceptions of science which emphasise science’s formative aspirations as its defining characteristic. The requirements for the production of an ‘elective modernist’ portrayal of science, one which foregrounds the formative aspirations of science, are discussed. The problematic consequences of the religious portrayal of science are laid out. Presenting science as a religion disguises its formative aspirations. This provides an inaccurate picture of how science works and a widespread (mis)understanding of science as a religion would undermine democratic society.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Status: Unpublished
Schools: Social Sciences (Includes Criminology and Education)
Subjects: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Q Science > Q Science (General)
Funders: ESRC
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 9 March 2018
Last Modified: 29 Sep 2021 09:26

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