Using (and abusing) historical time in science communication

Using (and abusing) historical time in science communication

Author: Harriet Palfreyman – University of Manchester. United Kingdom

History has become a common feature of much science communication work. In a variety of forms, the public communication of scientific developments and research often begins with a historical dimension as a narrative hook or contextualising device. One area where this is particularly evident is in the communication of medicine and surgery, where the brutality or absurdity of the past is readily invoked in order to celebrate the painless, triumphant interventions of the present. Used in this way, history becomes an uncritical instrument which only fortifies the status quo of contemporary science and medicine.

This paper offers a theoretical reflection on this instrumentalization of history in science communication. Drawing on examples from the public communication of surgery, I consider how history might be better used to inform and intervene in science communication more widely.

The catalyst for this reflection was my work on the Time Travelling Operating Theatre, a 2015 interdisciplinary public engagement project based at Imperial College London. The project was designed to foster dialogue between those working in surgery and those who have never had access to the closed world of the operating theatre. Using elements of historical re-enactment and medical simulation we created three scenarios from surgical history that spoke to the central themes of surgical ethics, practice, and technologies. We hoped that immersing participants in a historical problem could help to flatten the assumed hierarchies of ‘expert’ and ‘lay’ as our clinical participants also found themselves out of their comfort zones in the unfamiliar world of nineteenth-century surgery.

In this paper I reflect on how successful this approach really was and consider how history has more to offer science communication than mere contextualisation. I argue that, critically employed, history can estrange contemporary stakeholders from the status quo, allowing a more productive engagement with science and medicine.
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Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Time