Expert versus public understanding of science

The central aim of this research project is to investigate expert versus lay understanding of scientific concepts as a window onto broader questions in the philosophy of science: Are such differences between experts and laypeople a matter of different degrees of understanding of the relevant concepts, or is the fundamental difference about different kinds of understanding? Answers to these questions can have important implications for science education in schools, popular media, and the formation of science policy for public consumption.

We consider understanding to be one of the central aims of science. However, in the philosophy of science there is still no consensus on an accurate notion of understanding. During our project we strived to shed light on this debate by investigating the potential difference between expert and lay understanding of science by studying the role of metaphor in multimodal forms of communication. For far from being mere rhetorical flourishes, metaphors are known to be used to construct and hypothesise about abstract theories and to provide, in general, sense-making frames of reality. This metaphor analysis therefore offers not only an insight into the possible differences between forms of scientific understanding, but also provides empirical basis as how to create and increase public understanding of science.This hypothesis was operationalised through Henk de Regt’s account of understanding being not merely a form of knowledge that can be captured in rules and facts, but is a skill that involves tacit knowledge. De Regt argues that in order to achieve scientific understanding, one as to be able to use a scientific theory, which is only possible when the theory is intelligible to the particular person. Based on previous literature on metaphor analysis, we hypothesised that metaphors, expressing mentalrepresentations, contribute to this intelligibility of, by making a mental representation of an abstract theory accessible, and therefore directly relate to understanding.
Our research showed that experts, having obtained a mental representation of the abstract scientific theory, use metaphors as ordinary scientific concepts referring to a precise object, mechanism or process. The metaphoricity of these metaphors is subsequently lost in expert communication. On the contrary, in expert to layman communications we found the metaphors used to retain this metaphoricity and hence a metaphorical openness. This confirmed our hypothesis that metaphoricity contributes to the intelligibility of a scientific theory, and hence understanding, by making a mental representation accessible. But it also showed that this metaphorical openness to have varying implications and ramifications to the form and content of this conceptual understanding. On the basis of our findings through metaphor analysis, we therefore concluded that understanding of science indeed can be conveyed to the public by providing metaphors as a figurative tool to obtain a mental representation of an abstract scientific theory, but that the form and depth-content of the mental representation, and hence understanding, varies widely.