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©David J. Rhees, Chapel Hill - 1979
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THE PROBLEM of SELLING SCIENCE (CHAPTER II - PART II)


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In his first talk to the newly formed board of trustees of Science Service, Edwin Slosson explained the new constraints on popular science posed by the recent absorption of large numbers of people into the literate populace through the recent expansion of the popular press. 75 Slosson recognized that although yellow journalism had greatly increased the "circle of readers," it had done so at the expense of "good taste, high ideals and scientific methods. 76 The expansion of the literate populace had created a tremendous opportunity for disseminating science, but it also required that literary standards and scientific substance be compromised if science was to effectively utilize the mass media. Slosson noted that
the dominant tone of American thought has been changed through the incorporation of large masses of readers of a class which in other countries and in other centuries was altogether untouched by such cultural influence and aspirations. I rejoice in the enlargement of the circle of readers and I do not find fault with the means by which it is gained, but it necessitates new tactics on the part of science if it is to extend its sway. 77
To reach the large audiences opened up by the mass print media would clearly require great changes in the style of popular science.

In a monarchy or other such form of government it would not be so vital that science extend its sway, Slosson explained, "but the success of our experiment in democratic government depends upon the education of the whole people and the recognition of the value of science and technology and in the power of discrimination between scientific and unscientific leadership in thought and politics." 78 Slosson clearly shared E. W. Scripps' belief that democracy, to be made safe for itself, must be made scientific, and hence the impressionable masses must be guided toward an appreciation and understanding of science if the nation was to weather the challenges of the postwar world. Slosson felt that "a real and active hostility to scientific thought" had been triggered by the Great War which showed itself, on the individual level, in a "recrudescence of superstition,'' and, on a political level, in the enactment of anti-evolution laws. In a democratic system whose soundness depended on the ability of the "whole people" to distinguish between truth (i.e., science) and untruth (i.e., pseudo-science), it was of critical importance to implant the scientific spirit in the public mind to counteract these reactionary tendencies. Based upon this conception of the messianic role of science in the American democracy, Edwin Slosson formulated the "new tactics" of Science Service in his 1921 annual report. He began by disavowing any intentions of leading Science Service on a "witch hunt," stating that

I am not advocating that Science Service enter upon a crusade against popular superstition or even an aggressive campaign against the anti-scientific spirit now dominant.

Clearly Slosson would have relished such a campaign, but he acknowledged that the revolt against reason "is too strong for us to attack and besides that would not be good policy." Rather, he concluded,

our best plan is probably to try to crowd out falsehood by truth and to present scientific information in a way that will be at least as attractive as the misinformation that now holds the field. 79

If science was to compete with pseudo-science in the mass media, Slosson recognized that it would have to be tailored to the prevailing modes of popular taste.

Making science attractive without debasing it was not an easy matter, Slosson acknowledged, especially when psychologists estimated that the average reader in America had an intelligence quotient of thirteen years.

This is the mental stage [Slosson continued] in which interest is only taken in the freaks of nature, not its ordinary processes. It is not the rule but the exception to the rule that attracts public attention. That is to say, the public that we are trying to reach in the daily press is in the cultural stage when three-headed calves, Siamese twins and bearded ladies draw the crowd to the side-shows while the menagerie tent is soon vacated. The majority of our contemporaries are in the intellectual epoch of a hundred years ago when Wonders of Science" books were all the rage. 80
Slosson called this cultural level the "Oh, my!" stage of scientific interest, in which the popular appeal of science was based on its sensational, quasi-magical aspects and scientists were viewed as modern-day wizards. It was much easier to get the typical reader to open his mouth than his mind, Slosson complained. 81 To reach the majority of Americans who were entrenched in this cultural mire, Slosson told the trustees that
we must go into the newspapers and their demand is for short paragraphs ending in -est. They refuse to listen to anything except the fastest or the slowest, the hottest or the coldest, the biggest or the smallest, and in any case the newest thing in the world. A worship of superlatives is the worst form of idolatry now present. 82

Although Slosson emphasized that interest in oddities and superlatives was legitimate and that Science Service should not disdain to gratify it, it was imperative that it try to extend this interest to an appreciation of the ordinary phenomena of nature and the fundamental aspects of science. Slosson noted that

we can get into the papers a certain amount of scientific information by giving it a sensational form. That is good as far as it goes. I believe in it . . . . But we must recognize that when we conform to the prevailing sensational demand, we are not getting over the best part of science. We are not educating in the scientific mode of thinking . . . . 83
How, then, was Science Service to promote scientific thinking and still make its material attractive to editors who believed, with some justification, that their readers wanted stories about three-headed calves? Slosson suggested that the answer, in essence, lay in the motto of every newspaper office: "Put H. I. [human interest] in every story." Because science strove to be impersonal and abstract, it was necessary for the popularizer to humanize it, to relate it to human needs and concerns. 84 While sensationalism humanized science by appealing to more "primitive" human interests, Science Service utilized a style of science writing which modestly emphasized the romantic and dramatic aspects of science in such a way as to draw attention to its educational content. By combining romance with scientific facts, this style provided an effective compromise between the sensationalism of the tabloids and the dryness of textbooks. As advertisements in the Science News-Letter stated, "drama and romance are interwoven with wondrous facts, helpful facts" and "there is no better propaganda for science than the romantic facts of research and discovery. 85

Another advertisement approached poetry in touting the wonders of science reported in the Science News-Letter, proclaiming that

drama lurks in every test-tube, dwells in every shovelful of earth lifted from the sight of an ancient civilization, is a passenger on the wide wings of a whirring airplane, spans thousands of miles via the wonder of radio. To know these facts while news really is news -- that is the desire of every thinking person. 86

With this diluted form of sensationalism, Science Service hoped to prove to newspaper editors that science could be made as interesting as pseudo-science. What were some of the "angles," to use a journalist's term, that Science Service used to romanticize science? One angle was simply to use eye-catching headlines to lure readers into tackling the predominantly factual material below them, such as "Man Sees 6,000,000,000,000,000,000 Miles," "Fabulous Fortunes at Earth's Center," and "How Nature Changes Sex of Fowls." 87 In his 1921 talk to the trustees, Slosson suggested two other, more involved approaches involving the history of science and the exploitation of famous personalities. Exploiting big names, Slosson admitted, gave a misleading image of science as an occupation of an elite group of geniuses but "nevertheless, we must recognize the hero-worshipping tendency of the popular mind and it is not unfair to take advantage of it in increasing the interest in science." Hence such public figures as the Prince of Monaco, Albert Einstein, and Madame Curie (all of whom visited the United States in 1921) allowed Science Service to place material on oceanography, relativity, and radioactivity that would not ordinarily have been taken by the newspapers. 88

History of science could also add human interest, Slosson hoped, by showing that science is "a human invention growing and changing and turning this way and that by aggressive personalities or the accidents of history." 89 Slosson was extremely concerned about the public tendency to reject the validity of all science when time-honored concepts such as the ether and the immutability of the elements were challenged. By emphasizing that science is a fallible human enterprise and not a dogmatic set of laws like the Ten Commandments, Slosson believed history of science could humanize science and also prevent the rejection of its validity during periods of theoretical controversy. 90 Although quality material on historical aspects of science proved difficult to procure (the History of Science Society was not founded until 1924), several attempts were made in this area, including "Anniversaries of Science" and "Classics of Science," two features used in the News-Letter with limited success. 91 Unfortunately, a Science Service survey indicated that its history of science material was "notably unpopular.'' 92

One other interesting motif among the many used by Science Service was the casting of the scientist in the role of modern pioneer, with science as the new frontier.

The use of the frontier and pioneer images as symbols of science and scientists may predate the twenties by a century or more, but after the closing of the American frontier in 1893, these images acquired a special significance, particularly for Edwin Slosson, whose father was one of the first settlers in Kansas. Slosson's heritage of pilgrims (Miles Standish was an ancestor) and pioneers made it natural for him to view science as a continuation, in a new dimension, of the westward expansion of civilization. He wrote that

the period of the extension of civilization is approaching its end, and beneficial progress must take the form of intensification of civilization. People must cease to expand and begin to construct. There are no more continents to discover, no more worlds to conquer. The new era will require new methods and here the constructive powers of the scientist will come into play. 93

Not only did Slosson believe that the scientist and the pioneer were the purveyors of progress, but there were other similarities as well. The process of discovery, for instance, was at least psychologically identical for both scientist and pioneer, for

the highest reward of science [is] the secret satisfaction of standing where no mortal man has ever stood before . . . . The pure thrill of primal discovery comes only to the explorer who first crosses the crest of the mountain 41 range that divides the unknown from the known. 94

Watson Davis also shared and exploited this romantic vision of science when he extolled the "bonanza days of science." In The Advance of Science, Davis wrote that

bountiful and exciting has been the progress of science . . . . The advance is swift, the tasks are difficult and complex. But pioneers can still push outward the frontiers into unknown or dimly seen fields. 95

The use of the frontier and pioneer images was not limited, of course, to Science Service. Herbert Hoover, the "Great Engineer," informed Americans that "the great continent of science is as yet explored only on its borders.'' 96 And the New York Times devoted an editorial to praising "those men of science who are the new frontiersmen of civilization . . . ." These pioneers, the Times continued,

are no less the frontiersmen, the precursors, than this republic's early pioneers of the axe, the plow, the rifle and the saddle. They who have patiently enlarged the borders of truth are as deserving sons of democracy as they who have pushed out the physical bounds between the desert and the town. 97
When Science Service exploited the frontier as a symbol of scientific advance, it thus expressed a pervasive mythology which not only linked science with traditional American values of opportunity and individualism, but also provided an appealing literary technique for romanticizing science. As Slosson was quick to recognize, "the lives of explorers are always exciting, whether they penetrate to the heart of Africa like Livingston or to the heart of the atom like Bohr." 98

As Science Service struggled through the early 1920s, therefore, it was compelled to recognize that newspaper editors still preferred "snippets of sensational science." Since E. W. Scripps had stipulated that it market its "product" like any other business enterprise, Science Service was forced, in effect, to modify its popular science to suit current tastes. Thus there evolved a style of science writing that replaced sensationalism with the romance of facts, and science was transformed from lurid side-show to high adventure. The common denominator was human interest--the sacred cow of journalism--but with a more conservative form of emotional appeal and a new emphasis on "wondrous facts, helpful facts." This blending of facts and romance was not the exclusive property of Science Service--a similar style was used in many of the "outlines" of the twenties-but Science Service was the principal agent in using it to convince editors that science deserved a place in the newspapers. By the end of the decade, it was clear that the "romantic facts of research and discovery" were indeed effective propaganda. 99

Chapter Two -    Part I    Part II    Part III    Table of Contents
 


Copyright David J. Rhees, 1979



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