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Scientific authority in the public sphere in twentieth-century Spain

Investigador responsable: Agustí Nieto-Galan
Entitat finançadora: Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad
Vigència: 2013 - 2015

Investigadors del grup: Xavier Vall (CEHIC-UAB), Oliver Hochadel (IMF-CSIC), Reis Fontanals (BC), Joaquim Sales (UB), Eduard Aibar (UOC), Carlos Tabernero (CEHIC-UAB), Clara Florensa (CEHIC-UAB).

Through science popularization, scientists defend or expand the boundaries between science and overlapping or related cultural activities such as religion, politics or other forms of knowledge. The making of a public image of science serves to justify the scientists’ control on certain domains of knowledge. Popularization of science play an outstanding role in the shaping of the public image of experts, their credibility and public trust on them, as well as the extension of applicability of their expertise and the perceived reliability of their practices, what also moulds the public reaction and the democratic methods of control of expert communities. Hiltgarner (1990) pointed out that current popularization of science conveys a “dominant view” of the relationship between expert and lay people, in which the last ones are supposed to accept docilely the advice and knowledge provided by experts. In that sense, Hiltgarner points out that the legitimacy of expert knowledge is partially gained in the public sphere and highlights how much scientific authority and its social influence expands outside the reduced esoteric circles. History of science cannot be understood without paying attention to the complex processes of negotiation, seduction of audiences and consensus which are an intrinsic part of the making of scientific knowledge and the social legitimacy of the experts.

As recent trends on the historiography of science have rightly emphasized, audiences and the public at large play an important role for the legitimisation of scientific knowledge in modern societies. In that context, science popularisation becomes a fundamental process for the making of expertise, and a crucial factor for the analysis of scientific authority and scientific disciplines in the public sphere (Hilgartner (1990), Shapin (1990), Golinski (1998), Shinn and Whitley (1995)). In that framework, the subproject will analyse a group of emblematic case studies, in which several scientific experts attempted to impose their views in the public sphere in twentieth-century Spain in order to gain at the end scientific authority among their peers. We aim to reconstruct specific places and practices, in which those actors dealt with controversy and authority claims inside and beyond academic walls.

In addition, according to Peter Weingart (Weingart, 2001; Maasen-Weingart, 2005), media have “contaminated” science in the 20th century. There is a constant feedback between scientific knowledge and its popular images, an interaction so important that some scientific controversies remain hopeless trapped in the public sphere. Popular magazines as well as fiction books, cinema, television programs or, more recently, the world wide web, contain fragments of scientific knowledge whose legitimacy is connected with the logic of these media. Moreover, public and private institutions draw up effective strategies in order to influence the selection and main characteristics of the information published in the media. In that context, Weingart argues that public reputation has become nowadays a criterion of truth and authority, reaching an until-now unseen importance in the twentieth-century mass media society. Our subproject aims to deal with these questions by means of different sources and a comparative analysis in different cultural and political contexts in 20th-century Spain.