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Studies on the popular reception and misconceptions of contemporary theoretical physics

Authors:
  • Italian Institute for the Future

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Today, science communication seems to be in excellent condition. It has become a profession with tens of thousands of people around the world working in the communication offices of research institutions, in universities’ press and PR offices, as science journalists for traditional and online media, television, YouTube and much more. It is a discipline that has its own scientific journals, professional associations, annual conferences around the world, master’s degrees, dedicated research centers. Similarly, society is enthusiastic about science. Great discoveries conquer the front pages of newspapers and capture people’s imagination, popular science books sell millions of copies, the Facebook pages of science enthusiasts boast millions of followers, STEM students at the university have never been so numerous. Despite all of this, science seems to be constantly forced onto the barricades. Periodically, phenomena of distrust of science emerge and spread, driving many citizens to question issues on which the scientific community is unanimously in agreement: from GMOs to the validity of vaccines, from climate change to the landing of Man on the Moon. At the same time, science enthusiasts bend processes and outputs of the scientific endeavor to adapt them to their own preconceptions and webs of beliefs, producing and spreading throughout the world phenomena on the borderline between science and pseudoscience: this is the case of quantum mysticism, i.e. the idea that quantum mechanics would reveal ancient knowledge about the possibility of manipulating reality, or would confirm the existence of the soul, or would provide us with new ways to heal diseases. Communities of science amateurs who do not believe in “mainstream” or “official” science produce alternative and odd theories, justified with the fact that official science is still unable to explain many phenomena of reality. These people are definitely interested in science, but they want to do it and interpret it in their own way and they believe that science is too important a matter to be left to scientists. Traditional approaches to this problem blame the modes of public understanding of science, or “science popularization”. It would be responsible for an excessive simplification of the phenomena, processes, mechanisms of the scientific endeavor, whose consequence would be the growth of misconceptions. Consequently, by improving science communication in quantity and quality, misconceptions would be reduced, and we would experiment a decrease in pseudoscientific beliefs and levels of distrust of science. This traditional view considers science communication as a sort of continuation of science education in adulthood: its aim would be just the increase of scientific literacy’s levels. But popularization is not (exclusively) concerned with this. It plays a decisive role in informing society of what is happening in the world’s scientific community, in terms not only of new discoveries, but also about the development of new theories, conjectures, hypotheses that could lead to discoveries and practical applications in the future. In carrying out this task, science popularization is not so much interested in literacy as in the diffusion of news, and in this sense it follows the same mechanisms of mass communication, that is, selecting the news and the concepts most capable of generating engagement and hitting the imagination of the public, in order to “sell” the news. Contemporary theoretical physics is undoubtedly the area most affected by the problem of the so-called “medialization” of science. Dealing with great issues that in the past were matters of organized religions and founding myths, such as the origin and destiny of the universe, the nature of space-time, the role of human consciousness in the fabric of reality, the ultimate composition of matter, contemporary theoretical physics attracts the imagination of the general public and colonizes the spaces of scientific popularization in bookstores, popular science magazines, television. At the same time, since it is based on a complex mathematical formalism and on counter-intuitive concepts, and not being able to be replicated on an experimental level except in rare cases in school laboratories or science festivals (it is in fact the big science, that requires experiments for billions of dollars with thousands of people involved), contemporary theoretical physics is also the field of science most affected by misconceptions and most able to generate pseudoscientific conceptions. Therefore, in this dissertation I have chosen to focus precisely on contemporary theoretical physics, in order to investigate the reasons and processes that lead to generate misconceptions and pseudoscientific conceptions in the public. To do this, I have tried to identify new approaches and methodologies that can account for the complexity of the mechanisms that occur in the phase of public reception of new scientific ideas. Facing with scientific literacy indices showing improvements in all Western countries, it is naive to continue to believe that pseudoscientific conceptions can be “defeated” by simply increasing science communication programs. The simplistic optimism of the traditional models of popularization has had its day, and it is necessary to find new tools that take into account, first of all, the fact that the reception of ideas always takes place in a non-neutral, but culturally and socially situated environment. This is not a new idea: social constructivism has long since affirmed the notion of “situated knowledge”, rejecting the alleged rationalist objectivity of modern science. In this work, however, I do not intend to embrace a constructivist conception of science, but rather to take up the idea of “situated knowledge” to unveil the mechanisms of reception and transposition of scientific ideas into popular culture. The study of the cultural determinants of ideas’ reception is in fact the starting point for a necessary deconstruction of the traditional vision of science popularization, according to which a concept, once it has been translated into a language understandable to all, can only be received in the same way as it was conceived by the one who communicates it. Conversely, the processes of coding and decoding of a concept take place within cultural contexts and shared webs of beliefs: ignoring them means condemning any science communication project to failure. In my search for methodologies capable of restoring the complexity of cultural transposition processes, I turned to the history of ideas. In fact, I found in the history of ideas—which more than a discipline is actually a metadiscipline—a series of useful tools to study the way the meanings of a concept are transformed during the processes of reception within different cultural contexts and at different times. The emphasis placed by the history of ideas on the genealogical reconstruction of the process of meaning’s transformation all through the products of popular culture allows to shed light on a field of study almost ignored: the popular scientific imagery. Analyzing the popular scientific imagery, I choose to focus my attention on three case studies. The first, which I called “metaphysics of the hidden reality”, analyzes the concept that our universe is a computer-based simulation. After reconstructing the two main contemporary narratives of this conception (Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument and David Icke’s Matrix theory), I tried to trace its origins in popular culture, starting with some science fiction works, and then in the New Age counterculture of the 1970s. The study also demonstrates the ability of popular imagery to influence the scientific community, orienting research projects and philosophical positions that have now become mainstream in contemporary theoretical physics. The second case study, that I called “Re-enchanted science”, analyses the common misconceptions in popular culture regarding the anthropic principle and the interpretations of quantum mechanics that attribute a relevant role to the observer. These two ideas emerged in the field of science have provided a solid background to pseudoscientific theories about the immortality of the soul and the ability of the human brain to transform reality. In the third and final study I focused on a more conventional case, that of an authentic pseudoscientific theory: the electric universe. In this case, I tried to understand why people with even a certain level of scientific background end up questioning established scientific theories such as general relativity or the standard cosmological model. Once again, the answer must be found in the socio-cultural contexts of reception. In the last part of my thesis, I try to apply the “lessons learned” to the traditional concept of “pseudoscience”, in order to elaborate a new theoretical framework through which to understand the dynamics that emerged in the three case studies. The aim is to offer practical suggestions to those involved in developing science communication programs, with the aim of ensuring a better engagement with those groups of science enthusiasts who share misconceptions and pseudoscientific conceptions. Since the peculiar nature of contemporary theoretical physics (in particular as a consequence of its gradual shift towards post-empirical physics) and the medialization of science are structural and characterizing elements, it is necessary to look for new methods to account for the cross-fertilization processes between the production of scientific knowledge and mass communication. The notion of “hyper-real science” that I propose in my conclusions, borrowed from Jean Baudrillard’s notion of hyper-reality, is along these lines, and incorporates within it the traditional notion of pseudoscience. In my opinion, this concept can prove very useful for the understanding of the mutual interactions between the scientific community and the popular culture in the formation of new ideas, conjectures, theories capable of advancing the scientific endeavor.
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