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The phrase “popular science” has a benign enough definition: communicating science to the general public. Science center demonstrations and exhibits, blogs, videos, and even TV shows are all lumped into that broad category. And it can be done by anybody, really. Sometimes scientists themselves take a break from their research to drop some nuggets of wisdom on social media. Sometimes they transition to full-time science communication. Sometimes non-scientists catch the bug, read a lot, and jump in with both feet. Sometimes they dabble in their spare time while remaining a functioning member of society.

It’s all good, except when it isn’t. Like all benign and beneficial things, it can turn sour. There are many fuels that the popular science engine needs to run: money, exposure, attention, and more. As long as these fuels are mixed just right to further enhance the science-explaining game, it leads to great outcomes. But sometimes the priorities get flipped, and that’s when popular science turns sour: when it’s more about the “popular” and less about the “science”.

When money, or exposure, or attention becomes the priority and goal for itself, with science and science communication following, then what’s the point? Is the mission being served? Is the science being served? Are the audiences being served? This is the danger of popular science: there are many things needed to make it happen, but they can quickly flip from being servants to masters.


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