Project Description

Joseph Wright's "A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery"

Joseph Wright’s “A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery”

Led by Matthew Slater and Jason Leddington, this one-year project investigates the nature of public understanding with an eye to facilitating its production, especially in the case of public understanding of science. The project is funded by a generous grant from the Varieties of Understanding Project, sponsored by The John Templeton Foundation and The Henry Luce Foundation and directed by Stephen Grimm at Fordham University.

In a democratic, industrialized society, a scientifically literate public is critical to the possibility of good policy-making. However, recent science communication has failed to generate a level of public consensus sufficient to inform rational action on important public initiatives. We propose that reorienting our epistemic goals in education, advocacy, and communication from Public Knowledge to Public Understanding might dramatically improve this situation. As it stands, however, “public understanding” is poorly understood. Social-scientific models for its promotion typically leave ‘understanding’ unexplained and fail to adequately distinguish it from knowledge. Moreover, relevant philosophical literature generally focuses on individual, rather than public understanding. Our project thus combines philosophical study of the nature of public understanding with case studies of critical science outreach efforts to: (a) develop a viable philosophical theory of public understanding alongside (b) strategic recommendations for social scientists, journalists, and policy-makers to devise better means for producing public understanding of science.