Ideology and the trash-can of science communication


“I am giving you a choice: either put on these glasses or start eating that trash-can”

They Live (1988), John Carpenter, Universal City Studios Inc


The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012) presented by psychoanalytic philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Ẑiẑek and directed by Sophie Fiennes is an academic yet entertaining film that examines the philosophy of popular cinematic films by looking at their ideological underpinnings.

The first scene in the film is an adaptation of ‘They Live’ (1988) where Ẑiẑek is superimposed in to the scene where he gives a psychoanalytic analysis of the ideological messages of the film. ‘They Live’ is about a character called John Nada who is a homeless man living in Los Angeles. In the film, Nada finds his way in to an abandoned church and whilst there, he finds a box of sunglasses. He takes a pair of the sunglasses and as he is walking along the street, he puts them on. But there is something extraordinary about these sunglasses. They open Nada’s eyes to the hidden ideological messages that surround us. Wearing the sunglasses reveals the hidden propaganda in all forms of marketing such as magazines and billboards. It opens his eyes the existence of ideology and propaganda in a supposed post-ideological society. For example, he sees a street vendor holding some dollars until he puts on the sunglasses and the street vendor is suddenly holding notes that claim “This is your God”. On newspapers, magazines and billboards that seem normal to those that aren’t able to critique the ideology, the sunglasses reveal hidden messages such as “Obey” and “Marry and Reproduce”.

Ẑiẑek makes a powerful analysis of ‘They Live’ and how the film tells the narrative of hidden ideological messages. Ideology is of course the body of doctrine that guides individuals, social movements, class and society at large. Political ideologies (e.g. communism, fascism, socialism, conservatism) exist alongside religious ideologies (e.g. Christianity, Islam, Judaism), legal ideologies, economic ideologies and ethical ideologies. ‘They Live’ is a critique of the capitalist ideology and as a Marxist scholar, Ẑiẑek picks up on this in his analysis, but broadens the critique to all ideologies in general (later in the film, Ẑiẑek critiques religious ideologies, and Catholicism in particular).

There are of course ideological underpinnings in the relationship between science and society. Science is practiced within the boundaries of institutions (universities and research centres) that are generally inaccessible to the wider society. Access to the space where scientific knowledge is created – the laboratory – is restricted to authorised personnel with swipe card access. Scientists spend their time conducting research within the confines of these physical barriers and publish their findings behind the physical barriers of journal paywalls (unless of course the journals are open access). Even when the journals are publicly available, scientists use language that is not accessible for society, thus putting up social barriers, in addition to the physical barriers, between scientists and wider society.

Science communication events, such as science festivals, exist to break down barriers between scientists and the wider society. Most science festivals aim to inspire and engage society with science and most science festivals hold events that bring scientists out of the laboratory, and in to spaces inhabited by wider society, such as arts and cultural venues. In other words, science communication events, such as science festivals, exist to remove the physical barriers between science and wider society. This is part of the so-called “democratization” of science.

The tragedy of science communication events such as science festivals is that when they try to escape the ideology of barriers between science and society, what they are actually doing is removing physical barriers, but reinforcing social barriers. In other words, when they endeavour to democratize science, what they actually do is reinforce the dictatorship. To their credit, science festivals bring scientists out of the laboratory and in to the places inhabited by the publics. But we live in a society where there is a hierarchy of social authority and science festivals reinforce the ideology that scientists have a higher social power than other members of society.

In many science festivals across the globe, people pay to attend an event (or it could be free of charge, this is not important) to either hear a scientist give a monologue, a number of scientists give short monologues and/or have conversations amongst themselves. In these events, the scientists will be on stage and will the audience come along to sit and listen to the scientists dispense their wisdom and/or listen to scientists exchange witty banter amongst themselves. This reinforces the authoritarian ideology of science and society: scientists are there speak and the public are there to listen. The venue will be prepared to ensure that this is ideology reinforced: sofas on a stage for those with the authority (scientists) and rows of chairs facing the stage for those without the authority (the public). The physical barrier of the laboratory is removed, but the social barriers are reinforced: scientists have the knowledge, which gives them a greater status in society, so they are to be obeyed. There may be some time dedicated to a question & answer session, which usually end up with the host saying the words “we’ve ran out time for questions” which of course only a cynic could interpret as “there’ll be no more questioning of this social authority”.

Science communication events such as “FameLab” also fall in to the category of events that reinforce the dictatorship of science. FameLab is a competition where contestants have 3 minutes to convey a scientific subject of their choice to an audience of non-specialists and are judged by leading researchers, media personalities and policy makers on the content, clarity and charisma of their presentation. For those who live within the ideology of science communication, this seems like an excellent event that allows contestants to develop their science communication and presenting skills and provides an opportunity for the public to hear the diversity of research going on in the worlds of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. How could one possibly critique such an event? Let’s put on the sunglasses that allow us to critique the ideology. When wearing the sunglasses, we see that FameLab looks like an event that reinforces social barriers between science and society. It is an event that provides no opportunity for the public to question the presenters, usually made up of aspiring scientists (PhD students and the like). Questioning their knowledge is something that is only permitted of the esteemed judges. FameLab is a training ground for scientists to learn that they have a higher social authority than their audience members and that they should be listened to and obeyed. They learn the tricks of their trade – knowledge, power and dominance.

In response to the quote at the beginning of this blog post, I can say that I already am eating from the trash-can. This trash-can is of course the ideology of science communication. It’s something that we’re all eating from. Our natural instinct tells us that ideology is something that blurs people’s views of the world, in the way that fascist ideologies blur the views of people living under such a regime. Ideology should be the sunglasses that distort our view of the world. But in the case of ‘They Live’, it is the wearing of the sunglasses that allows one to clearly see and critique the ideology. In this metaphorical sense, I have put on sunglasses and now that I have managed to critique the ideology of science communication, it is difficult to go back to existing within that ideology, in the knowledge that it is false existence.

Later in ‘They Live’, there is a scene where Nada starts to fight his friend. Nada is trying to convince his friend to put on the sunglasses so that he too can see what Nada can see. But his friend refuses to wear the sunglasses, and they begin to violently fight in a somewhat extended scene. Ẑiẑek interprets this scene by saying that Nada’s friend is well aware that he lives in a lie and that by wearing the glasses (or seeing the truth) will be too painful, so he violently rejects doing this. Seeing the ideology in which he exists will shatter his illusions and that will be a painful experience. Ẑiẑek argues that this is a paradox we all have to accept. We have to accept the extreme violence of liberation. Ẑiẑek argues that people must be forced to be free of their ideology and that this is a difficult process. I sense that this will be true of the science communication world being forced to be free of the current false ideology of science communication. If science festival organisers simply create events based on a spontaneous sense of what is a good event, what works well and what people want, then we will never be free of the dictatorship of science. In order to really democratize science, we need to radicalise science festivals and challenge our beliefs in what we think a science festival does, what they should look like, and who should be involved.