Rethinking Biology: Public understandings

rethinking bio

Michael J Reiss, Fraser Watts and Harris Wiseman (Eds)
World Scientific, £30.00

This multi-author book “arose from concerns about how biology is understood by the public, and the growing discrepancy between how biology is actually developing and how it is understood by the public”. It reminds us to integrate two explanatory approaches – “to drill down to the lowest possible level to explain what is happening in whatever is being studied” and “to consider how the broader context influences bottom-up processes”.

The authors make clear that “neither approach is satisfactory, and that it is necessary always to consider how parts influence wholes and wholes influence parts”. They ask why biology is so often misrepresented. In all probability, few jobbing biologists will have considered this, but the question must be asked.

The book’s final section comprises chapters on the social context of our work and the public understanding of biology. Journalists and biologists must be aware of their responsibilities to properly inform the public. Not infrequently, scientific output is littered with the superlatives so beloved by journalists. In turn, the journalists report the work of ‘leading’ researchers or scientists, a ‘top’ doctor, or simply an ‘expert’, yet fail to report the bigger picture that this book calls for. It is debatable whether this failure is our own or falls to the media, although the book makes clear that fault sits largely with the scientific community and that we must work hard to correct this.

This thought-provoking book will benefit journalists and broadcasters, science teachers and educators, researchers, and journal reviewers and editors. How much difference it will make is difficult to predict, but until science communication finds its way into the core curriculum of every science degree course there is no reason not to try.

Ian Blenkharn FRSB